As Paystack has grown, the design team has changed and I’ve been at the helm of this. Some things have worked out and others have failed, but in all we’ve learnt good lessons.
As a company, we know we should write more about the work we do. We make mistakes that others can learn from, and we learn so much on the job that there’s a lot we can talk about. But it’s hard to share. It takes time and needs encouragement. I hope this essay bells the cat.
Regardless, this exercise is useful for me to reflect on my growth as a designer, and I hope as a guide for others who have to lead someday. Here are some things I’ve learnt in the past four years of designing at Paystack.
1. Document everything
If I woke up and it was 2016 again, the first thing I’ll do is buy Bitcoin (🤷♂). But also, I’ll take documentation very seriously. One recurring problem we’ve faced on the team is giving everyone equal context. Where is what? How do things work? And why?
Without well-written, frequently-updated documentation, it takes more time to understand things. Newer team members are more prone to mistakes, and everything takes longer because changes can cascade unpredictably. Helping to document the work in a searchable, predictable way is something every designer should be proactive about.
2. Design for your team
We should care for our team mates as much as we do customers. With more volumes, operations becomes more difficult and when processes are manual, the team will struggle. Mistakes are more likely to happen and people won’t get the time or space to do their best work. To solve this, the company needs to automate.
As designers, our role in this is to:
- Talk to people about their work: We should learn how things are, what they should be, what constraints exist and why, and design solutions that account for all, elegantly.
- Understand how prototypes really work: For example, if you’ve designed a form, who does it get sent to? And what do they do with it? How should the process affect your design? And can your design influence the process?
- Encourage small improvements: A small change like button colour can improve someone’s workflow significantly. Look out for small UX wins during research, and when you find them, encourage the PM to prioritize; if you can, fix it yourself.
On the other side of product, we can also help with:
- Onboarding: We should know what the experience of joining the company is like and look to actively improve it.
- Communication: We should read what people share, offer to help with explanatory diagrams, offer feedback to make presentations better e.t.c. We should proactively help the team communicate better.
- Benefits: We should care about how the team accesses benefits, from how’re they’re documented to how we get them. We should constantly give feedback to make the process better.
- Swag: We should aim to delight our team mates the same way as we do customers. We should lend ideas and actively make the experience of working at the company memorable.
This is not an exhaustive list and there are surely other ways design can contribute, as long as we’re looking.
3. Leadership is not mastery
The thing about designing for a startup is that you’re likely become a leader very early and this can sidestep personal growth. This is why titles make me anxious. What does being a “senior designer” or “design director” mean outside of your context?
Of course, doing the work and leading people teaches a lot, but it doesn’t teach mastery. It helps to be very intentional about improving at your craft, especially if you want to continue to contribute independently.
4. Delegation is about support
For a long time, I thought delegation was just about splitting the work—you take this, I take that. After a few disappointments, I’ve learnt otherwise.
Delegation is a process of handing over responsibilities to someone else. It’s a process, not an event. I’ve learnt to set expectations and then help people meet them: ask questions, proactively (and kindly) remind them of what they miss, review their work, point out what they can do better, acknowledge when they discover my mistakes, and keep at it until they completely understand the responsibility.
5. Learn from others
For a long time, it was important for me to be “original” and not to copy others. I’m wiser now and understand that everything is a remix. One of the fastest ways to do good work is to study existing good work and apply what you find. I’ve learnt to start my process with a reference study. Who else has done this? How did they execute it? And what can I learn from them?
6. Typography makes all the difference
Knowing how to pair fonts and arrange type makes the most difference in your work. By the time you get good at this, you probably have a hang of other graphic design basics. Write short, clear sentences. Avoid typos. Read things back to yourself. Pay attention to what the words look and sound like.
7. Take care of yourself
There are different ways to look out for yourself.
- Physically: Don’t overwork, take planned breaks. Pay attention to how you work and maintain healthy habits. There are no extra perks for working when you shouldn’t. It’s a difficult choice, but it’s all up to you.
- Professionally: Pay attention to your strengths and feedback. Ask for support when you need it. Be vocal about your plans for yourself. Write about the work you’re doing and keep your portfolio alive. The easiest trick to getting started is to write when you learn something new.
- Personally: Use the team to get feedback on your ideas. Someone else might already be thinking about it or have recommendations that can go a long way.
8. Everything good is a team sport
4 years later, the design team at Paystack has grown to an 8-person voltron that can do more incredible work than any one of us can individually.
It’s important not to attach too much ego to the work. Don’t waste time trying to figure things out yourself. If you don’t understand the context, ask . If the expectations aren’t clear, ask. When you’re stuck, ask. Expect to do multiple iterations. Invite the team help you make it better.