The Bearable Lightness of Being the Only Designer on the Team

One thing most of my jobs so far have had in common is that I’m the only designer on a project. From around the corner to the national capital, I’ve listened for feedback from fellow designers, creative directors and product managers; but on the job, I execute on my own.

I sometimes think about how great it would be to work closely with another designer or two, and the projects would taste like a perfect latte — coffee and steamed milk inseparable from one another.

But I’m happy where I am. So I jotted down a few observations on being the only designer on a team of various sizes, and how my priorities have shifted and my attitudes and definition of design has evolved.

Studio/freelance phase

When I was at Objective Subject, a third of my time was spent on communicating the design to the one and only engineer, project manager, creative directors and mighty clients. I learned that designing isn’t just about explaining how I see the world, but about how effectively I can make others see what I see.

The better I do the latter, the more time I save for design.

Small startup phase

At the early stage of startups, Grand St. in my case, teams need to act nimbly and decisions need to be made quickly. I spent most of my time executing the vision the co-founders laid, designing various options and iterations of the marketplace for indie electronics.

The decision-making process was simple: I turned my monitor around, and everyone gathered and voted (we chose orange over purple, for some reason). I spent less time talking about design decisions, because everyone was on the same page.

Working with people who are on the same page as I am changed my outlook on career and life.

Grand St. could have been purple, y’all.

Aside from pixel-pushing, being the only designer meant that I was the pickiest on the team about the decoration and the layout (real-life UX) of our office, so I spent a decent amount of time working with interior designers and NYC real estate brokers.

Medium-size team phrase

My role evolved when our engineering team doubled its size. Finally, I had some time to brainstorm for upcoming projects with the team, and 8 people was too many for a “hey-quickly-what-do-you-think” kind of vote.

It wasn’t that we didn’t want democratic decisions, but decisions made for democracy’s sake tended to be conservative, and we needed to take risks.

So we instituted formal design reviews and crits, and they were quick and efficient. Mocks were either sent prior to the meeting, or presented at the very beginning, followed by candid decisions on how different visual treatments affect affect the product and the end-user experience

Aside from making visual mocks, I also started to think about and design the team culture, answering questions like “What does a good UX for the team look like?” and “how does culture scale?” We certainly have some great processes in place, but a lot of the culture-affirming actions are not planned. Rather, they are built in once we started doing.

  • Give those high-fives
  • Remember the names of teammates’ partners and children
  • Think and be vulnerable before you answer “How are you?”

A good culture pushes me forward. And a great one gives me a hand and helps me get back on my feet when I fall.

Large-size team phase

Last week, I had a minor meltdown. I was frustrated at myself for not being able to produce good work. The root cause of the problem? I didn’t have enough time to design.

Our engineers were waiting on me for decisions that I was yet to make, which made me feel useless. And the more decision-making meetings I went, the less time I had to actually design and make those decisions. It became obvious that I was stuck in a bad cycle of not doing work, and feeling shitty about myself.

Then Joe and Aaron sat me down.

The three of us brainstormed and decided that a lot of product-related decisions can be offloaded to them, because they were part of the decision-making process, and their eyes have been trained to look for the details in the mocks.

They can easily be the go-to person for questions like:

  • I think I’m done with the design, can you take a look and verify?
  • What happens if I do this?
  • X is a blocker for my work right now. What should I do?

When the team reaches a certain size, I can no longer be the only one who catches the fish for the village. Instead, I have to teach the entire village how to fish.

  • Hand over the fishing pole. In a recently team design weekly, I passed around crayons, blank sheets of paper and a challenge. In two 3-minute sketch rounds, I asked them to come up with new ideas on their own for a particular screen of an upcoming project. Once the first iteration was over, everyone explained his or her idea, passed the designs to the person to the right, and then completed the given sketch from the person to the left. Say “yes, and” and build on top of each other’s work. A short 20-minute exercise produced more ideas that I would have ever done in 3 hours, and the team felt empowered to contribute to the design of the actual project. Win-win.
  • Write better emails. The more people we have on the team, the longer it takes for everyone to respond to emails. So I started to A/B test some email tactics, and those work the best:
  1. Put [Feedback Request] in subjects so my ask is immediate.
  2. Asking “A or B” produces way better results than asking “What do you think?”
  3. Be explicit about following-up. I often write “I will follow up in x day” depending on the situation at the end of emails.

Have no preference.

There is a Zen saying that enlightenment is easier to achieve for those with no preference. In the world of design and product development, it could perhaps be translated to “make the best out of any and every situation.

The challenge never ceases to exist, and there is always something to be learned about the depth of our own capacity. Explore deeper in our patch of grass, find a nice spot in the shade, unwrap our lunch, and enjoy the afternoon sun.


Share this story, and send any feedback. I’d love to hear from you — tweet @kuanluo or email me at kuan@etsy.com.