To Attract Top Talent, Approach Recruiting Like A Design Challenge

Hiring creative leaders is notoriously difficult. To lure them in, you need a game plan.

Creative leaders are crucial to growing a business. Steve Jobs didn’t turn Apple products into objects of desire through quant skills. He had a creative vision, and he delivered on it. But creative leaders are notoriously difficult to recruit; they’re not sitting around waiting for your email or phone call. To draw top creative talent, you want to approach recruitment like a design challenge.

[Photo: imagenavi/Getty Images]

At my recruiting firm Lockwood Resource, we’ve developed a process we call Design-Based Recruiting. It combines the principles of user-centered design, service design, and performance-based interviewing to lure creative leaders. Here are some key tips:

1. The recruiter must have deep knowledge of the job.
Too often, generalist recruiters, who know very little about design leadership, approach job candidates. Nothing is a bigger turn off. To know your candidate is to know the job, and to know the job is to either have been in that role yourself, or to have deep contextual knowledge about the job. That’s especially true of creative positions, in which success may be hard to quantify. Managers hiring creative leaders should lean into recruitment, rather than rely on HR staff.

2. Steal ideas from the service design industry.
The most effective recruitment process is carefully choreographed. This a concept taken straight from service design: the experience a customer has with your brand matters as much if not more than the thing she buys. Similarly, applying for a job is an experience, and it needs to be designed–from the initial introduction to the job offer–to ensure the best outcomes for both the job candidate and the company. Working through these touchpoints helps convey to the candidate that your company is serious about him or her.

3. Build a brief.
Develop a brief about the position to orient hiring managers. Like a good design brief, the tool helps set clear expectations so managers target the right candidates and present the position most accurately. The brief should frame the position, the context in which it’s coming up, and the culture surrounding it. From there, you can work with your team to develop a profile and persona of the ideal candidate. All these tools stem from design management principles, and help get everyone who’s involved in the hiring process on the same page. After that, you can start to brainstorm potential hires.

4. Gather insight.
Once you have a pool of candidates, you’re ready to start the interview process. The most important thing you can do is ask candidates to explain their two most significant accomplishments in their current job–and the one before that, and the one before that. Keep saying things like, “Tell me more.” The goal is to gather insights based on actual context–which is key to any creative project–and learn enough to either cut prospects, or move them to another conversation.

5. Start slow, then finish fast.
After that, you can generate a shortlist of the most qualified and interested candidates who meet the criteria spelled out in your brief and, shortly thereafter, an even shorter list. The trick here is to start slow and finish fast. Why? Top creative candidates are fluid, and they may lose interest in the position over time. So be prepared to act fast when you know you have the right person. We’ve seen some great candidates slip away because clients did not make timely decisions. A rule of thumb is to allow 45 days from the start of a search to generate the first set of candidates, and 15 more days to deliver the second set.


Recruiting the best creative talent is a challenge. But if you approach it like a design problem, you may just have the next Steve Jobs on your hands.


About the author

Thomas Lockwood is founding partner of Lockwood Resource, an international recruiting firm specializing in design and innovation leadership, and past president of DMI, the Design Management Institute. He is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in design management, and is recognized as a thought leader in integrating design and innovation into business and building great design organizations.