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

Studio Function
Feb 10, 2016 · 6 min read
Image for post
Image for post

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.

Two-and-a-half years is too many

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

External teams build in a sense of urgency

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 the land of the blind…

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

External teams have a scope and a plan

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.

Good leaders know their limits

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

External teams usually have less to lose

Last but not least

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

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store