Designing a Design Team

Scaling a design team in a high-growth company

Andrew Coyle
May 21, 2017 · 10 min read

This article describes how the design team at Flexport developed over the last three years. It covers the team’s evolution, roles, meetings, processes, and systems.

The team is still relatively small. Most of our learning is ahead of us. However, I think this article provides helpful insights for designers tasked with building a team in an uncertain startup environment.

*Unfortunately, there is no blueprint


The Beginning

I designed our client, partner, and internal apps, as well as our public facing website and brand material. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun collaborating with business leaders, engineers and our product manager. The design decisions we made — good and bad — formed the foundation of our product and brand identity.

The most important thing I did during this time was to get out of the office and meet our clients. The many user interviews I conducted were invaluable.

Screenshots of Flexport’s Client app

Flexport has since grown into a company of 350+ employees with offices in New York, Amsterdam, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco. We’ve raised $94M from investors, including Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Google Ventures, First Round Capital, Bloomberg Beta, Y Combinator, & more.

Flexport’s public website

As Flexport grew, so too did our design needs.

Following advice from Flexport’s founder Ryan Petersen on how to scale a team, I made a list of everything I worked on over the last year, and categorized it under three roles:

  • Product Designer (IxD, VD)
  • User Researcher
  • Communication Designer

This list informed the hiring plan. After talking it over with my manager, we determined our first hire should be able to bridge the gap between design and engineering. We started our search for a UI engineer/designer and were lucky to find Andrew Kaye.


The Centralized Pair

Shortly after he joined, we opened up two product design positions. We posted the openings on Dribbble, Hacker News, and our careers page. Our recruiting team began out-bounding potential candidates. Kaye and I reviewed their work and experience level. If we thought the candidate was a good fit, we scheduled a call. If the call went well, we scheduled an in-person interview.

We looked for strength in three areas:

Visual Design

Interaction Design

User Research

It is hard to find people with these qualities, as well as the enthusiasm to learn the complexities of international trade.


The Centralized Team

After two new product designers joined, the complexities of my job evolved. I had to balance design projects with people management and career development.

We soon realized the limitation of a centralized design team. Designers felt like they didn’t have a seat at the table because they missed the many small decisions made between engineers and PMs. Engineers and PMs thought they didn’t have a single point of contact for the design team to guide these decisions.


Decentralizing Product Design

To mitigate the issues of centralization, we assigned each product designer to a product team. The product designer sat next to their product team, attended their meetings, and took design ownership of their projects. This structure solved our collaboration issues and increased output.

During this time, we defined a new user research role to aid the product designers in conducting foundational and continuing research. We also began to focus heavily on our UI system to ensure consistency.

The big missing piece of the team was communication design. Up until this point our marketing materials, brand identity, public websites, etc., were a secondary priority. Kaye and I dedicated a few hours a week to updating Flexport’s visual character, and we worked with outside contractors to manage the workload. But without a singular focus, our brand identity suffered.


The Foundation

To fix this problem, we brought on a communication designer to take ownership of our brand identity. During this time, we also decentralized the design team’s UI system function, partnering Kaye with other engineers to further develop our front-end architecture.

We also solidified our team meetings. We currently come together four times a week. Once on Monday for our design standup, on Tuesday and Thursday for critique, and on Friday for our retrospective.


Team Meetings

Weekly standup

Design Critique

1:1s

Office Hours

Weekly Retrospective

We laid a solid foundation to further the design team’s growth, and we have a long way to go. It will take lots of perseverance, flexibility, and a growth mindset to get to the next level. I have no doubt we will attain it because of the amazing team we assembled including:

Becca Ling, Product Designer

Quintin Carlson, User Research Program Manager

Andrew Kaye, UI System Lead

Gentian Edwards, Product Designer

Eytan Davidovits, Product Designer

Seth Gutiérrez, Communication Designer


From Individual Contributor to Manager

Hiring

  • Conducting phone and in-person interviews
  • Reaching out and meeting potential candidates

Team Management

  • Performance reviews
  • Conflict resolution

Design Direction

  • Illustrating a vision for the future
  • Creating design systems

Team Operations

  • Weekly standup, team critique, and other structural meetings
  • Working on messy design projects

The most important thing I have learned in my transition from an IC to a manager is the power of delegating responsibility, listening, mitigating conflict, and spurring collaboration between roles.

There is a lot to learn. This is just the beginning. If you would like to play a role in further defining our culture and solving problems that impact the real world, Join us!


I hope this article helps you design a better design team. If you are currently leading a team, or are planning to build one, I would love to hear your thoughts.




Flexport Design

Designing the operating system for global trade @flexport

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