Red Antler is a branding studio based in New York that works exclusively with startups. They've helped launch and grow brands like Casper, Birchbox, Brandless and more.
I find Red Antler's type of work especially exciting, as they get to be there at the beginning with these nascent businesses, almost like a founding partner, and help introduce them to the world. We talked with Simon and Maureen about what they look for in a designer and how we might land a job working on the Red Antler design team.
Hey Simon and Maureen, let’s get right to it! First, can you please tell us a little about yourself and what you do at Red Antler?
Simon: I’m one of the co-founders and CCO of Red Antler. I’ve been part of the creative industry for 28 years, first as a visual artist and then as a designer and design leader. I moved to New York City from New Zealand in 1999 to work on the design team at an agency, then started my own design shop called ProAm. About a decade later, I joined forces with my two co-founders, Emily Heyward and JB Osborne, to create and grow Red Antler. We’re focused on working with startups and their founders to build their businesses using strategy and design. Red Antler started with three people on a couch. Now we have a multidisciplinary team, 100-strong, in Brooklyn.
As CCO I work with our client partners to create, guide and provoke brand worlds that bring the founders’ vision to life, and then push it one step further. I lead design teams across disciplines (digital, industrial, product etc.) to make meaningful brands that people fall in love with. I also, of course, spend a great deal of my time meeting and interviewing potential candidates for design positions at Red Antler.
Maureen: And I’m Red Antler’s head of talent. I’m responsible for helping to grow and develop our incredibly talented team. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between people and work, especially in creative environments. I’ve spent most of my career working in talent development within global agency networks prior to Red Antler, and I’ve found it tremendously rewarding to be part of this team, helping foster a culture that encourages personal and professional growth while providing the opportunity to create really amazing work.
Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?
Maureen: We’re always on the lookout for interesting people and do quite a bit of proactive sourcing to find them – this accounts for about ⅓ of our current team. The other ⅔ is a mix of those who applied directly through our job postings and referrals, both from our team and our broader network in the design industry.
Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?
Simon: I prefer emails or messages that are concise and professional, not overly familiar or overconfident (we’ve never met!). It’s great to hear if you’re excited about Red Antler and more importantly why you’re excited, and why you might be well suited for a role. Ultimately, it comes down to your background, if we think your work is good and if you can positively impact our culture. An amazing email isn’t going to get you the job, but it is one data point for us that shows how well and appropriately you communicate.
Maureen: I agree. Introductory messages don’t need to be overly formal or paragraphs long. You can give us a good sense of who you are, what you’re interested in and why – using your own voice within a few lines.
"Red Antler is like a 6th founder to us." - Philip Krim, co-founder and CEO of Casper
How important is a complete portfolio? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Red Antler?
Simon: It’s important that we see a breadth of work. We’re always looking for variety in a portfolio – how can you stretch from project to project? We’re looking for people who can bring ideas to life using the most relevant visual vocabulary.
Not having a portfolio is not an option. If you can’t back up your email intro or the conversation we have in an interview with compelling work, then we have no way to make an informed decision. I always start the interview by asking the candidate what they are most passionate about, where they want to head in their career, what are their strengths and where they want to challenge themselves. I ask what their thoughts are about branding, and how that factors in. Then we look at the work together. In an interview, I’m not looking to go through a ton of work, but instead I’ll drill into specific projects to hear about the thinking behind them and what you specifically contributed to the project.
"I cannot reiterate this enough — I like seeing variety."
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
Simon: I have an aversion to designers doing their own logo for their portfolios. Better to spend your time focusing on showing your work, not how you can combine the letters of your name in a monogram. I find it distracting.
The other thing I’m wary of is people showing work that was obviously created by a large team without the appropriate credit given to the rest of the group. People passing work off as their own is counterproductive. I often see the same images from a project in multiple candidate portfolios. Better to pull out the work you actually affected and make clear what your role was.
Also — and I cannot reiterate this enough — I like seeing variety. Seeing your personal projects, work in progress or experiments demonstrates to me that you’re willing to explore new territory beyond making a polished case study. I love seeing your process, sketches and writing/notes that show me how you go about making the work.
Simon at work
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests? For example being active bloggers or otherwise outspoken in their community?
Maureen: It’s definitely something we look for. To me, one of the most special things about Red Antler is that we have so many different backgrounds and interests across our team. It really informs our work.
Simon: We really encourage all of our team to get involved in things that they’re passionate about outside of work. A design practice is a demanding pursuit, both physically and intellectually, so it’s important that people are getting refueled and refreshed, inspired by things outside of the studio. There’s currently too much of a reliance on looking at other designer’s work. That’s when things start looking the same. What about art, music, neuroscience, architecture, politics, urban design, literature, mythology? If we don’t innovate and push culture forward, we’re dead in the water. Ultimately these interests will influence our work and culture in a positive way.
"Branding the Non-Brand" - Some of Red Antler's work for Brandless
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
Maureen: We start off with a phone interview with a member of my team where we get to know your story, how you got to where you are now and what you’re excited about. We share a bit more about our team, how we work and the particular role. It helps us start to get a sense of how you think and articulate your ideas. If we think there’s alignment, we’ll arrange to have you visit our studio in Dumbo to meet with Simon and/or a few members of our design team.
Simon: If the design leaders are collectively excited about the candidate, we’ll bring them back in to meet with more of the team. If we’re looking to bring you on full time, we’ll have you come back for another conversation. I’ll show you the work we’re doing and talk about how you’d fit into the team. This is less about the work and more about making sure we have a good rapport and seeing if the conversation flows.
Maureen: Throughout these conversations, we’re digging deeper into your work and approach, and ensuring that there’s a strong fit with our values and how we work.
I saw most of your open design positions require experience with branding or at least drawing and typography. Would you hire a skilled designer who has no previous experience in brand design? For example, say I work at a big tech company for a couple years, then decide to apply at Red Antler. Would you still consider me for the position?
Simon: I’m very focused on building a diverse team with talent that introduces new skills (both hard and soft) and interests to the team. We do look for people with solid typographic skills, though. It’s certainly a skill that can be taught, but we’d much rather spend that time addressing more complex challenges like bringing a strategy to life or doing next level execution across all of the touchpoints we’re responsible for. More important than having experience in branding is being a strategic critical thinker that can also execute creative ideas in a systematic way.
This is an appropriate pose that demonstrates strategic critical thinking.
Given the work you do, we assume you want a designer who can think strategically and critically in addition to having strong design skills. What are the other secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills?
Maureen: I can’t overstate the importance of strategic thinking. We could see the most beautiful portfolio of design work, but if we connect with the person and they aren’t able to articulate the purpose behind their design decisions, it’s not going to be a fit for the type of work we’re doing. Likewise, we seek strategists who are passionate about and fluent in design, and client directors who understand how design and strategy come together to drive success for our clients.
Simon: Maureen’s right – a strategic approach is essential for what we do. There are no hard and fast preferences beyond the usual skill requirements. It’s all about the holistic team. Usually, we’re trying to add a skill that might amplify the work with the existing team so, it’s all contextual.
I love it when someone is curious about learning how to code, just to get their head around it. I’ve also seen great success with people who jot things down just to unpack what’s in their head and communicate with others about abstract ideas.
Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
Simon: In looking at our team now and who we’ve had in the past, I can categorically say that cultural fit is huge. No matter how skilled you are, if you can’t be a good human being and studio citizen, then it’s not going to work out. Our process is built around teams supporting each other and collaborating across every part of the company. No one person has more value than another. We’ve had a no asshole policy since we started 11 years ago and that’s not going to change.
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Red Antler? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:
Maureen: Not asking us any questions is a huge red flag. Curiosity is critical to our process and is something we look for in candidates for every single role at Red Antler. The interview process is about you getting to know us just as much as us getting to know you.
Simon: Being passive or uninformed isn’t a good look. We’re not like other companies in the way we operate. We work with many new businesses and directly with their founders who have a specific expectation about money and time. They’re all gunning for launch on a limited budget. We’ve built our whole offering around this dynamic. We want designers who like that we work with startups, and who like building things from scratch. Things move quickly with purpose around here – it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Maureen: And if I could add one more: It’s super basic, but you’d be surprised how often it’s happened. When job seekers are reaching out to multiple studios, it’s easy to cut and paste an email message. I don’t recommend this approach, but if you do this, quadruple check to make sure you’re addressing the correct person or company!
Red Antler's work for Otherland, a candle company
Do you ever hire remote designers, or do we need to be located in New York to get a job at Red Antler?
Maureen: We often engage with candidates outside of New York, in fact, we have designers from all over the world, but you need to be willing to move to New York to work side by side with us.
Simon: There’s nothing like having people in the same space — being able to look at stuff together, sketch, critique, cut up and edit on the fly, pull in other skills — it’s a very organic and somewhat messy process. We’re constantly fine-tuning and evolving. Often we’re building something that hasn’t existed before which is really exciting but also really hard.
How do you think Red Antler is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?
Maureen: What makes Red Antler special for me is that we have so many different types of thinkers under one roof. Throughout the course of a project, we may have a brand design team, an industrial designer, a digital product designer, a strategist and a writer all bringing their unique perspectives and skills to the table to help crack a particular client’s challenge or opportunity. Challenging each other and building off of one another’s work – that’s where the magic happens. We’re not just assessing the depth of your skillset and culture fit, but also whether or not you’re wired to collaborate with strategists and designers across multiple disciplines.
Maureen with the team
Simon: The designers here get to work on such meaningful projects. These are brands that are changing conversations around sustainability, fashion, farming, politics, self-care, personal finance. Not only do you get to have a hand in building that brand, but you then get to see it out in the world, challenging the status quo and resonating with so many people.
Thanks for your honest and practical advice, Simon and Maureen! For those looking to do brand design work with Red Antler, here are a few important takeaways:
1. Show your ability to think strategically
This is a must for a design job at Red Antler. In your portfolio and in your interview, show why your work helps accomplish the client's goals. Share why you made the design decisions you did, and the impact those decisions had on the project. Demonstrate your ability to think ahead, and understand all aspects of a project and how they connect. Show that you're capable of creating more than a beautiful design, but one that has meaning and fulfills a purpose.
2. Ask questions
This should be a given for any interview, but it's easy to forget when you're nervous and focused on having all the right answers. Research Red Antler before you meet with them. Prepare a few questions beforehand, but don't be afraid of having a real, unrehearsed conversation. The more genuine curiosity you show, the better.
3. Display variety in your portfolio
Red Antler wants to see that you have a range of skills and experience. Show a breadth of work in your portfolio, including projects that relate to the specific position you want at Red Antler.
To learn how to get a job at companies like Airbnb, Electronic Arts, Fuzzco and Pentagram, catch up on our How to Get a Job at X series right here. Almost all companies are selected based on reader requests. If you want to see a specific company in the series, send me a Tweet about it.