December 16, 54 min

Bonus Episode: Stephen Gates, co-author of the Design Trends Report on Talent

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Stephen Gates

Stephen Gates

Head Design Evangelist, InVision
About The Episode

InVision is starting a new series of quarterly reports on design trends. The first in the series, a Design Trends Report on Talent, was created to help you learn proactive new ways to recruit, develop, and retain creative talent. 

In this bonus episode, we chat with Stephen Gates, Head Design Evangelist at InVision, about some of the things he learned while researching and producing the report as its co-author, and how the report can best be used by design leaders looking to hire, and individual contributors looking to get hired.

Also, we’re trying out something new: a roundtable discussion about some current topics in the design world, which Aarron and Eli chat about with additional colleagues from InVision (in this episode, Design Specialist Emily Campbell and Stephen Gates). So get ready for our first roundtable, to be followed by an exploration of the Design Trends Report on Talent, with co-author Stephen Gates.

Articles discussed in the roundtable:



Stephen Gates is the Head Design Evangelist at InVision, working as a strategic partner to companies like Google, Amazon, The Home Depot, Bank of America, Facebook, Rolls Royce, American Express, Frog Design, WeWork, EY Partners and many more to elevate the business impact of design through education, coaching, and thought leadership.

He previously worked at McCann Erickson, Citi and Starwood Hotels building teams created through an inclusive creative process that blends world-class design with consumer-based insights and innovative executions that drive consumer loyalty and the bottom line. 

Steven shares what he’s learned through his podcast, The Crazy One, which covers issues with creativity, leadership, design and more.


Bonus Episode: Stephen Gates, co-author of the Design Trends Report on Talent

The following is a complete transcript of this episode of the Design Better podcast. Enjoy the episode!

Aarron: Hi there, I’m Aarron.

Eli:  And I’m Eli. InVision is starting a new series of quarterly reports on design trends, and the first report was created to help you learn proactive new ways to recruit, develop and retain creative talent. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can take a peek at the report by visiting

Aarron:  We’ve got a special guest for you in this bonus episode of the Design Better Podcast, Stephen Gates, Head Design Evangelist at InVision and one of the authors of the Report. We chat with Stephen about some of the things that he’s learned while researching and producing the report and how a report can best be used by design leaders to hire an individual contributors looking to get hired. A few quick housekeeping notes before we get started.

We really strive to bring you the best audio quality possible for each episode. This case there was a small technical glitch with one of the recordings. It shouldn’t affect the clarity of the speaker, but we just wanted to give you a heads up. Also, we’re trying out something a little new this time around table discussion about some current topics in the design world, which Eli and I chat about with some of our colleagues from InVision. 

Eli: So get ready for our first round table to be followed by an exploration of the Design Trends Report on town with the co-author, Stephen Gates.

Roundtable Discussion

Aarron: Hi everybody, welcome to the Design Better Podcast, I’m Aaron Walter. We’re introducing a round table discussion with some of our colleagues talking about a few articles that we’ve recently published on at Inside Design. That’s our blog. You can reach it at, and we’ll have all of the articles we’re discussing linked up in the show notes. 

Eli: The guests we have today are Emily Campbell, who’s a senior design specialist, and Stephen Gates, who’s our head design evangelist. Emily and Stephen, welcome to the show.

Aarron:  Some interesting things that have shown up on Inside Design as of late and we’re curious to get your take on them. The first article is about running inclusive meetings. Jehad Affoneh over at VMware has a really interesting approach to how he runs meetings. Jehad’s approach is that he creates a document for every meeting that frames like these are the goals, these are our assumptions, this is what we want to talk about, and then he invites everyone who’s going to attend to comment on that. Curious to hear your thoughts about Jehad’s approach and maybe how you’ve approached it in the past.

Emily:  I thought this was really interesting and one of the things that especially made me really excited to try it was the focus on the intention before the meeting and especially for people who have different communication styles. It also seemed like a great way to support remote or distributed teams as well, where often the person on the line struggles to get their voice in. So it seemed like it could capture a few different scenarios.

Stephen: It’s definitely interesting because I think the [inaudible 00:03:35] goes to meetings specifically, but I think there definitely is this bigger consciousness I think for a lot of creative teams of just being to what Emily said, a lot more appreciative of different communication styles of designers who may be introverted who weren’t understood in the past. 

A lot of teams are getting to that place of really understanding that when we look at high maturity teams, they work really deliberately and in places that I think were overlooked in the past like brainstorms or meetings or things like that and I think that ability to be intentional about how they work and communicate goes a really long way.

Eli:  I would say from personal experience, Aarron runs our internal meetings this way or on a similar framework and I’m an introvert myself. So having that structure really helps me if I have something I want to contribute or just feeling confident that we’re going to cover the topics so they’re relevant to everybody in the meeting. Super, super helpful.

Aarron:And the idea is that especially in situations where like if you’re the only one of a kind, if you’re the only person of color in the room or you’re the only female or you’re the only person of a certain demographic in the room, sometimes that’s pretty high pressure. That it feels like there’s more scrutiny or more eyes on you versus everybody else in the room and that can hinder who speaks up in a meeting. I really like this approach and it’s so simple that it’s just a document that invites people to comment and chime in.

Emily:  I actually really related to that point. And as a woman, there’s been a lot written about the different communication styles of women, men, or at least how they’re perceived, and I find often in meetings I overcompensate for that by feeling like I need to explain myself more or guard what I want to say or guard concerns that I have, and so by creating that space for people to be able to declare assumptions or challenge assumptions together, it doesn’t just make the meeting run more efficiently, but it also makes that part of the culture that we’re going to be comfortable saying where are we make an assumption versus where do we know something is true. I’ve also been the younger person in the meeting or the older person in the meeting, so it’s not just about being a woman, but having that culture of intentional communication is such a dramatic step in shaping a more inclusive culture overall.

Aarron: Those are great points. There’s another great benefit of it which is you just have a log of the conversations, comments and what was talked about in an uncertain time. I find that tremendously valuable too just for like sometimes you do a postmortem of a project that might’ve gone awry and to have these records of meetings is super useful to construct timeline of here’s what happened, but Jehad’s very generous to share his approach. Curious while we’re on the topic of meetings, Stephen, Emily, Eli, have you seen other interesting ways of running meetings that made them more inclusive or brought more voices into the conversation?

Emily:  I’m always impressed by the stories that come out of Amazon and their memo approach to meetings and to work in general, and I realize that’s a slightly bigger step beyond having a collective document. But as I understand it, they have to write out their memos and distribute them before the meeting so they can use that time not convincing each other of their points, but discussing the merits of the points. 

And it seems like such a fantastic collaborative exercise to force people to think and express ahead of time, give everyone the chance to digest it on their own time and think about it, make their own points, make their own questions, and then use that time together. And I love that approach.

Aarron:  Let’s talk about the next article. This one is from our pal Bob Baxley, former design leader at Apple and also Pinterest and just generally super sharp guy. Eli, you want to walk us through that one

Eli: Personally I learned a ton from Bob given all his years at Apple and Pinterest and elsewhere, and he is also very open about the fact that the way they run design reviews at Apple isn’t necessarily something you can duplicate because they had this very structured program where it was almost, he compared it to Saturday Night Live where first day you start right off the bat reviewing work and it’s iterating throughout the week and then the Friday is the big show.

 It’s just not possible to do that at every company, but the kind of core learning that he wanted to bring out of that and then he brought to other companies this idea of showing work early and often to stakeholders. And that’s definitely seems applicable from all the teams that we speak to.

Stephen:  I think that there is something to, how do you build a meeting or something into your culture that serves as the single source of truth so that there is, again, in my experience that I’ve done with my teams or other ones, that ability to say, “Okay, look we’re going to get together and we would do it as two, two hour meetings a week,” which I know everybody always gets very wide eyed and thinks that’s a ton, but we ran it in 15 minute blocks and you came in and you would have leadership from design, product and engineering were there that we were very clear that when you came in to let us know what sort of feedback you were looking for because where you are in the process, maybe you want big conceptual feedback, maybe you’re about to launch and it’s very minute so being intentional about it. We would time box it so that the meetings didn’t drag on for forever and we were very intentional that it was about removing barriers.

We were not going to be there to solve the problem for you, but, again, if there was something we needed to do, if there was a followup like that was the source of truth that every team would come into and that’s where we would look at it. And if you wanted to know what was going on, those were the meetings that did it. And I think that’s where silos stopped so much innovation and so much communication and creates so many problems. So having that sort of place and I think so many cultures that have so much meeting fatigued even say, “Look, let’s do two big meetings instead of 40 little ones.” It works out so much better in the end.

Emily:  As I was reading this article, it reminded me of something I recently learned about Motown Records from their heyday back in the 1960s and “70s. Our team had our annual onsite in Detroit, so we got to visit the Motown Museum, and their approach to critique and discovery and iteration was actually really similar to what Bob describes. And they would have a similar format. They would have their Monday meeting to align, they would create throughout the week and then they would have various moments for critique discussion in subsequent meetings throughout the week that created this cadence of creation.

And there were a few things about that and then what Bob discussed that just really stood out. So the first is the focus on volume. That helps not just because rule of numbers, the more volume you have, the more likely you have to find something that works, but it also removes people from attachment to one single solution or one single approach.

 I also like that critique was part of the culture, but it was an inclusive part. Everyone went through it. So it wasn’t that one person might be called out in a meeting, but it’s actually something that everybody learned to expect. It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t threatening and it actually became a bit of a challenge, something that they could rise to. 

And I see similar tones that Bob was talking about. I think it takes a very specific type of culture and leader and a very strong sense of purpose that everyone is aligned to to make it work, but you can see the results of Apple, the results of Motown, that it actually can produce really great results. 

So I thought that was really fascinating and I love just the focus on that shared experience, that it’s something everyone did. It was part of their ritual as a team, so it didn’t have to have that sense of fear that I think stands a lot of designers up when it comes to getting used to critique in front of their peers and in front of leadership.

Aarron: That’s a great point. And it creates psychological safety if you just get used to being in the deep end about talking about your work, talking about other people’s work, you start to develop the vocabulary, you start to develop maybe not quite thick skin, but know that it’s just about the work. 

You’re talking about the work. And you know that you always need to be producing because there’s a point coming where there’s going to be a review and we’re going to debate and talk about that. It reminds me a lot of art school actually, the Apple cadence of starting on Monday and then pencils down and presenting on Friday. 

In art school, I studied painting and we always had critique built into every week. So it forced you to always be making, always be talking about the work, always be thinking about it. And I feel like especially in our industry, we like to talk about design thinking and being divergent and exploring lots of ideas, but oftentimes, we latch onto an idea and then we just push forward, but this type of cadence creates opportunity for more divergent thinking.

Emily:  I have a question for you guys. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. One part of this culture is it exposes leadership to design, and not just design being perfect, but design being in progress and finding places where maybe it doesn’t work and going back. I’m curious in your own careers, how have you seen that work? Do you think that’s something that can actually be really beneficial to design is to show the cracks and show the rough edges as the thing gets made?

Stephen: I can speak from my experience. This is why I’ve had my own personal war on iconography, like light bulbs and things like that because I think creativity is about imperfection. Two plus two isn’t four, two plus two is like burnt sienna. And so I think the more you can bring people into it, the more you can make them a part of it. 

You can take advantage of the basic psychology, people will support what they’re a part of, but for me, like the iconography or the light bulb is also just disingenuous because I think it teaches a lot of executives, it teaches a lot of other people that somehow there’s just this moment where you get all the answers and it’s just not, like creativity is more blue collar than that and so I think the more you’re able to bring people in, bring diverse perspectives to the table, understand that great creativity is born out of even tension or fighting sometimes, that those sorts of things can really fuel great ideas.

Eli:   Absolutely, I think that idea of inclusivity and diversity in roles is super important. I’ve had positions at smaller startups where I had a really tight relationship with the founders and I would be going back to them almost daily sometimes with designs, but maybe engineering got left out of the conversation and so we bring something to them that we had thought we totally nailed and they bring up a technical consideration that should have been caught from the very start.

Aarron:   I’ve actually found that in situations where I and my team tried to produce perfection and then we had the draw back the curtain moment where we showed executives or engineers or partners, it didn’t go very well. It was very bad and dangerous experience because people weren’t informed along the way. 

If you’re shooting for perfection, that means that you’re… The time that you’ve been creating is probably far too long and that affords you more opportunity to get way off the path of like, am I making the right thing for the business? Am I making the right thing for the customer? Is this really dialed in? And so in those situations where we shot for perfection and then we had this grand reveal, we’ve got assembled all the executives and partners and they look at it and they’re like, “Ah, that’s not the right thing.”

 And it’s really demoralizing for the team because they feel like they wasted their time, they’re not doing the right thing. They feel like they’re not getting support when ultimately they’re just working the wrong way. So I love the idea that Bob is talking about compressing the timeline from idea and getting feedback that keeping that tight and keeping that frequent keeps us from getting too far down the wrong path.

Stephen: Yeah, Aaron, I’d also say, I think, for me there’s a little bit of what you said I think just design is also better sometimes as a conversation, not a presentation.

Aarron: Totally, I think almost all the time.

Emily: And I think about just the act of trying something together as a team and reaching that moment through the strife is so much more unifying. It forms those bonds. Talking about inclusive meetings, it also helps with the inclusivity of teams. There is no perfect person, there is no rock star. We’re all figuring this out together. We’re all making mistakes and sharing our learnings together, and it helps to create that same intentional way of working that being intentional about meetings produces as well. So a lot of this is just so interrelated.

Aarron:   So true. Well, speaking of intentionality, let’s talk about this third article, which is lessons that we learned from Julie Zhou who came out with a book this year in 2019 about management is very honest, vulnerable at times, and she’s a really impressive person. And she shared with us this dichotomy of leadership and management, and spoke to the thing that we often get distracted by is that we feel like moving our career up is to manage people, but Julie made the point in this article that leadership is actually something that’s not necessarily tied to management. Even if we’re individual contributors, we can bring leadership to our work.

Emily: Loved her focus on management as a job. So often we treat it as some thing you have to reach when the reality is it’s a skill. And not everybody is good at it and that’s perfectly acceptable. For one, it’s separates the need for management to be the end all and be all that people are chasing and allows people to invest in how they can find leadership and passion in their own work, but I think it also points to the fact that there is a distinction and sometimes you need to manage yourself, lead yourself, lead others. That someone isn’t always going to be there to guide you. That’s just the reality of work as we go into some of the complexity of what we’re dealing with in the workplace today, and it’s really empowering and very reassuring as well.

Eli:  We just spoke yesterday with Kara DeFrias who is a Chief of Staff at Intuit, and earlier in her career, she spoke about how she didn’t really consider herself a leader. She didn’t really manage people, but she did these pretty amazing things like bringing TEDx event inside Intuit, and at one point her manager said, “You don’t think you’re a leader, but how many people would it take to bring that project together?” And she said, “Well it’s about 26 people.” And a light bulb went off where she said, “Actually I am a leader even though I don’t have that managerial title. It’s a big part of my job to bring these big projects together, which require a ton of effort from multiple people and teams.” And so I think articles like this one or Julie’s advice is really important for people to realize that there’s these different paths to leadership.

Aarron:  I’m a big fan of her book and I guess that sort of mentality because I think for a lot of people, one is the understanding you can be a leader from anywhere. I think management is given, leadership is earned. Leadership is about much more human centric innovation, especially in creativity. It’s about trust, it’s about honesty, it’s about a lot of things that are… They’re much more emotional.

And I think it also is the fact that leadership can come from anywhere in the team. And I think you’ve got a lot of companies have forgotten that that’s the case and feel like being in charge is I have the ideas and I tell everybody else what to do.

It’s a really good distinction, especially as you watch so many people in their career go from the executional phase of being a designer or a writer or whatever that is, and as they start to mature, the ability to be authentic, to understand what that path is because again, I think there are a lot of those sort of things that tend to be neglected in a lot of career development.

Emily: And I don’t think that negates the need for strong management. I actually saw another article recently that was likening leadership to the ability to manage change and management as the ability to manage complexity. And I thought that was a really interesting definition of the two, where in order to get people to work together to deal with big, ambitious goals, to deal with uncertainty, that’s leadership and that can come both through the organizational traditional sense of leadership but also through peer to peer leadership and leadership by influence, whereas the need to manage the flows of information and priorities and the craft of the organization is a little bit more deliberate. 

It requires that full time focus and that’s where management really can step in. I’m sure there’s a hundred other definitions. That one particularly stuck with me and I think it relates to what Julie is saying as well. And if you think about it in that context, both are important. They’re just very different. And they are complimentary, but we shouldn’t think one matters more than the other or they are the same role and we really need to find it where it lies.

Aarron:  Emily and Stephen, thanks so much for being on this round table. Really appreciate having you guys here. For anybody who wants to check out the articles we mentioned, be sure to go to Now let’s jump to the interview. 


Interview with Stephen Gates: Design Trends Report on Talent


Aarron: Stephen Gates, welcome to the Design Better Podcast.

Stephen: Well, thanks so much for having me.

Aarron:  So it’s a little bit different for us. Normally we’ve got guests who join us from different companies, different parts of the world, and today we have the distinct privilege and honor of welcoming our pal and colleague, Mr. Stephen Gates, head evangelist here at InVision. And the occasion is Stephen and another one of our colleagues, Adam Fry Pierce, just published a substantial report on some significant trends that they see in the industry. And we’ll dive into that and the backstory of that in just a minute, but maybe first Stephen, let’s just talk about you. Tell us the path that brought you here a little bit about your career before InVision.

Stephen:  It’s been an interesting one because I think, so I’ve been a designer my whole life. I think a lot of people will say that. How they were born to be a designer. My backstory, the origin story is probably a little bit different there. So both my parents were artists. My dad was a creative director who was a partner in an advertising agency in Pittsburgh, so whenever I was growing up, I started my design education at two years old on the 700 pound cast iron letterpress that sat in my parents’ basement when my dad and I would go write my own children’s books and then we would go down there and I would be responsible for letter setting them and he would do the linoleum cuts and we would print them. So I was pretty much a hipster before I got to kindergarten because I had been self-publishing for years and didn’t understand where the kids bought their books.

Aarron: Do you still have those?

Stephen: I do. I still have some of them. I’ve been a paid designer since I was 12. I started working my dad’s agency cutting rubylith and doing pay stub keys and a lot of stuff people will have to have to Google to figure out what it is I’m talking about. Went off to college to study what was at that point computer graphics because we hadn’t quite figured out what to call digital in 3D animation yet. Worked as a 3D animator for a while and then had this very interesting inflection moment where the early days of digital I was one of the few people that had emotion sensibility and advertising sensibility and went to go work in advertising at New York and then moved to Texas.

I think had one client that changed my life, which was, I was working on American Airlines when September 11th happened, and spent the next several years trying to figure out how do you keep a brand out of bankruptcy that was already struggling? How do you keep a company together? 

But more than anything, it just taught me building a brand was a way more interesting challenge for me than building an ad for a brand, and so decided I was going to leave advertising. I spent nine years working as the head of digital and innovation at Starwood Hotels, which 15 years ago going in house was not the cool thing to do, but I think it took a really incredible team from being overlooked to… Again, we worked on Apple watch, pioneered keyless entry and mobile check and a lot of really cool stuff there. After my time at Starwood, went and was a Global Head of Design at Citibank, and then interestingly, through a conversation with the infamous Clark from InVision, landed here about a year and a half ago.

Aarron: That’s a heck of a journey, and happy that you joined us.

Stephen:And it worked out exactly the way I mapped it out. I knew that I was going to go from advertising to hotels to a bank, to a SaaS company because that’s the journey everyone takes. (laughter).

Eli: So Stephen, tell us a little bit about your role here at InVision. What is it that you do and you spend a lot of time on the road, so tell us about that too.

Stephen:  I think anytime anybody hears a title like head design evangelist, they think it’s something out of that HBO documentary series, Silicon Valley. Basically what my role is is to be able to help a lot of different companies, a lot of different teams, figure out how do they elevate creativity, how do they elevate design? 

Because I think through the work that I’ve done in the past, through my own podcasts, through public speaking, I just saw where this really interesting moment in the industry where it was creative. We have this ability to affect business in ways we haven’t really probably seen since the last industrial revolution, but so many people were struggling to figure out how to do it, how to break through, how to figure it out.

And so that’s really the charge of this role is about 60% of my time is going out and working with companies of all sizes, all different design maturities, as a coach, as a teacher, putting on workshops, helping them really have the difficult conversations to help them be able to break through organizationally because I think in many cases it takes an outside voice to be able to help with that. 

About 20% of my time is spent speaking at big events like South by Southwest or HOW Design Live or different things like that, and then the other last 20% is for what we’re here to talk about today or doing things like this sort of ongoing series of Trend Reports, but I think a lot of that keeps me on planes, but I think it also gives us this super interesting perspective to be able to look into a lot of different teams, talk to a lot of different leaders to really see what’s working and what’s not.

Eli: Tell us the origin story of this report, how this come to be.

Stephen: I think the origin story was honestly just probably feeling personally a little bit guilty because it’s like, look, you get to go out and you get to talk with Google and Amazon and all these just amazing different companies and learn from them and then you get to go in and help companies that are struggling and help learn from them. And it’s how did we break out what we were seeing, how did we break out the conversations?

And I think that was why for me it was partnering with Adam Fry Pierce who leads Design Leadership forum for us was because between the two of us we’re talking to so many different design leaders and there was so much learning, so many insights, so many things that we were seeing and we wanted to find a way to basically have an ongoing conversation.

Stephen: And I think that was why we decided to do it as trends because there are things that we are seeing that we think maybe they work really well. There are things that we see that maybe don’t work so well. Maybe there are things we think are interesting and we’re not sure if they work yet or not, but just the ability to share that out so that more people can share in the perspective we have, they can get a sense. 

And I think more than anything, we feel like this will be successful if it can just start conversations about what our team is doing or how do they think about those things and making join in and be a part of that because this is definitely not a report that is a definitive statement on anything. Like I said, it’s just a bunch of trends and things that we’re seeing that are meant to start some really good conversations.

Aarron: Speaking of the focus of this trend report is on talent. And have to say that Eli and I, we talk to a lot of different folks in the industry as well and it is a recurring theme that we see that it’s hard to find great talent. It’s hard to entice them into the team, it’s hard to protect them and give them what they need to grow and prevent them from moving on to another opportunity. So it’s something a lot of companies, a lot of design leaders are struggling with. Curious like what can people discover inside this report?

Stephen: That’s the intent of the structure is for us to be able to look at what are the most conversations that we’re having in that moment and then how do we look at what goes around that. We went out and had conversations with really huge companies, really small companies, really high maturity companies, really low maturity companies. We had it within house with agency. A lot of it is just to be able to take a holistic look at really just a number of different areas. 

And I think it’s around the ones that you’d mentioned already because we’re in this really interesting moment right now of one good talent is really hard to find. And so there are insights there about how has the entire recruiting process evolved. There’s the insights that are in there that are around how has the entire interview process and finding that talent, changed and evolved? And what are some of the best practices that people are doing there?

There’s also just some really interesting things in there around we’re starting to see bigger trends around like the gig economy and around digital nomads where it’s just people are increasingly not necessarily seeing their future with a single company for any amount of time. That’s having a very interesting effect on the creative community in the way people want to work, so I think we look at that. 

And then it is also, once you find that talent, talent is very much under siege because there are a lot of people, there’s a lot of recruiters that are calling, there’s a lot of people who are looking for that really good talent, what are those sort of things that you need to be able to do to hold on to them so that you can keep a really good team in tact? Because I think that’s what a lot of people don’t necessarily think about. It’s like once you start to put out a product that works really well, the wolves come out and they start to figure out who’s doing that and they will start to come for your people and try to disassemble your team.

Eli: As you’re putting together the report and starting to look at these trends over the space of several different domains, was there anything that was surprising as you put it into this format?

Stephen:  Yeah, I think a few things. I think, we try to be rigorous in going out and collecting, I don’t know what, 30 or 40 different ones and going through and saying, “Okay, look, which are the ones that we’re hearing in multiple places? Which are the ones that we think have legs and which were the ones that maybe were while interesting, were a bit more of a one off?”

 I think a lot of it is just a re-prioritization in a lot of ways of what matters whenever it comes to talent. During the hiring process, it was very interesting to see a decreasing emphasis on portfolios where people tend to be much more interested in either looking at the real work that is launched. They are much more interested in looking at things like working files or to do tests to be able to see how people work.

So it’s more of a tangible execution and I think some people do that really well. Some people are really doing it badly and taking bad, bad advantage of people. So I think it was interesting the positive and negative that was in that. I think it’s interesting to just watch how much more teams and leaders are much more actively involved in the recruiting process. One of the things we’ve talked about is how outreach has become the new recruiting because in many cases, HR departments just haven’t really kept up with the times about how do you bring in top tier talent, and so I think that was definitely interesting.

It was interesting, like I said, to watch the effects of the things like the gig economy on the way people view their jobs and then a lot of it also is just, I think that the industry has gotten to a place of maturity where we’re starting to see the teams are looking beyond just the raw talent. It’s like how do I find that kind of art and heart? The people who show up in the way they show up matters, and people with varying degrees of success are starting to figure out how do we look at and measure those EEQ skills on the way in the door.

Aarron:  Let’s talk a little bit more about the relationship between the hiring manager and HR. What are you seeing? How are hiring managers getting more involved, partnering more closely with HR and how does it affect their success rate with talent acquisition?

Stephen: Yeah, it’s a super good question because I think that was one of the most interesting things for me was to really go through and talk about that process. I think like one of the best ones that we talked to are from USAA, Frank Duran and or [Cal Chandler 00:31:27], which I loved because they’re one of the few companies where it was actually the design director and the senior director of talent both showed up to the interview unprompted. 

And so again, I think the best ones are the ones where there is a relationship and in a really clear dialogue between the hiring person, like who is the design director? What it is we’re hiring? And then somebody who is in either it’s HR or recruiting or whatever that is, so that we can have an ongoing conversation where we can be really clear and they take co ownership of that.

Stephen: The ones that we see that didn’t work very well are the ones where it’s just that like, “Oh, it’s shocking that great designers are not coming to x, y, z company’s website and just finding a job description and getting super excited about it.” Where there’s still that antiquated idea that it’s just like, “Look, let’s just lob job descriptions at each other, put it on a bunch of social sites and then great talent will somehow just appear.” 

And there were some companies we talked to who would talk about how they now have like outreach quotas that they see that the future for them really is because I think when you look at it out of his business review and others have done studies that the most qualified candidates come through employee referrals. And companies are starting, the good ones are starting to pay attention to that.

Stephen:And we’ll ask people like, “Okay, who’s the best person you’ve worked with? Who are the people that you know because whenever they come in you just get such a better quality to that?” But that is just such a fundamentally different motion for a lot of recruiters and for a lot of HR teams and I think that’s where it’s… There’s an interesting evolution happening there.

Aarron: We want to push back on that because that actually is a practice that it does give us faster ways to find great talent, but it’s also a great way to build a very homogenous group of people.

Stephen:Oh, totally. No, and I think that’s absolutely right. I think that there are a number of trends that we saw that really put that in danger because I think there are a lot of teams that I go through and will coach and you will stop them and say, “Look, you guys realize you all look alike, you all dress alike and that there’s a mental homogeny?” 

And I think again, as you look at the best teams, they hire for tension, they hire for diversity, they hire for diversity in thought, they hire in race and gender in a lot of different things, but I think that’s the balancing act and all of this is that some of these practices when done well can be really good and bring in a lot of different people. I think whenever they are done badly, they can really hurt the team, the company, and a lot of things because it just perpetuates existing problems.


Aarron:We wanted to take a moment to tell you a little more about InVision, the digital product design platform that’s behind the Design Better Podcast. If you and your team are thinking about building a design system within your organization, InVision’s Design System Manager is made for you. InVision DSM is a central place to manage brand and UX components, coded elements and detailed documentation to keep design and code in sync. It creates a single source of truth that eliminates guesswork. It prevents rework, and it helps you save time for both design and development. InVision DSM powers creativity and consistency at scale, giving designers and developers a shared visual language that helps deliver powerful products. If you’re interested in learning more about InVision DSM, be sure to check out Now let’s get back to the show.

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Aarron:  Our pal Ben Evans, who’s over an Airbnb who has been a guest on the show, he shared with us a story about how he was recruited by Airbnb through Instagram and he was basically off grid. So to your point, there’s no public portfolio. Really, I don’t know how he would put together a portfolio “showcasing” what his skills are.

Stephen:   I think portfolios in general were one of those really interesting topics because I think we’ve evolved to a place enough people have watched enough TED Talks, read enough medium articles, that you have a lot of people who are really good storytellers. And I think you know a few too many leaders, a few too many companies, a few too many teams who have been burned by bad hires. So I think in many cases, I think that’s why you’re starting to see people start to question portfolios. I think you’re starting to see them question how do we really understand the way this person works as an individual, because again, you are somebody that is often coming out of being a part of a team.

And so I think those just put a whole bunch of pretty pictures together in a few interesting sentences. We’re starting to look for more of that. And I think especially at a time when as… We would go out and look at a lot of portfolios. I think on the inverse side of that, a lot of the candidates struggled to be able to articulate what they are good at or how they are different. They tend to almost commoditize themselves and will just say like these are the tools that I know, but then get frustrated about why are they not getting jobs that take advantage of their creative skills.

Aarron: Yeah, to build on the story of Airbnb and Ben Evans, what strikes me is that being able to find someone with his qualifications and his skills, they’re not going to map into a chart like we see so often on people’s websites of they’re this good at sketch or something like that, or after effects or whatever it is. But there must have been a strong partnership between the team lead, the hiring manager, the person that’s searching for this person, and HR because for HR to be able to go through a channel like Instagram, see photos, read comments, get a sense for who this person is, and it’s probably doesn’t say, “Hey, here’s our person that we want to hire,” but it’s like, “This person’s interesting. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s just get to know each other and see what happens.” That’s innovative. It’s not the typical LinkedIn search of a resume or a portfolio.

Stephen: But I think it’s also sort of indicative of the thing that’s also happening behind the scenes is that you are dealing with a company that understands culture, that understands the people that they are looking for. I think it was one of the more interesting conversations I had was with Rachel Kobetz who’s the SVP, the Head of Experience Design at Bank of America. She had a great line where she said, “You can’t be a successful unicorn hunter if you’re going to bring people into a horrible culture.” And so you can go recruit the best talent in the world, and I think that’s a big part of why, again, we landed on talent, is we’re in a very interesting moment where a lot of people went out and hired a lot of really good talent and brought them into really bad cultures or to places that really weren’t ready for change. And I think that’s also why we’re at a moment where you’re seeing a lot of them start to move around again because what they were promised, what they thought they were going into wasn’t what actually matured and ended up showing up.

Eli:    To that point in the very lead up to the report you recommend reading other reports on design maturity, maybe you could talk a little bit about how design maturity relates to things like talent churn.

Stephen:  The design maturity report is the foundation of everything that we do. So the ability to look at a five tiered model of how mature is an organization. One of the biggest numbers that jumped out to us about why we wanted to start here was whenever you go through the report and we talked to 2,200 different companies, and as you map those out on level one being the lowest maturity, basically these are teams that are just told take this idea and make it pretty, versus level five teams that are really core to the business success, what you see is that about 83% of those companies fall in the middle to bottom of that maturity scale. It’s a really interesting number because what we’re seeing in the numbers really correlates to what is going on with talent that a lot of people want to have impact.

A lot of people are trying to figure out how to do that but as you look at that bridge from a level three to a level four, that basically is the moment whenever the impact you have goes beyond the design team. That you can start to affect product, you can start to affect engineering that again, that creative culture, customer centric culture starts to permeate and I think that’s where a lot of people are hitting a wall and I think that was why for us this felt like it was an interesting extension or expansion on what some of those numbers were about the current state of the industry to start to pull back the cover on why do we think people are getting stuck or what is going on there.

Aarron:   Tell us more about what you found in this report. What’s another key point that was particularly interesting and maybe surprising?

Stephen:  One that I thought was very interesting was a retooling of the interview process because like I said before, with portfolios going away, then there’s the question of, okay, what do you look at? Some teams would say, “Look, what we do is we want to go out and we want to find real products that have shipped. We want to find real products that we like and then track it back to the people who are doing it.” I think that that’s great in some cases. I think we all know not every product ships in the shape that you wish it would, not every idea sees the light of day. So the other ones that we’ve really seen are one an increase in testing in the interview process, and I think this is one that I think works either really well or really badly.

I think what this basically asks somebody to do is to come in and to do some sort of exercise to be able to just like let us see you work. We’ve seen some where this goes very badly and gives us a really bad stigma where companies are basically trying to get free work and that really taints the process. I think in the places where we’ve seen it working the best, companies are transparent that they do it, they are transparent about what the ask is going to be. I think they will use exaggerated or just thoughtful exercises. One of the best ones we saw was a team who asked somebody to come in and redesign the homepage of their app using only emojis because it really lets you start to see systems thinking.

Stephen: It lets you start to see, and within an hour it’d be able to do that. So I think that ability to do an individual exercise or to do a team exercise, that was very interesting. I think the other one that we saw in a number of places were individuals were asked to bring in their sketch files. Because you would hear a head of design say, “Look, if that person can walk me through the 16 different ERA states, and if they can really talk through all this, I understand what their work was.” But if it’s somebody who pulls up that file and is suddenly struggling to go over even the basics, you get a really good sense of, “Okay, in the nuts and bolts, how are they really thinking and working?”

Aarron: Yeah, that’s a fascinating mechanism to just understand the way people work.

Stephen: And I think as long as it’s done with respect and with transparency and look, if you’re going to ask somebody to go work for three days to do something, you need to compensate them. I think if you’re going to be able to do those sort of things, but I think if you’re able to do that, I think we’ve also seen very interesting reactions on the talent side of it that some people will say like, “Look, my portfolio should be enough. My work should be enough. Do you not know who I am?” 

I think that mentality is going to struggle going forward in a world where design does need to be more inclusive of other people and to be able to drive more results, but I think you also find people who have been just badly burned. They would go in and do that work and the company didn’t hire them but launched the idea a couple of months later.

Eli: I wonder too if there may be a little bit of selection bias if you’re doing it in person on the spot exercise against people who have maybe a little bit more of a introverted working style. So if they were to take the same project and have it at home for an hour versus being on the spot in front of people, they might do a great job versus standing there and being nervous. Certainly that’s the case I think for some engineers in the white boarding exercises they have to do

Stephen: We are actually deliberate in calling because I think it’s a really good point. I think we’ll even call that out in the report where a lot of it is also just as we look at the creative process, there does need to be a maturation around understanding different styles of communication but also working. I think that’s one of the things that you’re definitely seeing is a rise in introverted design leaders or a rise in… And in many cases like saying right, like they were always there. I think it’s just more people are starting to understand and pay more attention to them to realize that, again, if you are an introvert going off and wanting to work on your own or needing time to think or to digest before you get feedback to not spring meetings on people at the last moment.

Stephen: There was some of these sort of things that, because there were some people we talked to who would describe introverts as being like standoffish or difficult to work with, and I think we’re starting to hopefully watch that erosion of that classic alpha leadership as being big and loud and out in front, but I think that was what we felt like was a really important thing to be able to call out because again, I think that’s what you start to watch on some of the more successful teams is that there’s a real understanding and appreciation of a lot of different perspectives and working styles.

Aarron: The report talks about building trust between the people hiring and the person interviewing. I wonder if the folks that you talked to were very concrete or specific about how they go about building that trust to get people to let their guard down. Because in my experience, those shorter interviews situations where people, they come in best foot forwards saying all the right things, you don’t really get a good read on who they are until they feel like they trust you.

Stephen: I think the thing that we would hear would be, with the teams that were doing it well, there was an understanding that what this process was was the beginning of a trust relationship. That it was very important for them to go into it with that understanding, to look at how they would value people’s time, how they communicate with them, how would they look at their rounds of interviews and doing different things like that, because I think that the macro trend beneath all this is that at the end of the day, you can legislate process and tools and everything else until the cows come home. 

But that is the secret sauce, especially in the talent with a lot of the most successful teams are, or the a lot of the companies that everybody loves to hold up and say they do really well, is that those people really trust each other and that they’re willing to take risks and they’re willing to invest in each other.

And it’s the unspoken thing that runs underneath a lot of this is how do I really feel like I can invest in this or do I just show up and do my job? And I think that would be the thing is as you look at the teams that were struggling with a lot of this, you could tell that they just didn’t trust each other. They didn’t trust their leadership and they could not figure out how to have a conversation around that, but I think a lot of that is a trend in the rising of awareness to the emotional quotient of creativity to the tools showing up as more than I’m just here to check this box or do this thing.

Eli:  Stephen, so let’s say I’m a design leader looking for talent. What are some of the ways that I can take best advantage of this report, the information you put together?

Stephen: So what we did was we were very deliberate in the way that we put this together. So there’s a lot of different things in there. We cover a lot of ground, very much on purpose. And I think, for us we wanted to just expose people to these ideas, we wanted to expose them to these different concepts and the things that we were seeing, and then at the end, the best feedback model, the most useful model I’ve ever had is that start, stop, continue way of looking at things. And so we wanted to basically create our version of that for these trends. So as you go through, after each one of them, we try to be very deliberate that each one has an observation, what are we seeing?

An insight into what is really driving it, and then either best practices and or what may be the pitfalls for that so that there’s this sort of a consistent way of being able to digest this, but at the end, we’ll make that recommendation of like, do we think this is something that if you aren’t doing it you should because it seems like this pays off really good benefits? 

So start it or continue it because we see high maturity teams are doing this. There is a number of them that we think are interesting and that, you know what? Maybe they’re going to be the next big thing or maybe they’re going to flame out. So just be aware of it and keep an eye on it. And then there are some that we say, “Look, while we understand why people are doing it, the particular execution on this trend or the particular way people are going about it probably is going to cause more problems than it’s going to cause benefits.”

So that’s something that you’re either going to want to stop it or modify what you’re doing and just look at different companies, different things may resonate, but for me, I think one, it’s just great to be able to understand what’s going on. Two, I think, it seems to be a really good tool for people to be able to send to other partners and other parts of the business to send to HR to send to product. Don’t send to some of your partners and just say, “Hey, look, how are we doing? Or what do we think about this?” To be able to have those sorts of conversations, because I think that’s what a lot of that comes down to is again, what is the state of trust in your ability to help the talent that you have?

Aarron: You talked to Kim Williams over at Indeed who’s a super bright design leader, and she said in this competitive market you have to tell the story of your team and your company if you want to attract the best talent. And man, I see this over and over again where companies really want to attract great people, but they don’t put in the time and energy to actually tell a story about what’s the compelling problem they’re solving. What’s unique about this environment? What did you find as you visited companies and talked to design leaders about how they are going about telling the story of their team and how others can fit into that?

Stephen:The ones that were the most interesting were the ones who understood it was a many part process. I think what you would do is you would see them really invested in job descriptions to be really clear about not only what is the job, but like what are the KPIs and the business challenges that we’re up against. What is success going to look like for you in the first year? Who are you going to interact with? And it wasn’t that just generic corporate buzzword bingo that I think you see in a lot of those descriptions that it was them really investing in that, they were going out and telling their stories.

In any places they could, they were going out and being a part of meetups or being a part of conferences or trying to work with their internal PR teams or something like that to be able to start to tell more of the story of what was going on because I think there still is that struggle that there’s a lot of teams that are doing amazing, amazing work, but people would never consider them just based on their perception of the brand or their perception of, a lot of different things. And so, that’s what I said is I think understanding, yeah, job descriptions are great and that’s one really good way of doing it. Investing in that outreach is the new recruiting of how do you basically think about your team like a sports franchise?

Even if you have the all star quarterback now, you may not be able to afford them next year. They may leave. How are you always keeping a network of people around that you know we’re going to be a good fit? So when you get that job opening or if somebody would happen to leave, you have that conversation already queued up so you’re just not starting from nowhere. But I think it is really going out and genuinely investing because I think that’s something that they get. It is in the hyper competitive market, if you send me a PDF with a job description or I have somebody reaching out to have a conversation, I’m going to pick the conversation and the people who are going to lean in and really, I feel like they’re investing in me every time.

Aarron: Reminds me of Glengarry Glen Ross, always be closing. You’ve always got to be-

Stephen: Always be outreaching.

Aarron:You’ve always got to be talking to talent.

Eli:   Stephen, so let’s go to the same kind of question, but I’m an individual contributor. What can I get from the report?

Stephen: Hopefully, whenever you go in and look at the report, I think it… One is it’ll hopefully help crystallize for you just kind of the state of where the industry is at, the sort of things that people are looking for. I think hopefully it will encourage people to take the time to think about how are they unique or what is their value proposition or… That’s the thing. Your resume should not just be where you’ve worked and where you went to school. That does not define who you are. I think that it is a time whenever the people who have the voice and are able to be able to clear about that I think can get a really good understanding of that, but like I said, I think it also in many cases will probably help you figure out how to negotiate your career in a place where you’re at now, to understand and I think hopefully even have conversations with your boss or with your team about, “Hey, these are the things the best teams are doing.”

Because I think that’s the thing that we would also see you in a lot of these places is the teams that were the healthiest were whenever both sides leadership and the individual contributors could hold each other accountable. 

It wasn’t just a company saying, “Hey, look, do this and here’s your list of goals,” but it’s also, “Look, these are the things that we’re going to help you with. These are the things we’re going to work with you on, and if you work on these things, then this is what the career path and this is what the ladder is going to look like to be able to work on that.”

So I think having that awareness of what goes on, because I think that was one of the things that was unfortunate was also as we talked to a lot of people, was just how many individual contributors or how many people just accepted what the industry gave them. Like this was the best job I could get as opposed to saying, “Look, this is what I want. These are the things that I feel like matter. Now how am I sure that this company and this job aligns with those sort of things?”

Aarron:Stephen, where do people find this report? How do they download it?

Stephen: Yeah, actually, it’s pretty easy. All you need to do is just go over to, and you can get the report there.

Aarron:   If people want to learn more about you, where can they go?

Stephen: So if you want to learn more about me, the easiest place to go is It’s another podcast I’ve done for the last few years and you can find out about the show and some of my work and background and things like that and again to be able to find some of the other cool stuff I’m doing here at InVision.

Aarron:   Awesome. Highly recommend Stephen’s podcast. It is a fun listen, so check it out. This has been a fascinating conversation. Talent is definitely a trend and certainly worth deeper conversation at another date, but Stephen, thanks for joining us on the Design Better Podcast.

Stephen: Thanks so much for having me.

Aarron: That concludes this episode of the Design Better Podcast. Thanks so much for listening. If you’re hungry for more stories and lessons to continue to level up your design practice, visit You’ll find eBooks, videos, and articles on design that you and your team can use to learn more about design thinking, building world-class operations, facilitating enterprise design sprints, and so much more. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts and share this podcast with a friend or teammate interested in designing better today. Thanks so much for listening.

Meet Your Hosts

Aarron Walter
VP of Design Education

As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices. Aarron founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million.

He is the author of the best selling book Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart. You’ll find Aarron on Twitter and Medium sharing thoughts on design. Learn more at

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

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Uncover insights from the world’s top design leaders

In Season 3 of the Design Better Podcast, we’re exploring the connected workflow: how designers work more effectively and efficiently with their engineering and product counterparts. We’ll talk about how  building key partnerships throughout an organization can help you ship better products, faster, with companies like Google, Airbnb, Atlassian and the Wall Street Journal.