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Big design energy
The product designer is the cool new kid on the startup block. And every well-funded startup is now hiring
As tech companies quickly turn unicorns and grow, there’s a need to stand out from competitors. But design talent that can deliver is scant
Expanding design teams also require capable leaders. The larger influx though is of junior designers, fresh out of bootcamps and institutes
The product design ecosystem is in for a painful growth spurt, as more designers are thrust into the spotlight
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It’s 5 am and Vasudha Chandak has stayed up all night preparing for a Q&A session on “designers looking for jobs”. Chandak, a Bengaluru-based designer-turned-recruiter for big-name product companies like Flipkart, Groww, Scripbox and Ola, claims there’s a never-before demand surge for product designers—she’s seen nothing like it in the past 7.5 years.

“Companies have expanded their product lines from three to 30. Earlier design teams were 3-5 members on average. That number has trebled. There’s so much demand that designers can name their price, and companies will change their norms,” Chandak tells The Ken
A cursory glance through LinkedIn’s job postings throws up over 18,500 listings for “design managers”. For a “design head”, there are over 2,000 job postings on offer.
“We could’ve never predicted this,” says Chandak, whose clients make up a new type of digital company, where good design is everything. Their user interface, user experience (UI/UX) on their apps or websites can often be the key differentiator from rivals. Before the pandemic, a startup with a 5-8 members design team with a design manager was considered a great team. Now, on average, a design team now comprises 15-20 designers including design managers, design directors and a VP says Chandak.  The Indian start-up sector is getting, says Chandak, “design mature”.
This has given prominence to the new startup archetype called the “product designer”—a complex mix of creative “craft” skills, business smarts, and management prowess. The product designer enjoys a very different position from her predecessor, the “web designer” and “useability engineers”, who were lower down the management food chain, and mostly did execution work. Design leaders, on the other hand, directly impact business outcomes and, more often than not, have a seat at the CEO’s table.

“We saw what a designer-founder duo at Airbnb were able to do. Indian founders are also getting younger in age. They understand the value of a good user experience,” says Dharmesh BA, who is currently advising business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce brand Udaan on their design needs.
Chandak’s hiring experience, too, shows a shift in demand: in 2020, she was largely hiring design managers; in 2021, she was searching for design directors; and in 2022, she’s geared up to find the right fit for “VP” and “CDO [chief of design]” positions. 
But there’s a huge demand-supply gap at the very base. According to estimates shared with The Ken by five design experts, for every 1,000 engineers, India only produces one design graduate. “That’s because we can count the number of good design schools on one hand,” says Dharmesh. These design schools, which offer courses in interaction design (which comes closest to UI/UX design) have minuscule 15-people batch sizes.

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.
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