How to Keep Your Designers

Stanley Wood, Design Director @ Spotify (Leading Design 2017)

While I was at Leading Design 2017, the number one question that I heard the MC ask each speaker again and again was “How do you keep your designers from leaving?”. I have heard similar questions echoed from my compatriots in other companies with regards to developers in London.

…some 72 percent of UK digital tech businesses employing 100 or more people said the lack of supply of highly skilled workers was a challenge. And perhaps more troublingly, a third of digital tech businesses (32 percent) rate talent supply in their area as poor.

So how do we keep them from leaving? One answer I heard at the conference was “People work for bosses”, the implication being that if you want people to stay, then you need to be a great boss.

Easier said than done.

How does one become a great boss? I heard a lot of great answers from great speakers at the Leading Design conference, and combined with my own experiences, came up with a few suggestions:

  • Make compensation right
  • Give them opportunities to grow
  • Be open to change
  • Trust your team

1.) Make Compensation Right

Early on in my career, I joined a company which bargained down my starting salary below market value. Over the following 3 years I spent a lot of time and energy worrying, discussing, and fighting with my boss about getting my salary raised to that number.

But I never reached market value salary. When I handed in my resignation, they realised they had pushed away a valued employee and offered me a substantial raise many time more that what I had asked, but by that time the damage was done. Underpaying employees, the people that you rely upon on a daily basis, opens your team up to all kinds of unnecessary stress, distractions, demotivation and ultimately can push good people out.

At my next job, I was offered a great salary that would keep me happy for the next two years. They had got compensation right, all I had to worry about over the next 2 years was getting the job done.

“Making compensation right” is something I would encourage the whole company to embrace. “Who earns what” is a popular topic among employees (almost as popular as “who is sleeping with who”), and when team members start noticing unfair discrepancies in pay, then that can cause a lot of stress and demotivation in the team.

2.) Give Them Opportunities to Grow

At the conference, Adam Cutler (Distinguished Designer at IBM) was asked by the MC, “How do you keep your designers from leaving every 2 years?” (as is the current trend). Adam said he asks his designers “What flavour crap do you like to eat? Because wherever you go it’s just a different flavour of crap”. When designers are high in demand, the quickest way to a pay-raise or promotion is by moving to a different company, but, as Adam explained, these are the guys that never get that VP of Design position or C-level design positions. These designers have not thought about their career tracks, probably because their managers have never talked to them about it.

Start asking your designers what do they want to be doing three years from now and suggest to them different possible career tracks (Developer Designer Hybrid? UX Researcher? Product Designer?). Give your designers opportunities to pursue these career tracks, let them go on training courses, take online courses, shadow experts etc. If your designer wants to move their career towards a developer/designer hybrid, then negotiate with the front-end team to give them opportunities to shadow and learn from the team.

By helping designers understand their options and supporting them on their career tracks (assuming it aligns with the business’s objectives), you can build this sense of purpose in them, something to aim for, motivating them to want to achieve great things within their current company.

3.) Be Open to Change

After 4 months, one of my designers asked me whether they could work from home two days a week, mostly to save on expensive childminder fees. At the time I was very vocal about how essential it was for a designer to be in the office as much as possible (even though my daily commute was nearly 4 hours a day in total) and was not keen to have my designer appear in the office less often so early on.

While it was not ideal, I was aware that this was an important subject for the designer. I discussed with the designer, running a trial period. The designer could work from home two times a week in the upcoming 6 weeks of school holidays, and we would assess the situation during that period.

To overcome the inevitable problems of distance working, I spent more time video conferencing (which I detest) for even the smallest of questions, as it made communication clearer and more fluid. I put more effort into writing full detailed explanations and added diagrams even when unnecessary to ensure that communication was 100% clear.

I tried hard to change how I worked to help bring the best out of my designer. If you are not willing to change some (not all) of yourself to accommodate your designers, then your team will lose trust in you and ultimately will leave.

4.) Trust Your Team

At the conference people said that in order to be a good design lead, you had to “let go” of the control you used to have on the day-to-day design work. This was resonated again by Peter Merholz (VP of Design at snagajob) where he used the phrase “The score takes care of itself”. The phrase originates from basketball. You don’t see the coach on the court trying to do the player’s job for them (read that as “Micro Managing Designers”). The coach let’s the team worry about score, and does everything in his power to motivate, support and advise the team so that they can give their best game.

If you don’t trust your team to do the job, then you will find yourself micromanaging them, and no one likes to be micromanaged. Give them some space, let them fly, let them fail and be there to help them not fail again in the future.

Some Final Thoughts

A friend of mine wrote a great article about how managers are like parents and I feel that a lot of what I write about here reinforces that.

I am not talking about paternalistic leadership, but about the idea that good parents help their children with their future path, learnt to trust their children, take the time to teach and explain things to them and change their lifestyle to include them.

But don’t get me wrong, keeping your team happy and motivated (designers or otherwise) is really tough. But I believe if you put the energy, time and care into it you will become the kind of design leader who people will be proud to follow in this company or the next.

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