Designing the team

My learnings from the advice of design leaders, that all started over dim sum


As designers, we take time crafting the experiences of our users. We spend countless hours designing them to be both seamlessly usable and visually beautiful. We drive forward, creating these great experiences, equipped with design patterns, principles, rules, and guidelines. With a move into a leadership role, my craft has shifted. I returned to the questions that had assisted me as a designer: Where can I find the guidelines? Where can I find the best practices? Where are the rules?

What I was really looking to answer was: How do I design my team?


A month ago I was fortunate enough to go to a dim sum brunch, hosted by John Maeda of KPCB. The brunches were held about once a month and had different guests each time from all corners of the design world; Masters of architecture, design leaders from some of the tech worlds smallest and largest startups, and even fresh graduates of industrial design. About a week after the brunch, a Slack group was started, to continue the conversations beyond the brunches.

Soon after, a #sessions channel emerged. Each week, 2 designers would co-host a discussion. They would decide upon the topic and then present it to the group to get everyones opinions. Last week I was lucky enough to co-host with Darren Chan. I explained all of the questions swirling around in my head and we landed on the topic of: Designing the team.

I know there are many other fresh design leaders out there and rarely do you get an opportunity to have your questions answered by such an experienced group of individuals. Because of that, I would like to share some of the amazing bits from the discussion that have really helped me as I continue to grow as a leader.


Who to hire

The generalist

There was an immediate trend that emerged from the discussion about which designers you should hire first: The generalist. Designers who they considered to be generalists, as described by Stefan Klocek, are “People who could do both visual and interaction design, or people who were comfortable with designing a logo or a marketing deck and also detailing the product.” Some people might know this type of designer as being a “T-shaped” designer.

“You can’t really afford to specialize unless you have the headcount. Same goes with an engineering hire, right? You look for full stack early and then specialized folks later.” — Darren Chan

The specialist

As their design teams grew, they moved toward having more specialists. The timing on this seemed to vary. Some hired specialists after the first hire, while others added them a bit further down the line. This seemed to be a result of no team/industry being the same. Each had different needs, some of which required a specialist earlier on. Jonathan did note that “A specialist is not a silver bullet. We continued to outsource work if the skill didn’t reside in-house or the job necessitated it.”

The utilitarian

Something I had never heard of before was a “utility player”. Utilitarian’s seem to be great hires because they help to really round out a team.

“The utility player differs slightly from the generalist in the sense they are extremely adept at context switching in addition to having a diverse range of skills. They epitomize the definition of a team player.” – Jonathan Lieberman

The unicorn

Big thing of note is that only 1 leader mentioned unicorns at all as being a real thing that was on their team. Unicorns are rare and mythical creatures. Uday Gajendar put it nicely by saying, “I get that folks are imperfect and flawed, so I don’t look for ‘unicorns’”. What I took away from this was, focus on a real, non-mythical person. Maybe someone like a generalist?

Deciding what your team needs

One simple way of finding what your team actually needs, it seems, is to look at where you are contracting out the most work. Start there. Next, look at where your gaps are as a leader. For example, I am trained in interaction design, but not as much in UX. For our next hire, we are filling that gap by looking for a designer with that UX background.

How to find the right designers

Building the pipeline

I’ve had a lot of anxiety over the past 6 months about the fact that it has taken us so much time to find our next design hire. Apparently, I am not alone in this. Building a pipeline of designers takes a long time and when you combine that with finding someone who is truly great for your team, it can take even longer. Build that pipeline now and always keep it going.

“It’s so difficult to find top design talent, and the effort it takes to catch great designers in the bay area at the moment they’re open to making a change, is not for the faint of heart.” — Deena Rosen
“So while you may be busy working on the product, start a recruitment pipeline right away. And NEVER let it die, even if you don’t foresee any design needs in the near term.” — Darren Chan

Never fill a seat

Every candidate we have at Remind, we always ask, are they great? If they are good, but not great, we pass. This is a motto that many startups start off with and then, as each team member is added, tends to slip away. If you have a good person that you know, if you took a bit of your time to train them, they could be great, just pass. You are busy. As a wise designer once said to me, “A people hire A people. B people hire C people.” If they are not better than you at what they do, just pass.

“The truly great hire is the one who can lead, inspire, and persuade those around them.” — Bob Baxley
“The time it takes to develop and then put someone on a performance plan, what that in turn can do to your team morale is not worth the physical or emotional energy required to do that individuals work until the right candidate comes along. Keep the bar high and never settle.” – Jonathan Lieberman

The best people on paper are not necessarily the best fit

And vice versa.

“We’ve had people come out of academia and do really well, we’ve had people with very little of what you might call “directly relevant experience” do very well, and people with excellent resumés who interviewed very well and who you might expect to be a great match have a terrible time.” — Erika Hall

When it comes down to it, talent and experience are nothing without passion. Passion for your craft and passion for the teams mission.

“I wanted folks who are the best at what they do, living and breathing their craft to extraordinary levels so I can totally trust their judgment” — Uday Gajendar
“It sounds a bit like needing someone to drink the kool-aid, but our happiest & most successful employees deeply believe in what we’re doing.”— Deena Rosen

Can they contribute to future hires?

“The most important aspect of the first hire is to make sure they contribute to the second hire…and the third…and the fourth.” — Bob Baxley

Interviewing

Find a great designer? Great! Now it is time to interview them. One very helpful tip I learned was to take more steps upfront in order to be mindful of the rest of the organizations time. If you, as the design lead, can vet the candidates properly first, you save time that you might waste bringing them in for the full onsite with the rest of the team.

Another very helpful tip, provided by Jonathan, was to have the candidate do a portfolio presentation to all of the members, at once, that will be doing the 1:1 full onsite interviews. This way, in the 1:1's, the candidate doesn’t have to go over their background every time and the interviewer can ask more detailed questions, faster.

A happy team

On-boarding

The on-boarding process is so, so important. It sets the precedent for their new role and sets expectations. It should help them to understand what their responsibilities are, inspire them to take on more, and just set them up to succeed with their new team.

Use their skill-set

You are not going to be able to put designers on a task every time that is in the skill-set that they love; The one that is their craft. Sometimes designers will not be enthused about those tasks. It is not only our jobs to help them be enthused in those scenarios, but also align it right, as much as possible, so that they have as many opportunities as possible to do their craft.

“We sought to empower the team to leverage all of the skills with one simple caveat; make sure that it doesn’t keep you from delivering the work that is expected of you. It is amazing to see what an individual can both balance and produce when given the autonomy to make good decisions.”– Jonathan Lieberman

Thank you all who participated in last weeks dim sum #sessions. Obviously, you’ve made your mark on me. I hope this makes its mark on other leaders so we can continue to build better products and even happier design teams.


Special thanks to Andy Mindler, John Maeda, and Jackie Xu for the fresh pair of eyes on this article.

Cover photo credit: Robyn Lee