How I’m tackling design management

Over the course of the past year, the creative design team at my workplace has grown from four designers to seven (three fresh grads, at that). With that growth, we began to experience acute growing pains many other teams suffer as the organic, tight-knit dynamic gradually gave way to the need for a more structured work environment.

Amidst this confusion, there was a clear opportunity for improvement with design management.


Problems

Duplication of work

  • a breakdown in communication due to size meant two or more designers ended up working on the same project, unaware of the other’s efforts;
  • [junior] designers often assume that no precedence had been set for projects and start working from scratch, resulting in inefficiency and inconsistencies;

Confusion in roles and growth

  • in the absence of creative guidance, designers were getting confused because they were tasked with responsibilities outside the work confines of marketing;
  • new designers felt hesitant or unexcited to jump into projects that didn’t fit their official job descriptions (‘stepping on toes’)

Ineffective status meetings

  • cross-team meetings were no longer effective because of the sheer size of the team (inability to retain information from 20+ individual status updates);
  • excessive meetings disrupted designers’ deep work time throughout the week;
  • the structure of these meetings failed to address cross-team transparency, the fundamental reason for having them in the first place (rarely any clear follow-ups or takeaways)
Designers were expected to work within small empty pockets of time, strewn amongst a variety of generally ineffective meetings. Functions requiring concentrated periods of thinking were impossible (research, crafting, refinement or analysis).

Divergence in tools

  • laissez-faire attitude for using whatever tools the designer needed was getting out of hand;
  • designers individually trialed tools, but rarely did everyone agree to tackle similar problems with the same tool set, leading to misalignment;
“I think I sent the work to you as an email… actually, maybe it was Slack. Check our Hangouts convo from last week to find the file directory. I’ve put a couple of files in there you could build off of in Illustrator — but I know you use Sketch, sorry. In any case, I’m on track to finish — check my cards on Trello, I heard it’s a lot like how you’re using Teamgantt!”
  • asset sharing and versioning issues: “where is the most recent version of x”, “has anyone created y before”

Opportunities

Empower designers with structure and purpose

  • instead of giving juniors trivial, monotonous tasks as they ‘pay their dues’, can we redefine their work to provide designers greater purpose (example: cultivating an understanding that small tasks roll up to larger goals and should never be seen as one-offs)?
  • teams across the company were breaking down silos and attempting a tighter level of coordination — how can designers augment the quality of the entire company’s quality of service or function?

Offer mentorship organically

  • with a team composition of mostly junior designers, what practices can be established to provide milestone checks or guidance?
  • are there ways to provide this support with minimal impact on meeting bloat?

Encourage project management practices

  • growing into a larger team without designated project managers, are there practices that empower designers/makers to keep track of their workloads without eating away at their work time?

Establish standardized design practice

  • designers want uniformity in the tools used for various functions (surveys, research, design, prototyping, testing);
  • while common practice comes naturally in a small group, with a growing team designers seek guidance through standardized methods for approaching problems

Solutions

Lingo

Problems: Duplication of work; Divergence in tools
Opportunity: Establish standardized design practice

The category architecture will continue to evolve, but far fewer symptoms of poor asset management have come up in the past half year since we started using Lingo.
  • adopting Lingo as the definitive visual asset management tool, which means that designers have access to a constantly up-to-date library of corporate assets and an accurate collection of all designers’ work;
  • everyone is encouraged to browse through the Lingo library before creating something new, mitigating duplication of work;
  • everyone understands that Lingo is the tool to learn the collective design language;
  • as the steward for creating the means to access assets, I now shift focus away from teaching best practice for maintaining folder architecture (difficult and frustrating), to creating the habit of uploading work as individual pieces get completed (easy and simple)

Design Domains

Problem: Confusion in roles and growth
Opportunity: Empower designers with structure and purpose

  • all work ultimately rolls up into the improvement of the employee or client experience, which can be split into 6 domains of work;
All projects by creative designers roll up to one of these six domains.
  • based on current team size, designers are strategically assigned 2 of these domains containing projects that are most appropriate to the designers’ individual verticals and specializations;
  • these domains allow designers the opportunity to gain focus and domain expertise, while still having the chance to explore a variety of design (which is critical for juniors still in the exploratory stage of their careers);
Design domains play well with the model of T-shaped designers, as modelled by Tim Brown (IDEO). Comprised largely of new graduates, it is most beneficial for the designers to expand on their breadth as they explore their vertical.
  • domains prepare for team and individual growth: new designers will align to a greater purpose with their designated domains, while individuals can grow into leadership roles by becoming domain leads;
  • domains allow for lateral movement, as each domain becomes a point of reference for where designers might want to go towards the future (i.e. working within Client Funnel to trying out Employee Recruitment);
  • the system allows people to self-determine ownership of projects—for example, designers working within employee recruitment won’t be working on an upcoming trade show targeted towards client prospects (and can confidently redirect them to the designers that are in that domain instead)
  • Future work: better coordination of cross-domain projects, and breaking down some cross-domain work into single-domain projects; advocating for an independent creative design team to empower the entire company (not just one team) with better access to design resources; advocate for decentralizing designers so they work with the direct teams/departments of those domains (example: sit with the client service team once a week if you’re working on their project)

1:1's

Problem: Confusion in roles and growth
Opportunities: Offer mentorship organically

  • since the design team is comprised mostly of fresh grads (0–2 years out of school), they all struggle with a similar set of issues, many of which aren’t design-specific—how to project manage; how to be effective but play nice with others; how to validate progress in projects— these problems are usually best solved with in-person conversation;
  • designers have design-specific concerns, and I can help in solving some of their issues well before they escalate or worsen— guidance and direction go a long way (i.e. carving out sacred deep work periods, or encouraging the practice of writing before UI);
  • the practice carves out purposeful time to meet designers since my own schedule is also increasingly inundated;
  • bi-weekly note-taking during these meetings allows me to see if a designer has resolved or made progress on the challenges they faced the last time we met;
I’ve found it useful to capture notes through Evernote. Taking notes of what gets discussed is important. How can I validate progress made from the last time we met, if I don’t have anything to compare the current situation against?
  • Future work: the gap between where they are and where they say they want to be can be closed with tighter 1:1 agendas over time; as some designers approach the 12–18 month mark the creation of growth plans/levels preemptively gives designers a guide for individual career progression (even if I can’t tie it directly to compensation and titles)

Check-ins and Check-outs

Problems: Ineffective status meetings; Divergence in tools
Opportunities: Encourage project management practices; Establish standardized design practice

  • Check-ins: while the marketing meetings on Monday morning were clearly ineffective, there was value in narrowing down the people involved and retooling the objectives for that existing time slot;
  • if designers went into check-ins knowing exactly the projects to be discussed and the context around the work, the Monday time slot can be repurposed for formal design critiques / show-and-tells, which rarely occurred during the week (we created a #designcrits channel on Slack, but some feedback is better offline);
  • Check-outs: the most efficient way to get status updates would be to share them as they come up during the week—but being over-encumbered by meetings already, we found the input method would be most easily adopted if done online, and with an easy-to-adopt tool;

AirTable

  • adopting AirTable as the tentative tool for getting into the habit of logging work regularly has thus far resolved issues of transparency, providing status and progress updates of projects, and giving real purpose to Monday morning meetings;
A custom view grouping all projects by domain, under the Master sheet. For anyone that wants an overview of who’s working on what, how long projects have gone on for, and why—like my manager.
  • from the managerial perspective, AirTable is also versatile enough to provide an overview by surfacing all projects underway, and segment it by specific domains;
Domain-specific weekly logs allows each designer to quickly jot down (or append screenshots) the work they’ve accomplished over the week. Many designers have found it more effective to log their day’s work daily, rather than saving all of it for Friday afternoon.
  • the logging practice is only effective as long as designers use AirTable to log weekly, so much of the work now is constantly reinforcing the habit;
  • building off this practice, AirTable can then be retooled to become a method of facilitation for Monday morning check-ins:
Using conditional formulas, the “Monday Check-in” view crawls through all domain logs, and surfaces any projects that designers have designated as ‘worth showing for Monday’. If these projects are logged from the past week (7 days), they appear in this view. On Monday mornings, everyone looks at this screen as the itinerary for the design critique/show and tell.
To mitigate time wasted on re-establishing context of projects each week, anyone can get a quick overview of the project by opening up the project profile, created the moment a designer begins the project.
  • in the long run, week-to-week logs also serve as personal process history, which eases some of the inefficiencies in the creation of project case studies: the weekly screenshots of information allows a designer to form an accurate story that won’t miss information that gets forgotten over time;
  • Future work: really enforcing proper input practice—including more images, and being more descriptive in the work they accomplished, encourages the designer to be more critical and analytical about their work

Outcomes

All of these design practices have only been set in motion over the past year. While many of these practices were created reactively to growing pains, owning up to the design management role and being proactive has yielded promising results.

While the greater marketing team continues to struggle with the problems of future growth, transparency, and coordination, design management practices has thus far enabled designers to tackle real-value problems. Rather than worrying about bureaucratic or personnel issues, designers can just focus on being better designers.

Since the nature of this work is influencing others to change behaviour so they can work better, it is important to be cautious about implementing too much change, too quickly. In the formative weeks of the check-ins practice, I noticed adoption suffered for a few weeks because I had rapidly expanded the number of fields to fill, without getting everyone on the same page first. Change happens slowly, but with rigour.

There has been success so far, though. Three of the designers have already shown or expressed reinvigorated engagement. One designer feels relieved because her workload is now focused, with all projects limited to just two domains; two others are working better because regular 1:1’s have given them the confidence to go ahead with projects using the right tools and methodologies.

For now, I’m excited to enable and engage the design team to achieve greater things than ever before.