How we developed a Design Handbook to manage our design process and workflow

When your team starts to grow a lot, like our did some time ago (from a few people into 15 designers, almost over night!) we realized that using the most frequent design process in the industry — called “punk” — wasn’t suitable for us anymore.

It felt like a serious threat for both the design team and the whole company. Having no clue about the right tools, project timelines or deliverables can be quite tricky. The design team can start falling out of sync.

The worst thing that could happen in this case is to have no structure in the design process, not knowing enough about its stages, priorities or what to do first. That’s exactly what happened to us every time we started a new project. Once you start skipping and mixing stages together it can seriously hurt the workflow of everybody — not just designers — and leave a client confused. We decided to change that here is how we solved it.

Taking the necessary steps

Let me first explain you how our team works in terms of organization. We believe in freedom and responsibility. That means that everybody is their own boss and is in control of everything, including when and where to work, and what tools to use. The main focus is on finishing tasks, and keeping both internal and client communication as smooth as possible.

We don’t have project managers at all. Everything is handled by designers themselves and they can work directly with clients all the time. I would say, our approach is close to working as a freelancer.

It may look like it’s difficult to get everyone on the same page in such a free company culture, but it’s quite the opposite. We joined forces and took the best practices and know-how out of every individual to form the essentials of our design process. We created a simple document, aptly called Design Handbook, to cover everything from client calls, design research, tools we use, naming conventions for our source files/folders and even how to properly present our designs. Pretty much everything necessary for designing digital products. We wanted to create something that can be a solid ground for our design team and our vision.

There are two reasons we used cooperation instead of making one person in charge of creating such document:

First, everybody feels connected to it. We let everyone participate and leave their 2 cents on whichever aspect they want. What this causes is that we all can see the final result as collaborative effort and not the product of an individual.

And second, everybody is an expert in a different thing. One individual can’t be good enough in all disciplines. We let different people shine in what they know about the most.

Design Handbook preview from Google Docs

Criteria

We also considered how our design process could be applied to the kind of business we’ll be working with. If the approach is too broad, it may not be the right fit for specific types of clients or projects. We identified 2 key criteria that influenced our Design Handbook.

1. Speed

Most of our clients are early-stage startups for whom every day matters. As such, there are also certain budget sensitivities involved. In this case we wanted to optimize our process to be as fast as possible. Most of these clients can’t afford (both time- and budget- wise) to work on design for a few months or so. Instead we optimized our process to be heavily focused on prototyping, testing and quick iterations. Basically turning an idea into a clickable prototype really fast, testing it and quickly iterating over collected feedback. On the other hand we spend less time in the visual design or branding parts of it.

2. Flexibility

Getting the first MVP out in a few weeks is the ideal scenario, but our cooperation with clients usually doesn’t end up there. If everything goes right and they start getting users — or raise money — we turn our cooperation into a long-term partnership. That means the first MVP we quickly made during the first stage needs to be scaled or optimized for new features. Our design process covers this case as well, for sure. Starting with having well-organized source files or style guides, it’s easy for us the maintain the original design direction. We’re able to quickly adapt to new situations and carry on working. Also, it’s easy for us to smoothly switch projects between designers if it’s necessary.

The Benefits of having a Design Handbook

Let’s take a look on some of the perks of having a doc like this:

1. Unified design process

The first and most obvious. Thanks to the Design Handbook, every member in our design team now works in a similar way, keeping the same stages in the design projects for each new project. Each part of the process has a detailed description, tips or best practices, but we don’t push anybody to read it every week and we rather use it as a “support” in case you are not sure about the right approach.

2. Sales calls handled with ease

Designers are also often part of the company sales calls with new client prospects. These calls are usually led by a sales or account manager, but naturally, when there is a design-related question, designers are the ones to answer. Our Handbook plays its role as a quick draw or cheat-sheet. We’re able to clearly describe each part of our design process, point out some critical things or quickly introduce related projects from the past.

3. On-boarding new designers

Every time we have a new designer joining our team we also use the Design Handbook for introducing them into our process and culture. We don’t push too hard as to not make them feel they have to work this way, but we present it as recommendation they can follow. The first day usually starts with a Design Onboarding meeting, during which we guide a new designer through the Handbook for the first time. We only point of the necessary things, leaving the rest of the learning for them to do it on their own.

4. Anyone can participate

We don’t take the Handbook as a final document for everything, and all of our designers have the same opportunity to contribute to its pages. We’re constantly evolving and tweaking content on the go, and if we find out that something could be optimized or improved, we go for it. This creates a constant loop of learning, testing new tools or even removing some parts of the process if they are not valuable for us after some time.

STRV designers Pavel & Katka, tweaking our Design Handbook

Side effects

It’s been more than year and a half since we first introduce the Handbook. Freedom and responsibility doesn’t apply to designers only, but to everyone within the company. Surprisingly for us, we managed to inspire other departments to follow our lead and create their own Handbooks. People started to be more organized and responsible if there is a plan and vision behind their back.

The rapid growth of our company didn’t lead us to be more disorganized, it actually helped us to think about the future and the challenges that may come sooner than we thought.

Interested in hearing more about how we work? Follow our Design Insights series or join us for our next Design Meetup.

Written in cooperation with Juan & Marian


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Ales Nesetril— Designer from Prague, Czech Republic, who focuses on interactive experiences & mobile apps, co-leading a design team at STRV.

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STRV is a one-stop mobile app development shop working with top-tier startups from Y Combinator and 500 Startups, among others, across offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Prague.

Follow the STRV design team on Dribbble or Behance.