How to Lead a Successful and Healthy Design Team

Design teams; I’ll tell you, after years of leading them, they never cease to amaze me. It is fair to say that they’re (we’re) firmly just like snowflakes; no two are ever the same.

Every design team really is different, each with their own special talents, and needs. At the same time, there are also a series of macro trends that contribute toward what makes for a healthy design team, and can be used to foster a positive / effective design team within an organization. With that, here are 10 ideas for how to run a successful design team.

Whether your a CEO of a company with a design team, a leader of a design team, or a contributor within a design team, my hope is that there are some points in here that can help you make the most out of your design organization.

1. Organization Placement

Where the design team sits within the organization is important. Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner, authors of “Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Design Teams” argue that a company’s design leader should report directly to the CEO. I see the merit to this, and find that it works well in my current role where, as VP of Design at Shopkick, I report to the CEO. For me, this model allows for efficient, and solution-forward design to be created, and it gives the design team the voice we want. It increases the level of diversity, and helps design remain a top priority.

In terms of why CEOs reading this should take this advice to heart; you’ll probably get better work out of a design team that stands on its own, and their value to the organization will be more clear. And, the role that design is allowed to play within your organization is not being fully realized for this same reason. If you have any hesitations in reading this, I strongly encourage you to ask yourself just how important you believe design is to your company’s success. If your answer is “very” (and I assume it will be), consider it seriously. Similarly, if you believe in this structure, but you don’t think you have the right design leadership, that’s solvable through training, mentorship and/or a search for the ideal leader.

At the same time, I recognize that this is, for better or worse, not a mainstream model. If, all said and done, this structure is not in the cards, empower your design leadership with enough responsibility to help define strategies, contribute to the company vision, and offer up real, actionable answers to the questions of Why?” and “How?”. Treat your design leaders as if they’re a key ingredient to the company’s success and you’ll see that they’ll become one, if they are not already. If your design team lives under a Product organization (probably the most common in-house model), recognize what the product management team is responsible for, vis-à-vis what the design team is responsible for. Or, if your design team is part of the Marketing organization, consider how the team can also contribute to your product initiatives. The same goes for Engineering, if your CTO is responsible for your company’s design output, empower your design team leader to collaborate with your heads of product and marketing.

2. Culture

A design team’s culture is important toward attracting and retaining top talent. An awesome culture will be one of the primary reasons that best-in-class designers want to work at your company. The opposite is true as well; a bland or poor culture will drive designers away, looking for something more interesting and exciting. The hard part here is that culture does not shape itself, it must be carefully crafted and cared for. To create a great culture, consider a series of exercises that help crystalize what the team stands for, what is important to the team, what are the unique qualities that speak to the DNA of the team. Then, consider how these qualities can be celebrated and amplified by both the leader, and the individuals on the team. Do you have a culture of “openness”, for example? If so, then look for way to exemplify those quality on a regular basis, such as a weekly ‘share out’ where designers present their work to the rest of the design team, or the entire company, if that is better. Consider postering the office with the design team’s latest creation. Or, do you have a culture of ‘fun’? If so, bring the whole design team into an improv workshop. Or, have a ‘joke of the day’ that someone has to tell. You can also write your culture statement down. After you do, tell it to people inside and outside your company, and solicit their feedback.

And, as you read this, if you’re not sure what your design team’s culture is, you probably need a stronger and better one. Or you may need a better approach for how to keep your culture alive (i.e. for there to be more clear owners and advocates of the culture). Or, both.

Remember, a great culture can be like a home, it provides a sense of place, and a sense of belonging.

3. Clarity of Purpose

It is critical that your design team has a clarity of purpose. Why does the design team exist? What does it stand for? If these questions are not easily answered, your design team’s purpose and mission may need some work. To accomplish this, consider a mission statement, or a manifesto. Consider a tangible, sharable, understandable ‘raison d’etre’ that can serve as a rudder for what the design team does.

Having a mission statement that gives the team a clarity of purpose has a dual benefit of both bringing the team together around a collective understanding of what the design team’s role within the organization is, and, that definition serves as a guidepost for the rest of the organization to know what the should, and should not expect out the design team.

4. Diversity

It is well known that the smartest and most forward-thinking companies today are making tremendous efforts to look like the communities that they serve; your design team should be no different. Having diversity within a design team helps the team become more creative, and more empathetic. Having diversity within your team also serves the company by allowing different backgrounds, perspectives, and approach to be heard.

Similar to the ‘culture’ section above, there are far better resources that this post on how to create and maintain diversity within your team, so I’ll not focus as much on that as I will on underscoring on the importance of it.

5. Seating and Space

I’m a firm believer that where a team physically sits plays a powerful role in how they engage. With that, there are three basic models that I’ve seen work around how to physically house a design team (or teams); the ‘centralized’ model, the ‘distributed’ model, and a ‘hybrid’ of the two.

In the ‘centralized’ model, designers all sit together in one common area, ideally an open, light, and comfortable part of the building that is conducive to creativity. The benefits of this model are clear, the ‘centralized’ approach can help create consistency in the work, as everyone can easily see what everyone else is working on. This model can also yield efficiencies in what I call the ‘sneaker-net’ style of work whereby one can quickly and easily walk to other person’s desk and check-in. And, of course, having all of the designers together can create a strong sense of community. The tradeoff to the ‘centralized’ model is that the design team is not embedded into the rest of the company and can become silo’ed. And, the ‘centralized’ model does not scale very well; in a company of thousands of people, it is impractical to house all design functions in one place, presumably far away from the teams they’re working closely with.

The ‘distributed’ approach, where designers are integrated into other teams (by business unit, product, or product area), works well with larger teams that collaborate with many different parts of the organization. One thing I also like a lot about the distributed model is that it connects designers to other team members, and fosters collaboration. In this model, it is important to make sure that designer are integrated into the project teams as equals, and are required to (not asked to, or even worse, asked not to) participate in the strategic discussions. The tradeoff here is obvious, while project teams might be humming along, the design team, as a whole, may not be as connected. To address this, all members of the design team must take the steps toward staying connected. This can be in the form of a weekly ‘come together’ meeting, or perhaps a specific ‘design’ Slack channel, etc.

The ‘hybrid’ model is when there is both a centralized design area / function, and, designers are distributed on to project teams, for a period of time. If implemented correctly, this model has the best of both worlds. Yet, it still does take management and work for the ‘distributed’ designers to stay connected with the larger design team, while the concept of a larger design team stays in tact.

Regardless of which of these models you adopt, a dedicated space for the design team goes a long way. It doesn’t need to be fancy, and it doesn’t need to be huge, but it does need to be ‘ours’. A dedicated space helps give a team a sense of unity, purpose, and belonging. On the practical side, this space can be used for posting work, and having critiques, having team meetings, and more. Name the space, have fun with it, decorate it, make it your own. This is the design team’s sandbox. Likewise, if done right, it can be a great show-piece for office tours, and serve as a way to give the design team‘s efforts a tangible, viewable platform.

6. Rituals

Rituals can be a wonderful way to breath life, laughter, sharing, and a sense of belonging into a design team. This is an area of particular interest to me, and I’m always excited to hear about others’ rituals, and how they work. Design team rituals can be as simple, or as involved as you want them to be, and I encourage teams to experiment with different ones to see what works. How will you know if they’re working? — Try looking around the room during one, and read the team; if folks are engaged, and the ritual is serving as a way to bring people together. Rather, if you see a room full of blank stares, and faces buried in phones, you’re probably not on the right track.

Some examples of design team rituals that I’ve seen work range from the simple and cute to the elborate. One from my past is the “Golden Pig Award”; a small golden pig figurine that goes to the designer who has, for a given month, crushed it. In this case, said Golden Pig (don’t ask how I landed on a pig, it is a long story dating back to my college days) sits proudly on the designer’s desk, in full display. Another is the creation of a weekly blue-sky concept called the “Imagine If” (“II” for short), whereby different designers are given the time and space to come up with a broad idea, unrestrained by the day-to-day norms. Other idea is to have a quarterly (or more often) outing as a design team. During my team outings, I like to combine a ‘creative’ event (for example, a museum, a tour of a cool deign studio, a paper-making class, etc.) with something just fun where people can be together (bowling, roller skating, an afternoon at the beach, etc.).

In the end, the right rituals can do wonders toward bringing a design team together. Invest in them and encourage them, and you’ll be investing in your team.

7. Systems & Standards

Standards and guidelines can help your team unify around specific design elements, and save time in not having to re-explain design rules over and over. They also allow your design team to scale, such that external vendors know what to do / not to do through a document, not a series of meeting and reviews. To create a design system, or a series of standards, start small and focus on the fewest number of elements. What are the most common areas that need to be standardized? Address those, and then continue to build out. I’m pretty adamant that these systems live best on the web, where anyone with an internet connection can access them. A digitally based system outweighs the more traditional printed guide or PDF by a long shot.

To keep these standards alive, you will also need to invest in a structure that allows them to be maintained and evangelized, on a regular basis. It, unfortunately, is a common mistake to throw a lot of designers at the initial project, get something up, and then neglect to keep them updated and relevant. In most teams I’ve led, there is usually a designer or two who excel in defining and maintaining standards. If you have one of these folks on your team, task them with being the ‘owner’ and make sure they have the time and space they need.

8. Value to the Organization

I’m always conflicted by designers’ assertion that they “deserve a seat at the table” as it sounds like an entitled statement that does not recognize that said ‘seat’ comes from driving customer and shareholder value. With that in mind, I believe it is important for a design team to focus their effort on understanding their impact toward the business’ goals. Said another way, show the business the value that you’re driving, and the ‘seat’ will come.

To do this, help your designers understand how to use and read data / metrics. If a designer can show how their efforts are resulting in a positive top line revenue, positive review, successful campaigns, etc., the designers are positioning themselves are a key part of a company’s success.

Also important is the role a design team plays toward shaping the company’s strategy. We designers have a tremendous opportunity here as we’re expert story tellers. We create a ‘vision’ all day, every day. We are perfectly poised to tell the story of where our company could go.

9. Transparency

If you have a culture of sharing and transparency within your design team, you’re in good shape. If your designers tend to hold their cards close to the vest, and don’t like to share their work until it is polished, I encourage you to address this by pushing for more transparency. Being transparent around what your design team is up to helps with a lot of issues. One area that it helps is that of bringing other members of the organization along with you. Simply put, when others can see what the designers are working on, they can believe it, critique it, build on it, and look for ways that the work may apply to other initiatives. It is the classic “Hey, I saw a cool initial design for __________, and it made me also think of __________, and how helpful it would be to align these efforts.”. — That’s exactly what we’re looking for here.

Having transparency within a design team also helps create consistency, as more people can see the work more often, and earlier, which makes the act of connecting the work with other work a more natural part of the process, not an afterthought.

Some ideas for how to create transparency tie a bit to the culture piece, and beyond. With that, I’m a big fan of the monthly show-and-tell where each designer present their work to the rest of the design team, or a larger audience, if that is appropriate for your company.

Another idea is to print out and pin up ‘in progress’ work within your design area, and beyond. This is a bit more burdensome, as it does require the work to be printed out, pined up, taken down, etc., but it is always helpful to just see it. Malcom Galdwell, in his book Blink talks about the practice of getting an intuitive first impression on something, and the value that it holds. To expand on this idea, one of my favorite ways to foster transparancy is to affixing a stack of Post-It notes and a Sharpie to the area where work is pinned up, and encourage comments from everyone.

Lastly, a blog, or the like, whether internal or external, is another great way to encourage the sharing of ideas. I believe that it is important for designers to be good writers, capable of expressing their ideas through words, as well as images. Inviting someone on the design to write a post for your company’s design blog is a great way to flex that muscle, and help get the team’s work and ideas out there.

10. Career Mapping

Last, but very much not least, is to create a career map where your designers can see what the next level is, or what the different paths are, and how to get there. This is an important part of what it means to treat your designers like the professionals that they are, and help them manage their careers at your current company, and beyond. I know this can feel a little overwhelming, but there are ways to help make this manageable. First off, your HR group, if you have one, might be able to help and provide you with some resources. And, you have a community of other designer who can likewise help you and give you some direction and feedback. Beyond that, if you’re starting from scratch, your approach will probably be to lay out the different ‘tracks’ for your design organization, and the levels within each track. For example, if you have product design track, list out the different functions (UI Designer, Design Research, Motion Designer, etc.) and the levels (Junior Designer, Designer, Senior Designer, etc.). In doing so, you’ll inevitably find a few issues to address, which is, in part, the point of the exercise. You may find that you don’t actually have a career path for some roles. Or, you may find that some roles do not align with other roles, in terms of functional area. As inconvenient as it may be to ‘clean it up’, it is well worth the time, as the alternative is a slightly messy organization where folks may not know where the sit, and where else they can go. It is also true that the career map is a living, breathing document that needs to be updated and refined over time, as organization change, and the industry changes.

There you have it. Of course, this is just one design leader’s point of view. If there are other approaches that are working for you, keep running with them. My hope is that these suggestions make creating, and managing a design team more enjoyable and more effective.