The (not so) secret benefits of hiring an external design team

Studio Function
Feb 10, 2016 · 6 min read

Uber turned the internet upside down (and gave the finger to millions of drunk users) last week by making some big changes to their visual identity and app icons. We’ve finally had a chance to catch up on all the drama. Is it just us, or is there something very satisfying about watching the world collectively groan over missed design opportunities while sipping afternoon coffee?

Beyond the entertainment value of a seemingly endless stream of hilarious articles and comments, Uber’s shiny new branding flop has helped bring together some of our thoughts on the value of hiring an external design team.

If you agree with all of the objections online, and read more about the ‘process’ that lead to their new design collateral, it becomes clear that Uber’s problems are numerous. We wonder how many of these issues could have been avoided if the company actually decided to stick it out with one of the 6+ design agencies they rejected, rather than grind the process internally and give the CEO an open licence to micromanage and over-contribute.

This WIRED article, though curiously advertorial, provides an informative vantage of Uber’s 30-month redesign process. It describes meandering, false starts, and other classic hangups. This duration for a redesign (in our opinion) is unacceptable, even for a company worth $60 billion and change.

This is not to say any decisions should be rushed, or details be overlooked; we understand the importance of rebranding more than the average domestic shorthair. But such an extended project is typically the symptom of a deeper problem with process, scheduling, or decision making.

Benefit 1

We don’t mean the bad kind of urgency that leads to cut corners, hasty decisions, or embarrassing tattoos… but more like an acceptance of the need to make a decision. Changing brand-level design collateral is not usually comfortable, especially if that collateral drives a lot of value for the brand. Stakeholders can be understandably reluctant to make a change and get it wrong. However, by taking on an external team, the company is making a commitment to action.

Using an external team also means the project is always someone’s priority. Although this was not likely an issue experienced by Uber, it is often too easy to pull an internal team member off a project for more pressing client requests or internal product work. Schedules get bumped into oblivion, months pass with no meaningful dedication to the initial problem. Hiring outsiders allows the design project to be catalyzed by an external schedule and executed by a team that is disconnected from other internal demands.

In June, after sketching hundreds of icons without landing on a good lead, Amin invited them over for a week-long retreat. He challenged the designers to develop not just an image, but a concept. Anyone can draw an icon, he told them. What’s the story behind it? (via WIRED)

This quote may shed more light on why Uber’s redesign took longer than 3 round trips to Mars: the lack of any discernible process to lead the team through the exercise.

What kind of design leader lets a team drum up “hundreds” of icon options before even considering what kind of visual system these icons require to live meaningfully and successfully? It suggests there was no brief, no process, no conceptual framework or meaningful strategy.

It’s as if the team jumped into the middle of the design process and after failing to create something meaningful realized they needed a strategy and creative brief to help guide the process and assess their design decisions.

Benefit 2

When external design teams are approached with redesign projects of this nature, they do their best to understand the task at hand before proposing a roadmap to keep the project on course. In order to arrive at an approved budget and scope, the design team and the client need to be on the same page about the full process and deliverables, prior to the start of any work. In Uber’s case with a salaried internal design team, budget probably wasn’t a huge factor in their redesign, which allowed for infinite time, endless rounds of revisions, and surely facilitated CEO tinkering.

Designers sell a process and know how to apply that plan to solve problems and address communication objectives. Design isn’t just sitting in front of an Adobe program and pushing coloured boxes around—it’s about discovering and fully understanding the client’s problem and leading them to a point of actionable clarity. It’s easier to get to a point of clarity (and an approved design) when there is a defined plan right from the beginning of the project.

Designers are lucky because their jobs are incredibly stimulating. It’s fun to create beautiful, functional things that people actually enjoy. Non-designers also love being a part of the creative process. It feels good to collaborate and actually make something. The danger is when someone is not qualified or skilled enough, but insists on playing a hands-on role in the design execution. Enter Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick:

He’s an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Yet he refused to entrust the rebranding to anyone else. …he studied up on concepts ranging from kerning to color palettes. “I didn’t know any of this stuff,” says Kalanick. “I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.” (via WIRED)

If Kalanick “wanted it to be good,” he should’ve left the design to someone actually qualified… someone who didn’t just learn about kerning. His focus should be running the business, not wasting time figuring out how to draw squares (“bits”??!) in Illustrator. Strong leaders know how to trust the experts they hire, and give them the space to do their best work. No designers work well with hovering art directors behind them. Maybe that explains why Andrew Crow, Head of Design & Brand at Uber quit the day after the launch?

Benefit 3

We believe in-house designers are sometimes less likely to fight hard for the best solutions. Why rock the boat and compromise a promotion or rapport with management? It’s an understandable response intended for self-preservation (we’ve all been there) — but this allows super hands-on CEOs to get their amateur design mitts all over everything. External design teams can often have an easier time guarding against executive meanderings and over-contributions that can derail projects, compromise the effectiveness of a thoughtful system, and cause significant delays.

External design teams can also provide a fresh perspective and approach to a company’s communication objectives. A discovery process will bring the team up to speed on what needs to be accomplished, but then something extra valuable kicks in: the external team balances their understanding of the problem with their perspective as ‘new users.’ This vantage can be a critical contribution that helps an organization see through the lens of a first time viewer. Internal project leaders and team members are often too intimate with their brand/product to see solutions from an outside perspective.

If Uber had leveraged an outside team, maybe they would have realized a lack of visual cohesion materializing in their identity suite. Perhaps they could have avoided the embarrassingly hollow, self-important piece of marketing BS that is the ‘bits & atoms’ narrative (remember Hooli?). And more importantly, they most likely wouldn’t have abandoned the value and recognizability of the U-based app icon.

At least this whole charade has played out in a very transparent way — giving us all a chance to learn from their mistakes, and reinforce the value that external design teams bring to the table.

Studio Function

Design rants, raves, and case studies

Studio Function

Design rants, raves, and case studies

Studio Function

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We’re a Toronto-based design studio focused on the propagation of meaningful solutions to communication design challenges.

Studio Function

Design rants, raves, and case studies