It’s been 18 months since we “took over” the design team at STRV and we’d like to say a few words about how we successfully built, managed, and grew it within an international company boasting over 150 employees.
Btw — this article’s about a 17 min read, so grab your favorite beverage and make yourself comfortable.
First things first
Before we dive into the details, we’d like to mention a couple of things that apply to everything we’ll talk about. They go down with our core company values, as well as the design team values we like to see followed regardless of who’s running the show:
- All designers on our team are self-managed — Technically, there is a person responsible for the team, but everyone takes responsibility for their own projects, tasks, working hours, etc. We don’t have supervision over individual members who need to show their work to the “boss” before sending it to a client. (Btw, we don’t consider occasional design reviews with others on the team as these happen on a daily basis).
- We maintain direct contact with clients — Our designers work directly with clients and have instant access to each other. “Managers” don’t get involved unless it’s absolutely necessary. In other words, you work as a freelancer would and take care of your own stuff.
- Every new initiative is embraced and supported — Whenever someone on our team is looking to do more (i.e. start their own side project, help educate others, etc.) we usually give them the responsibility to try their own things. Maintaining a free culture is key to sparking natural innovation on our team.
With that out of the way, let’s walk you through the experience we enjoyed and lessons we learned by leading our design team.
The beginning (a.k.a. “The Old Way”)
Like many other small design teams, we used to have a flat structure with only one person “leading” our design team. But a formal structure doesn’t make sense (unless you want to feed your ego) when you have less than six people on a team. So everyone was considered a regular designer who mostly worked on client projects. One person was given additional team responsibilities like key projects, resources, hiring, etc. and — because this person is also a co-founder of our company — they were occasionally called upon to offer company-wide management.
Unfortunately, this concept turned out to be unsustainable due to our company’s rapid growth (from 30 to over 130 people in two years). Even temporary fixes like assigning an extra person outside of our design team to be responsible for resource management only worked for a few tenuous months. The design team, however, continued to run smoothly. There was never any critical problem to solve. Our team just needed more people to take care of specific things, as well as a strategy in case we continued to grow at the same pace.
While we were all doing our best on client projects (and sometimes helping others with a thing or two), there was more and more initiative to use our experience to improve how we work as a team, or even as a whole company.
Things like process improvements, leadership suggestions, active participation in hiring, connecting teams, and helping with our company’s promotion started to occur more and more frequently. Other colleagues, including management, noticed what was happening and made a crucial step towards a bright future: they gave us space and their blessing to do things we believed was in everybody’s best interest.
Around the same time, a “Platform Lead Plan” was introduced, which was a company-wide structure change for all teams (mostly for bigger teams, like developers with 20+ people). Apparently, growth and management weren’t issues the design team was facing alone. Other departments were feeling the crunch as well, so a select number of people with particular experience levels and skills were given additional responsibilities to take care and lead colleagues in smaller groups based on whatever platform they were dealing with (iOS, Android, Frontend or Backend).
The timing couldn’t have been better, and we applied the same plan to our design team, thereby introducing two new “Design Leads” — your humble authors, Ales and Marian.
This wasn’t a fancy promotion, mind you, but an excellent opportunity (and later on a responsibility) for us to make our ideas and vision a reality.
One role, two people
Eventually, the individual who led our design team moved to a different department and position, which left the two of us in charge of the team. This could have left us fighting over who’d be the alpha dog on our team, but we took a step back instead and thought about what our individual roles might look like, what we could offer, and what we’d enjoy doing most.
It was while going over each other’s list of ideas and discussing our vision for the team that we realized we each wanted to focus on different things. In other words, there was no overlap or conflict of interest in anything we planned to do. We learned that we could be equally involved and co-lead a team together while focusing on different responsibilities based on our individual strengths and preferences.
We decided that Marian, who’s passionate about working with people and developing their personal growth, as well as coaching, team management, organization and hiring, would take care of everything we needed to focus on internally. Generally speaking, he’d be the one responsible for the team as a whole.
Ales, on the other hand, who prefers focusing on design work, cooperating with sales and marketing teams, improving design processes, and spending the rest of his time on team (and company) design promotion, would take the lead on everything external (i.e. public).
What we struck was a perfect balance that suited both our team and overall company model. Which is why we split the design team lead role between two people and allowed ourselves the opportunity to tackle more things at once while giving each other enough space to do our best. And while Marian wound up taking an official lead as the design team’s primary point of contact, our respective responsibilities keep both of us involved equally.
“Cooperation between Marian and me as design team leaders could be described as creativity and innovation meet empathy and a human approach.”
— Ales Nesetril
Note: This two-person setup also needed a blessing from our finance department. It’s maybe not visible, but suddenly we had two people not generating money from client projects, but focusing mostly on internal tasks. Not every company would be able to do that…
Wait, so who does what?
Having two people take care of what is usually handled by one individual afforded us the perfect combination of efficacy and tailor-made roles. This is exactly what we were looking for, plus it opened up enough free time to work on other proactive ideas like we used to.
Here’s a brief overview of what each of us does now:
Marian Fusek, Design Team Lead
Marian spends most of his time engaging in team management (team resources, project allocation, etc.) and working with people to ensure their happiness and personal growth. He also reviews everyone’s progress and has fallen in love with 1on1 checks. Marian is the primary point of contact for requests coming from anyone in the company and takes overall responsibility for the team.
His secondary role is cooperating with recruiters during the hiring of new designers, from pre-screening, interviews, test project reviews, offers, and contracts (including both new and hired designers). His number one priority is to make sure a new member is the right fit for the team and company.
Other than that, he spends his time checking on people and the stuff they’re working on, provides feedback and guidance on projects, and — if necessary — troubleshoots fucked up and/or unexpected situations that crop up now and then so everyone has everything they need. We know and appreciate that he is always there for us no matter what.
Here’s how he spends his time:
- Responsibility for design team — Main design team point of contact for everyone within the company (including management and other team leaders)
- Team management — Design team resources and project assignment; supervision over upcoming and ongoing projects; resource planning; team activities; team collaboration; design process feedback and suggestions
- Team happiness — 1on1 social and happiness check; project progress check; personal growth; project and client feedback (designer’s POV); design reviews; mentoring
- Coaching — Individual career growth and development for all members of the design team; career plans; internal education, as well as learning and guidance on any topics related to designer’s role
- Hiring — Pre-screening; portfolio reviews; interviews; test project review; offers/contracts; in-person checks; meetings
- Events — Planning and organizing events and meetups; STRV Academy mentoring (even for graduates after the program ends)
- Cooperation with marketing — Writing articles; occasional design team PR or public talks on topic of leadership
- Reporting — Design team performance report to management; design team growth and plans; new hires
Ales Nesetril, Creative Director
Ales focuses on external (i.e. client-facing) activities. He spends most of his time cooperating with the sales team on design concepts, proposals, and calls with potential clients who’d like to learn more about our design process. He’s also responsible for time estimates, budget estimates, and the validation of our client prospects or starting projects.
His secondary role is taking care of our team’s marketing and design promotion (Dribbble, Behance, Instagram, etc.) in order to attract new clients and opportunities, as well as garner attention for our company. He also reviews and updates the design process, internal documents, and other materials we use to work efficiently as a team.
Besides that, Ales also spends quite a lot of time designing and experimenting with new concepts and side projects to keep his creative juices flowing.
Here’s how he spends his time:
- Responsibility for design process — Main point of contact; regular reviews and updates; cooperation between departments; on-boarding for new members
- Responsibility for design resources — Internal UI kits, docs, slides, templates, STRV.design and brand guidelines
- Cooperation with sales team — Time and budget estimates; design proposals and concepts; project reviews and validation; sales calls; new client leads; design team presentations; passive sales (social media leads); client introduction to our team/process
- Cooperation with marketing team — Articles; videos; small promo campaigns; public talks; increasing company visibility via design projects
- New project concepts — Pro-active concepts and client proposals; client pre-screenings; product ideas; innovative design solutions; side projects; internal/free time project management and collaboration
- Design promotion — Planning, curation and creation of materials for social media and design community sites (Dribbble, Behance, etc.) with focus on sales and marketing; cooperation with other team members
- Reports, analytics & insights — Design marketing and social media analytics; design team performance; client leads (reach, opportunities, status); client proposals (resources, success rate, feedback)
- Personal development — Occasionally cooperating with other team members about personal brand, PR, social media
What we handle together
Our responsibilities obviously have a few gray zones that need working through. In other words, it happens on occasion when two points of view are required to set up the right approach for a given project. Here’s a list of things we tend to work on together:
- On-boarding — We’re both involved in on-boarding, but always discuss who should take the lead when it comes to new employees. Sometimes we take on a senior designer who needs to learn more about the design process (enter Ales). Other times we hire a junior designer who requires more of a general introduction to how the team works as a whole (perfect fit for Marian).
- Team & individual feedback — Whether the feedback is good or bad, or meant to be shared with either a team or specific individual, we share our points of view and plan the next steps. This also includes suggestions for promotion and/or performance, or a general review of our team members.
- Individual team member growth — Mainly led by the Design Team Lead, the happiness and personal growth of each team member sometimes requires both of us. Usually we discuss a specific situation or the next career step for our respective colleagues, i.e. taking a closer look at their wishes and needs.
- Internal processes structure — The Creative Director leads the design process updates, but when it comes to more detailed cooperation with another department, it requires both of us to step in and join forces over new internal docs or a process setup.
- Client relationships — In other words, fixing fuck-ups which happen from time to time. As mentioned already, we don’t step into a project, but only investigate what went wrong and suggest next steps. On the other hand, we also reward initiative and excellent performance.
- Sharing know-how — Bringing our agendas and disciplines together to exchange new learnings and experience gained while co-leading a team. Marian sometimes serves as personal coach to Ales, while Ales occasionally helps Marian promote his new project.
- Ideas for marketing — Sometimes we do bigger internal projects, such as STRV.design or an article like this, which requires more planning, resources, and the right approach. We look for a way to collaborate and bring these to life faster.
- Events — Whether we’re joining an event or putting one of our own together, we both discuss our plan, goals, and organization (choosing the topic, speakers, venue, etc.). We usually do this for our Designer Meetups, Dribbble Meetups, or STRV Academy.
Off-topic: We even have our own Slack emoji.
Keeping each other in sync
While everything is laid out perfectly, nothing would ever run smoothly without clear communication. Both us can handle our agenda (described above), but there are certain things which need to be discussed or addressed to make a team decision or pursue next steps. Most of the stuff is discussed daily in the office and resolved immediately, but we also communicate in a more “formal” way via two sources:
We sit down every Wednesday to discuss our shared agenda, which we write down during the week on a shared to-do list. It usually includes a variety of things ranging from individual projects, plans, what’s been done, what we’ll do next, and more.
This session can sometimes take up to an hour and a half, but it clears a lot of things from our schedule during the upcoming days (or weeks). We also exchange new learnings from our field (Marian = internal, Ales = clients, sales, marketing) and keep each other informed on stuff we usually don’t have a chance to check ourselves.
Group chats and private channels
Our whole company uses Slack for communication. A variety of client project groups, departments, and private channels helps us keep everyone in the loop. We also created a structure to help us streamline communication on specific topics and people. This is how our design team uses Slack:
Note: We tried to keep the number of Slack channels at a minimum and only communicate the most important news. The rest of the stuff is handled via DM or group chats with four people tops.
- #designers — main channel we use to get in touch with our whole team. This includes announcements, planning, new cool stuff, etc.
- #design-sales — Sales managers usually submit their requests for design/dev proposals, estimates, or call participation here.
- #design-pm — Cooperation between the design and product management teams whenever we change something in our process.
- #design-dev (coming soon) — More formal channel to support cooperation between the design and development teams.
Our cooperation runs smoothly most of the year, but we also have a special mode when one of us is away on vacation. In short, we made the process easily transferable to just one person in case the other isn’t available. This person can temporarily take over all responsibilities and agendas and keep the design team running as usual.
Side effect: Two Career Branches
Given our responsibilities, interests, and ways we like to work, we also realized this is not only a suitable structure for us as team leaders, but also creates two possible career paths for our colleagues.
We both try to lead by example, so we asked ourselves a question: what if there’s someone who wants to reach a similar position in our company one day? What if we used our models to create two possible ways (or branches) of how a designer could rise through our team’s ranks?
Note: This isn’t official yet as we’re currently testing it on humans first. Don’t worry, no one’s been hurt. Yet.
№1: Product Design
A product-oriented group led by Marian for people who want to work on long-term projects and build products or brands for longer than three months with frequent design reviews, strong UX research and prototyping focus, multiple iterations, and cooperation with other team members and departments. Great fit for people who want to dive deep into product design, learn a lot about craft, best practices, and the latest tools.
№2: Conceptual & Innovation Design
A concept-oriented group led by Ales for people who like to experiment, create new product concepts, solutions or side projects, and work in shorter sprints with a strong focus on innovation and new points of view. Perfect fit for people who want to improve their presentation and communication skills, build their own ideas from scratch, and let their creative spirit off the chain.
How does it work?
We automatically assign all new hires and junior designers to our product design branch to see how they fit our team, adapt to our process, and work with clients. A few social and happiness checks later, we can discuss next steps and personal plans, i.e. whether it’s to continue working on long-term projects or switch to short design sprints for a while to try out new ideas. In general, all design team members can shift their focus after a certain period of time, mostly after a review with the design team lead.
Note: There is no change in a designer’s title if they switch focus. What changes are the work subjects and types of projects they become involved in.
Is it scalable?
While everything we’ve mentioned works perfectly with 14 designers on our team, we definitely wonder whether our model is scalable once we double in size. So far, the only struggles we’ve encountered were caused by the high demand for design resources requested for client projects or design proposals/concepts. Given our current state, that can be solved rather quickly.
But more resource management (even temporarily) would weigh heavily on Marian’s shoulders. With even more people joining our team in the future, this could influence Marian’s primary focus on our team, which is working with people and growing their potential. This responsibility would quickly evaporate if he needed to allocate a designer to a new project every day.
Our thought is that there could be an option for a third person to join our design team’s “leadership”: a person dedicated solely to resource management. Someone who could deal with all of this full time and make our resource management efficient. This is our only concern regarding scalability. Everything else we’ve considered or planned can be resolved with our current capabilities, even with 30–40 people on our design team.
We are even thinking about extending our agenda during our free time and helping other departments in our company adopt similar processes or approaches to improve the way we run the business.
What we’ve learned
Doing something like this is one hell of a workout for your passion, nerves, personal values, and more. But you probably knew that already, so let’s take a look at a few things that may not be so obvious:
Let people do their thing
If there is someone brimming with initiative, give them the opportunity and responsibility to try out their ideas (the same way we had a chance to rise as leaders). If someone has enough skills, you can assign required resources to let people do their own thing. You can see magic happen which will drive innovation and open a company’s culture naturally. For example, we launched our STRV.design page and newsletter and let Juan write Design Digest, start a launch Wallpapers by STRV, and organize two Dribbble Meetups. Behind everything we do “extra”, there is an idea or a person that was given an opportunity to do what they like.
Don’t seek praise from C-level company management
If we had to ask for permission for everything we did the past two years nothing would have gotten done. Our company culture lets us do whatever we want as long as it makes sense and brings value. Which means C-level management never needs to know what we’re up to. That might sound strange, but they don’t even need to care. We don’t have to do any regular reports, get approval for our plans, or prove that something is happening. The whole company (and the world) can see it on an everyday basis when they watch how we operate, what we produce, and what all of this brings back to us. On the other hand, we don’t get recognized for things that are not so obvious but happen in the background (especially when we do small things or something you can’t see every day). But we got over that and live a happy life anyway.
You don’t need to be available 24/7
While most leaders think they have to be available all the time in case something happens, we do the opposite. There’s never been any circumstance so critical that it required our immediate attention. We realized our professional roles never had to interfere with our personal lives. We both love skateboarding, for example, and go skating for a few hours every Monday morning. We usually finish our work at a reasonable time and enjoy the rest of the day, as well as plenty of quality sleep. Marian even leaves his laptop at the office overnight sometimes.
Inventing our own “design team model”
While some people may point out that this isn’t a standard agency model, that the “Creative Director” title usually stands for something different, or that you can’t have two career paths on the design team, we simply don’t care. That’s because we’ve invented our own design team model which works better than expected and doesn’t require the praise of others who can’t seem to wrap their heads around what we’re doing. Simply put: we enjoy building the team and company this way, and being happy and excited is what it’s all about at the end of the day.
There is still time to design!
Even though we spend a lot of time “managing” something or someone whose role we optimized, there’s still plenty of free time to open Sketch and experiment with designs or other creative ideas. Being a design lead without spending any time designing would be stupid, right?
Update: From now onwards
Some exciting changes happened shortly after publishing this article. Leading the design team successfully the past few years opened new doors and opportunities to step up and scale.
To be more specific, Marian was offered the opportunity to expand his role, which now includes running the entire company. He moved into a new position and now works closely with Lubo Smid (STRV’s CEO) as Head of Engineering. He has a few new responsibilities on top of his usual ones, but he now has the chance to work with every team in the company the same way he worked with the design team.
In February 2018, we introduced new Design Team Lead Juan Herrera to “replace” Marian. Juan took over Marian’s agenda and is now co-leading the design team with Ales. We’re currently going through a transition to make things work for all three of us.
Got a question?
Feel free to message us or stop by our office in Prague to discuss the topics mentioned in this article.
By the way, we’re also hiring. So if you’re a designer and want to be a part of all this, sign up on our careers page and we’ll get back to you.