How to ace a design leader job interview
Tips from Adobe’s VP of Digital Media Design on what to share, ask, and show to score that role
Illustration by Eirian Chapman
Sometimes we need to hire folks from the outside with new skills, unique perspectives, and specific experience. I always enjoy these opportunities to interview candidates, because the top ones know how to show up, present their work, and highlight their skills, not just as designers but as leaders. How they do it can be helpful to design leaders interviewing at all levels, at any company.
Only show portfolio work that demonstrates your design leadership
Many design leaders haven’t presented a portfolio since transitioning from individual contributors to managers. While showing glimpses of work you did as an individual contributor can highlight your personal style, craft, or unique expertise, it’s significantly less important than the work your team has produced. When it comes to your portfolio, focus on the projects you’ve led and their results.
Choose just one or two projects to dive into (unless the hiring manager explicitly asks you to cover more) and go deep. Attempting to discuss too many can make your portfolio review feel rushed and do a disservice to the work.
Remember that a portfolio review is a performance
Presenting a portfolio is as important as the design work in it. The time and energy someone puts into a presentation is representative of how much they care and how much they want the job. Practice your pitch, the interview panel is not the place to run it end-to-end for the first time. Time your presentation, leaving enough time for comments and questions, and don't read from a script. I'm surprised by how many leaders read from notes in interview settings. It’s your work and no one can speak to it better than you. Thinking about the interview process like a formal public presentation will help you put your best foot forward.
Tell a messy story
I hear about so many well-defined, well-designed, linear-seeming projects in interviews. But we all know projects never actually play out this way: Steps in the process are skipped, internal challenges arise, technical limitations rear their heads, time or budget constraints force compromises, and deltas appear between what was designed and what shipped.
Don’t be afraid to say what didn’t go well. Your interviewers want to hear about all the hurdles you had to overcome to get something into your customers’ hands, because good leaders deliver in spite of challenges. Most importantly, tell us a few key takeaways you had as a leader: A great candidate will acknowledge the messy truth of the work we do and what they learned from it.
Share the spotlight to show how you lead
Giving credit to others is essential to leadership. I see so many portfolio presentations with no recognition of the team behind a project. Your interviewers know you don’t pull projects off on your own, so use your review as an opportunity to demonstrate how you built and supported your team: Explain how many people worked on the project, what role types or skillsets you required, and whose work you were directly responsible for.
Remember that your biggest contribution to any project is not your design skill, but your design leadership. Giving others the credit they deserve shows that you’re a mature leader.
Explain the role of design in your organization
How much of a voice the design team has in your organization tells your interviewers a lot about your maturity as a design leader. Before your interview, consider these questions:
- Does design have a role in generating new projects, or is it just executing a product leader’s vision?
- Who’s responsible for discovering and upleveling customer problems (e.g. design, research, customer support)?
- Are ideas from across the company heard, or is work primarily originating with product managers?
- What’s one project that wouldn’t have happened without your leadership?
Show that you understand your business (and ask about ours)
Great design leaders understand that the most important work happens at the confluence of user needs and business objectives. Show your interviewers that you’re aware of, and curious about, the business impact of your team’s work. Your work is more than just a beautiful portfolio project so talk about how you measured success. I often talk to job candidates for whom the presentation ends when the project ships; they don’t clearly articulate what the goals of the project were, whether they were achieved, or the lessons they learned.
Similarly, show that you’re interested in your interviewers’ business: Ask questions about our model, competitors, and how we think about the industry we’re in.
Know what type of leader you are
Being a design leader is only partially about knowing what good design is and how to ship it. Getting a sense of where you naturally focus (and how that fits with the needs of your current organization) is incredibly important, so I always ask candidates:
- What gives you the most energy, and what drains you?
- Are you more of a creative director who loves details and polish? Or do you get energy from mentoring a team and helping them do their best work?
- Do you set the direction then allow your team complete autonomy? Or are you an active leader working alongside your team every step of the way?
- Does the prospect of presenting to the CEO excite you? Or would you rather focus only on your team?
No one is equally great at all things: Communicating your strengths and weaknesses is a crucial part of the interview process.
Tell us how you do your best work
Whether they’re psychological (wide open space for exploration, assignments for discrete projects), physical (remote teams, co-located teams), or scope-related (individual apps or features, designing services, complex ecosystems), I love hearing leaders talk about the circumstances that have led to great work.
Think about where and how you do your best work, articulate those needs to your interviewers, and be prepared to discuss times you were required to work outside of your ideal environments. Learning how you operate in less-than-ideal situations says a lot about how you run a team.
Ask us questions, too
You’re not the only one being evaluated. An essential part of the interview process is evaluating your (potential) future employer. We love getting these questions from design leader candidates:
- How do big decisions get made at this company?
- How much influence does this team have on the business?
- What makes people successful here?
- What growth opportunities exist?
- What are the three areas you’d want this person to focus on first?
- Why is this role important to the company?
- What keeps you up at night?
- What are the biggest challenges in this role?
- How do you think people describe your leadership style?
- Is this team a reflection of you? If so, how?
- What are the weak spots in the team?
- Why do people leave?
- What are the biggest recruiting challenges?
- What’s the company and team culture like on a day-to-day basis?
- What is the company’s role in the design community and in the world at large?
Every design organization is looking for different qualities in its leaders, but the interview guidelines I’ve outlined should help designers interviewing at all levels, at any company, share the information that matters to a hiring manager.
And if you’re interested in interviewing with Adobe Design, we’re hiring!