is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
The reality for most designers is that we are very likely to work at companies whose principal line of business is not design, but something else — media, services, widgets, what have you. This is slightly less true if you’re in the studio or agency world, but certainly if you do interaction or product design, you’re probably working in an environment that’s engineering-focused first, and design-focused second (or third). There’s a tech sector, but there’s no ‘design sector.’
Thankfully, as the design profession has matured designers have learned to assert themselves effectively in these situations. That includes having a say in the process of hiring new team members. Just as engineers and product managers (who more often than not come from engineering backgrounds) will often interview potential design hires, it’s becoming increasingly common for designers to interview engineering candidates too. I’ve done it a lot over the past several years, and it’s not uncommon at Etsy.
For designers though, interviewing an engineer does not always come naturally. In part this is because the language of engineering is so concrete and therefore more widely assimilated, and the language of design is comparatively soft and resigned to niches.
What to Ask
If you’re a designer interviewing an engineering candidate, I think what you want to know is basically “will I be able to work with this person?” I’ve found that the easiest place to start is to inquire about the candidate’s past experiences working with other designers. What was the arrangement like? Who did what? What bumps in the road did they hit? What were the easiest and hardest things about working with those designers? What did they learn about how design intersects with their job?
I also find that the simplest questions will often yield the most effective answers: did the engineering candidate enjoy working with designers? Was it a good time, a necessary evil, or a burdensome chore? There can be a world of insight in the answers that come back.
There’s also the more neutral ground of asking the candidate to talk about any products, services, features, user interface details etc. that they’re fond of. The way they describe that product or feature, the details they call out, and the reasons they give for being sympathetic to it — all these things talk directly to what they value in their own work.
Design Topics Are Fair Game
None of what I’m suggesting here is particularly innovative, of course. Most designers would come up with them on their own, given enough exposure to engineering interviews. A slightly more interesting idea is to have designers asking engineers about design topics.
It’s much more common for designers to be expected to master the engineering vernacular than vice versa, but that shouldn’t stop designers from asking engineers what they know about design. Designers might hesitate to ask if the engineer understands anything about typography, color, images, branding systems and logos, but I say why not? It’s perfectly fair game to ask if an engineer understands why a given design solution works, why some typography looks better than others, or what makes a good design good, and a bad design bad. An engineer who understands these things is a tremendous asset in shipping great products, and designers are best equipped to assess that.
It might be true that most engineering candidates will likely answer in the negative to these queries, and the interviewer should to set his or her own expectations accordingly. But even if the engineer displays some scant, perhaps intuited knowledge about design, or even a genuine if uninformed interest in design, that’s valuable.
More to the point, it’s one small step in establishing a certain baseline in the relationship between designers and engineers, one in which the dynamic of understanding one another is less of a one-way street. Designers working in the technology sector have spent about two decades now learning to speak in the engineers’ tongue. We should see what we can do about making the inverse true as well.+