A Design Team is Like an Orchard

Arborism & Orchardism as a worthwhile analogy for team nurturing.

Evan Sornstein
Dec 30, 2019 · 7 min read

What seems like a lifetime ago, my sister and I started a graphic design company. We carefully hired people to help us succeed and grow. What kept us going completely depended on the friendships and collaborations we built with our employees. Many years later and we are all still close. Fast forward, I’ve carried this approach with me, finding that making true connections with the people you spend your day-to-day life makes all the difference in the long run.

Another thing I have noticed is that this (San Francisco) is a small town, and people end up knowing people you know. This is a beautiful thing. Because, when we are young, we expand our horizons and move around. Don’t you find it strange that companies spend so much energy trying to keep people from leaving, even though mostly everyone needs to grow and move on? So, it seems wiser to nurture our working relationships, while growing for the greater good. So in the end, even though we focus on building company culture, we are all growing and educating the larger design community, making meaningful connections OUTSIDE of the companies immediate needs. (I should call this the ‘Bachian Effect’, after Richard Bach.)

With this in mind, I began working on a concept for how I wanted to grow and nurture the team I had been building. And as I dug into this concept, I found that it was meeting more resistance than I thought was warranted. ‘Traditional Leadership’ generally means NOT being friends with your team. Now, I’m sure there are some of you that grew up with the ‘All management styles were invented by the military” and, I admit, my approach may have its risks, but I believe nothing is static, and building meaningful relationships can never be a bad thing. So I want to put this more ‘compassionate’ approach forth as something worth talking about.

Part 1: Arborist and Orchardist

All that said, there still needs to be clear structure and a careful intentional system to follow. And, similar to the common analogy of good leadership is like gardening, my approach for growing and nurturing teams can be best described in the simple analogy of an Orchard.

Rather than describe designers as ’T’ shaped, I prefer to get a little more nuanced and help them design their ’Tree’ shape. If each designer is like a tree, and we can start to see where they want to grow, we can then look at the what they are together as an orchard.

We can then continue to see how the Orchard can grow, and what sort of ‘fruits’ we want to harvest together. An orchard becomes a nice framework for understanding the levels of care in running and nurturing a design team.

Elements of the Tree

Roots

Together with each designer, I like to map out their personal tree: The first step is to spend time understanding what moves people and where they come from. To find out their life interests, loves, cultural upbringing, etc. Starting with the roots can really help you understand where growth paths could go. It can help orient where that ‘tree’ will flourish in the Orchard.

Trunk

Next, we clarify what their ‘core’ impetus or ‘orientation’ skill is. For example, ‘I am a UI Designer’ or I am a ‘UX Researcher’. This is not to say a designer couldn’t change their impetus, but I have found that designers are motivated by a few key things and these motivations are core to their character. Some people are driven to find out what makes people tick, some love to create order out of chaos, others need to make the world more beautiful. We need all of these kinds of people. These are not teachable things, they are what we bring with us.

Branches

Together you can assess where their talents and expertise lie, by dividing up each major activity of the practice (in my past 2 teams I segment Experience Design as UX, IA, IxD, UI, VD, but this can vary depending on your overall practice.) The length of these branches should represent their current relative capabilities. On each practice branch, you can then add in specific abilities.

Limbs

We then finish off with where they want to grow, things the want to learn. It is crucial to understand where each designer wants to specifically grow- new skills, new tools, etc. to map this on the tree also illuminates where the team wants to grow when viewing the trees in overlay as the Orchard.

It could be useful to also add branches or roots for skills and interests outside of the practice. These might spawn new areas of the practice or team.

Leaves

Over time, encourage them collect examples of projects that are good expressions of specific abilities. They should get in the habit of documenting their work and process and continually add them to their own portfolios/dribbble etc. Having a portfolio ready to show at any time is a tremendous asset for each person, as well as the team. They come in handy when you least expect.

The Orchard

Once we have a set of trees, we can overlay them to see what strengths the practice has, and what gaps exist to resolve. This also give visibility into which designers can mentor other designers on specific goals. (I still have some data visualization work to do on this view.)

Potential

Looking more closely at the overlay, we can start to see where the team as a whole wants to grow. I’ve considered (but haven’t tried it yet) to add a ‘ghost’ tree of what the company thinks it needs on the team as well, to see how the teams potential is meeting the companies intentions.

Strengths

In addition to seeing the gaps in your teams’ potential, you can also see where your strengths are in each practice- With 4 or 5 designers, you probably already know this, but with teams above 10, this might be an extremely useful way to see that you are, indeed UX rich, for example.

Mentorship

Looking at the light yellow ‘growth potential ‘ branches, you can also see where they might align with other designers greater strengths, and help nurture a micro-mentorship between the two. (more on this idea later.)

Diversity

I like to believe that a more diverse team makes for better designers, because different people will naturally have different awarenesses and questions. What I see as diversity in a design team includes age, gender, cultural background, expressive orientation, and experience to name a few. Everyone is a filter to the world and what we bring with us to the table as designers requires an openness and willingness to step outside of ourselves. If we are all the same, it is hard to make impactful work. The more variety of crops makes for a more robust harvest. (also, being able to see your team at the orchard level can give you visibility into your orchards diversity –or lack of.)

Harvesting

To take this even further, to consider what the harvest is– the work we do as designers, and the nourishment our work provides, helps keep our perspective on what design is for- to consider ‘nutrition’ as problem solving and making the world a better place. Harvesting the fruits of our labor includes how our ideas can be like seeds to help grow the team. When I think about the seasonality of our business, it does suggest that there are times of the year best for problem solving, exploring, reflecting, collecting and more. Winters (Q1) are generally busy (especially if theres something to show at CES), springs(Q2) seem to always have even more potential, summers(Q3) slow down, early autumns (Q4)are busy, late autumns are either slammed or become quiet. If our harvest is governed by economics (which it seems it is) we could plan accordingly to take advantage of Q2 for experimentation, and Q4 for documentation, for example.

To see a few ideas based on my experience building teams, feel free to take a look at ’13 Tips for Team Nurturing’. Most of these concepts I have learned, collected and intuitively integrated, some, outright stole and haven’t fully tested, but so far they seem sound. If any of these ideas resonate with you, please let me know! I have been slowly building this outline and plan on expanding on it, adding more actionable and practical recommendations, so here is a start. If you are so inclined, I would love recommendations for tweaks and improvements.

Let’s see the orchard for the trees.

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