Elevating the perception of design, part 1: From SFO to LIS

HEAVILY inspired by Francisca Veloso’s work . http://franciscaveloso.work/

This is Part 1 of a 3-part chronicle on how I’ve been working towards changing the perception of design at Uniplaces.

Disclaimer: this here is a story. My story. Told in a way that is as relatable and actionable as possible. By showing real-life, day-to-day examples, I’m hoping you’ll be able to extract valuable insights that you can carry out starting today.

Part 2: From theory to practice
Part 3: Be a leader


“You had me at hello.” — Dorothy Boyd, Jerry Maguire (1996)
Jerry Maguire (1996)

A few months ago I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Lisbon, Portugal to join Uniplaces as Head of Product Design. While back in the Valley I worked as Design Lead for several companies including Nuance Communications (2011–2014), Gyft (2014) and most recently Facebook (2014–2017) — before this I was either working with agencies or freelancing. I learned a lot throughout my years in the Bay Area — perhaps I’ll write a post about it at length someday. But in these three I’ll write about how I’ve been putting some of those learnings to practice at Uniplaces in helping steer it towards becoming a (more) customer centric startup through design leadership, and elevating the perception as we do it.

Onward, one tiny snow globe at a time

“If you want something, go get it. Period.” — Chris Gardner, The Pursuit of Happiness (2006)
The Pursuit of Happiness (2006)

Before I decided to move to Portugal, Facebook extended me an invitation to join their design team in London. Regardless of my decision and reasons behind it, the fact of the matter is that throughout the process I learned that even for a company like Facebook it was getting increasingly difficult to find the right design talent in Europe. Talent that had the right set of skills and background, to match the needs and expectations of a company that owes a lot of its successes to design. I for one think that’s because the perception of design — as a decision maker, as an influencer, as a capacity of high impact within a company — is misconstrued on this side of the pond, and as a consequence, a lot of the design talent lacks the skills, the know-how, and the freedom to shift that mentality.

If you’re like me this notion sounded a bit strange at first. After all, it’s Europe. Renaissance, Romanticism, Impressionism… Bauhaus… Helvetica? How is it possible that a design leader doesn’t have a seat at all the tables of every single company that builds for, or services, people? Well, unfortunately the reason is a pretty simple one: design is seen as a tool, as a means of execution, as a production machine. As a service within a company where other groups can go in to drop their briefs and expect a “pretty picture” on the other end. A group of guns for hire that, whomever is looking to make that slide prettier, change the tagline of that landing page, or follow a specific set of requirements to design a “feature”, can pick out of a lineup. And that. is plain. wrong.

Now, I’m sure there are some companies out here doing a great job at bringing design to the table. On the flip side of that I’m also not implying that all designers are great and that you should entrust anyone, with “design(er)” on their title, to transform your company’s creative processes and product throughput. But as far as I’m concerned, within my little snow globe, my reach of influence, I hope these posts can help designers, entire design teams, or fellow design leaders out there find the right methods to design, build and ship good digital products and change the perception of themselves and/or of the team along the way.

Let’s start with the basics: Design Talent

Llewin Davis: In my experience, the world’s divided into two kinds of people. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people…
Jean: …and losers? — Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

It might be an overly simplistic view of things but I find there to be two types of digital designers today: agency designers and product designers.

Agency Designer: This is your designer that loves to execute. They are visually creative, and design for the “wow” and the “aha!” They think and produce in a very orthogonal way — they’re okay with jumping around from project to project, and care little, as they should, about the inner linings of the problem and consequently, the solution. It’s common that these designers are often emotionally attached to the pixel layer of their work. Organisationally this designer is accustomed to working on a single design facet, be that UX/IA, UI/Visual or other in a rather production line type of environment.

Product Designer: This is a designer that first and foremost cares about the people problem at hand. This is someone that embodies the person he/she is designing for. They live and breathe the problem space they’re tasked with solving for. This is someone that is emotionally attached, not to their work, but to providing the best experience to the customer. Organisationally this designer wears different hats in that they do UX/IA, they do UI/Visual, as well as think beyond the screen, they look at a problem holistically from a technology, business, strategy, and a creative perspective.

Both types of designers provide tremendous value to an organisation, so long it’s the one they’re meant to be a part of. So what are you? What type of business are you running? An agency? Then go hire yourself a bunch of agency designers and create an environment that fosters high-caliber creative execution in a matter where (most often) speed trumps quality. On the other hand if you’re a company that is building a product for the people then you should hire product designers and create an ecosystem that promotes putting people problems first and one that strives for (although not always possible) quality over speed.

In Europe agency designers are dime a dozen. As mentioned earlier, it appears as if Facebook stumbled upon that finding too which could explain their struggle hiring for the London HQ. So are you a design leader at a startup with an existing team of agency designers struggling to become (more) customer centric? Do you have a mix of agency and product designers and want to tip the scale? Are you an agency designer yourself looking to shift to product design? Are you a founder, a CTO or a CPO looking to build up your design team and all the profiles you’ve screened are those of agency designers? I’ve been there. As in, literally, been there. Through these posts I’ll share some insights, ideas, action items that you can put into practice now and guide yourself, or your team, towards change.

Push, push, push. Don’t settle.

“That’s what a leader’s about: sacrifice. The times he’s gotta sacrifice because he’s gotta lead, by example. Not by fear and not by self-pity.” — Tony D’Amato, Any Given Sunday (1999)
Any Given Sunday (1999)

At the end of the day it won’t always be easy. Even at Uniplaces I felt a bit of prejudice, something I seldom felt at any other place in my 10+ years of experience. A bit of “oh sure, that’s all fun and games, but this is a startup. things are different here.” My answer back usually derived from “but are things really that different?” And so far I’ll stick with “no,” it just takes a bit longer than usual to get your point across. If you truly believe in something, if your experience tells you that you should open door A, and not B, then sell it, push for it. You might need to wait for the timing to be right. For example one way I got over a lot of the prejudice was wait for that moment where it all came together, where it was pretty clear to all stakeholders involved that some bit of change needed to come, and that I, along side them, could help bring that change. If your leadership doesn’t agree, find ways to show, not that they’re wrong, but rather misinformed and that hiring that first UX researcher, hiring more product designers, including design in the roadmap definition process, having design spearhead the engagement, having design work ahead of engineering, and that the overall perception of design needs to change, is something they can entrust you with leading.

So, do you want visibility? You want recognition? You want to change the perception of your practice, of your team? There’s only two options: sit around, and make excuses for not getting s**t done, or get busy making change.

A wise man once said:

“Get busy living, or get busy dying.” — Andy, Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Take that in for a moment.

So go and be Andy. Think of your team as the Library. Look at the leadership, your stakeholder, your CxO or VC as the Government.

Now get to work and write that letter. And just like Andy, send a copy month after month, week after week, day after day. Until it sticks.

Keep sending that letter.

Dear Leadership/Stakeholder/CxO/VC,

Design is a function of thought, Design is a function of creativity, and we’re here to fundamentally change our business. Here’s what we intend to do:

[Fill in the blank]

Thank you,