KISKA is a design studio quite unlike any company we’ve featured in this series so far. Working across the physical and digital space, the studio designs everything from motorcycles to sporting goods to prosthetics.
As you can imagine, they need all kinds of designers with diverse skills on their team. I'm thankful Mel and George, two of the talented people on that team, answered all my questions about how we might get a job working with them at KISKA.
First, tell us a little about yourselves and what you do at KISKA.
MEL: As connected products and services manager, I bridge the digital and physical worlds. I help clients understand and build a strategic, connected future for their products and brands. I also coordinate the digital and design teams.
When I’m not at KISKA, you’ll find me outside. Salzburg has an epic sports scene. I’m snowboarding in winter, mountain biking and hiking in spring and summer.
GEORGE: I bring interactive concepts and products to life as a creative technologist. It’s a challenging blend of product design, electronics, cloud-based services and infrastructure that I try to prototype at all levels. Sometimes quick cardboard mock-ups. Other times, prototypes that are indistinguishable from the real thing. I also work with Mel to champion digital internally at KISKA. Right now, I’m running some Arduino tinkering workshops. I spend any spare time climbing and hiking the mountains surrounding KISKA.
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?
MEL: We’re lucky because of our network and KISKA’s renown drive applications. Talented people apply to KISKA because they know who we are, and our team reflects that. Having said that, we definitely value internal referrals and headhunt for select positions.
Say we decide to send a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply, any secrets for us? Or should we just fill out the job form?
MEL: Personally, I love to receive an email that surprises or delights with something new, innovative or memorable. Something that I can’t help but reply to. I think anyone who is actively recruiting at KISKA appreciates an email that is targeted. Take the time to communicate that you know what KISKA wants. And make sure we know what you want.
GEORGE: You can do that through email or an application on the website. There is a Quick Apply function where you can submit your CV, portfolio and a short message to KISKA. I used it when I applied to KISKA. There was no open position, but the 100 words I wrote demonstrated everything Mel mentioned.
MEL: Get in touch and be yourself – by website or email. We value directness and individuality.
How important is a complete portfolio? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at KISKA?
GEORGE: The best way to show us what you can do is by showing what you’ve done.
MEL: So, yes you need a showcase of your work. Whether it is a “traditional” portfolio, a website, showreel or client list. Whatever it is, we want to see a diversity of work across products and services. We want to see your creative thinking and how you’ve applied what you know to achieve innovative results that make an impact.
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
MEL: Dull representations of process are challenging for me. Usually this is pages of descriptive text accompanied by flow charts. This could be the most fascinating work, but I don’t have the time to get into it. If you’re going to show me process, be brief and then we can talk about it in the interview. A four-page portfolio with a relevant overview is MUCH better than a 20-page portfolio filled with images of post-its and process diagrams.
GEORGE: It is frustrating when I see a group project that doesn’t indicate an individual’s contribution. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t do the most exciting part. Use your slice of the project as a jumping off point to share what you learned – and how you made a difference to the final product.
Looking at your current job postings I see openings for UI and digital design positions, which seem a little more accessible than the Motorcycle Design job, for example. How much product design experience do we need to work at KISKA and how far can natural design talent and on-the-job training take us?
MEL: You’d think that UI and digital design positions would be more accessible than a motorcycle design job, but that’s not the case. KISKA works where barriers between products and services are breaking down – and reconnecting in new ways. We get loads of applicants who have a portfolio full of beautiful apps and cool web-based services, but our work is physically anchored. It’s a different approach to design, an embedded system with physical touch-points other than a keyboard and mouse.
Designers who understand this space are challenging to recruit. They are hybrids, often product or transportation designers who see the creative opportunities in either interaction or service design. In fact, most of our current team comes from some sort of physical design background.
GEORGE: You never see a UI portfolio that includes icons designed for a 10-pixel high screen that refreshes every half a second. We work with tight technical constraints: reduced color palettes, low pixel counts and refresh rates. It isn’t glamorous, but it’s our reality. If you are up to the challenge and nail it, you’ll make more of an impact than you would finessing transitions for an iPhone app.
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests, for example blogging or being otherwise active in their community? I did notice you have a lot of athletes and active people on your team.
MEL: Yes, but we’re hiring you to be on our team. Not for your pro boarding skills.
It’s true that there are a lot of athletes and outdoor enthusiasts at KISKA, but we have a lot of passions. In the end, we really just like cool people who are interesting to work and hang out with.
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
GEORGE: In my case, it took me eight weeks to be hired by KISKA, but it can take up to 12. That’s everything from application to contract negotiation. Pretty impressive considering how personalized the process is. HR took care of everything.
MEL: If we like what we see, HR gets in touch for a first interview. You’ll speak with a team lead like me, or a senior like George. I like to start with a relaxed conversation and flow from there.
The second interview is at KISKA. You’ll spend up to half a day here touring the studio, meeting the team, and maybe meeting with the partners. If there is a task, it is set after the first or second interview. It depends on the position, the number of applicants and how you’ve demonstrated your skills and experience during interviews.
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at KISKA? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us!
GEORGE: Lack of attention to detail, like when your cover letter is copy and pasted, addressing another studio. Once, we got a CV with no name and incorrect contact details. We loved the portfolio, but couldn’t reach the applicant!
MEL: For Skype interviews, time zone confusion can happen. Better be safe than sorry. Double check yours before making a final appointment!
Do you remember a specific application that impressed you? Something crazy?
GEORGE: Not off the top of my head, but there’s no question that knowing your audience impresses. Target your message and material to us. It’s quite easy to find Mel or I on LinkedIn and learn more about us. What we’ve done, what we’re into and what we do at KISKA. Take advantage of social media.
Would KISKA hire someone who is a culture fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
MEL: Not exclusively. Cultural fit is essential, but of course it’s balanced with skill and experience. On the other hand, an open mind and interest in pushing boundaries are just as valuable as hard skills. These can always be driven to new and cool places while you’re working. There’s always room for growth.
GEORGE: I think a KISKA culture fit is anyone who is adaptable with a good attitude.
You specifically mention visa expertise on your Careers page, which is awesome. Do you often make international hires? What kind of positions do you hire remotely, if any?
GEORGE: Mel and I are British. Our direct teammates are from India, Portugal, Iceland, Netherlands, Italy, Czech Republic and Germany. So yes, we hire internationally at KISKA.
How do you think KISKA is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?
GEORGE: It can be very easy! I sent my portfolio through the website. I did a Skype interview. KISKA arranged the flight for the studio interview and tour. Then I got hired.
If you’ve got the skill and you fit in with the culture, the team will champion you. They won’t put you off by following a rigid process.
MEL: I think there is a human touch to recruitment at KISKA, which isn’t typical at other studios. After the online submission, everything is personalized. We put a lot of effort into recruiting, so we’re mindful of the effort you’ve put in. This isn’t an automated experience.
In fact, I always give feedback to someone who is not hired if they ask for it. It’s important to us that people develop and learn. Life at KISKA is always about pushing forward. So, why not transform every moment into a valuable experience?
George and Mel, thank you so much for doing this interview with us. It's fascinating to learn about the work you do, and your creative team seems truly unique.
Readers, if you admire KISKA's work and team as much as I do, you will be happy to hear they're hiring for some design positions at the moment. Check them out right here. And if you do apply for a job at KISKA, remember these key takeaways:
1. KISKA is looking for hybrid, adaptable designers.
The work at KISKA is highly technical, and most people who work on the design team have diverse skills as well as some kind of product / physical design experience. If that describes you, make it apparent on your portfolio and in the conversations you have with their team. Show your versatility and demonstrate your experience with curated, relevant portfolio projects.
2. The details matter.
Considering the kind of work KISKA does, it makes sense they're expecting strong attention to detail. Pay attention to the small stuff – you don't want to miss your shot because of some trivial mistake, like confusing time zones or copy and pasting irrelevant details in your application.
3. Research and target your message.
Taking time to research and make a personal, direct connection counts for a lot with the KIKSA team. Craft your message — whether that's via email or social media correspondence, your application or your portfolio — and make it clear you understand who they are and what they do. As we've learned in our other interviews, it's not necessarily about pitching yourself, but more about being thoughtful and genuine in your approach.