Working in a design team
What I miss and what I don't
Previous to my current work I was part of a design team (we were roughly 10 people at the time I left). The company was divided in small teams (also known as squads) in which a single designer was part of. So every designer had the responsibility of advocating the design vision in his/her own team of engineers and product manager.
Apart of the solo work that the designers performed at their teams, we had something called a design guild, which was essentially a set of meetings, presentations and review gatherings that served to fine tune our core design principles and also discuss individual problems that each one of us had in our squads (like communication problems with product managers or how to improve our design handoffs, and so on).
That was a nice structure (IMO) since there were multiple designers working on multiple projects. For the designers, this structure allowed them to feel that they had their backs covered by other (and possibly more experienced) designers, without taking away the responsibility of dealing with your own decisions.
Giving that context, I radically changed my work routine when I started working at Scrapinghub. I’m now back being the only designer at the company (at least for now). So, I’m suppose to advocate about, not only about good design principles and processes, but also trying to build a design culture for the future designers to come. That is making me think about how was it like to work with other designers. There is some good and bad aspects that came to my mind so let me share with you:
What I don’t miss
Over discussing things
Like any group of like-minded people, specially from the same field, people can get really passionate about certain subjects. That’s not at all a problem! It can be so enriching to dig deeper into typography, grid systems and design tools but, specially if the team are not mature enough, opinions on process, tools, methodologies or even critiquing other designers work could easily become an obstacle to delivery things. The roll of a lead designer, designer manager, head of design, etc, is essentially to make sure that at this discussions people don’t get stuck from trying things out and expressing themselves.
There are much talk about design process and how to make a design team run. In my opinion this can vary so much depending on the company structure, size, industry, etc. The design team must be led by some ground rules and principles that are loose enough for the team to adjust itself to the company’s demand and tight enough to help designers build a design culture. This is not easy AT ALL.
“Having a good design process takes empathy, open discussions and clear alignment amongst not only designers but other stakeholders.”
The easiest way to see if this balance is right is to check the team processes. By adding new steps, it needs to be very clear to all that it’ll take some considerable amount of time for everyone to adjust and to make that process run. Plus, it’s way easier to just add a new thing to do, a checklist to run through, a new tool to share the designs than to make the entire process slicker (or lean) as possible, understanding how people operate in you team and making the fine-tuning as you go. This takes empathy, open discussions and clear alignment amongst not only designers but other stakeholders.
What I miss
Designers are awesome! I’m biased making that statement but if you are a designer or if you now a designer you probably now that we are a different kind of people (not saying better!). By different I mean that we are so passionate about what we do that we can become super annoying about it (in a good way, most times). It’s hard to separate your personal and professional self being a designer since everything around us is somehow designed. Having other designers around is an experience I miss. Seeing different opinions and having the chance to put our assumptions on the table, getting them discussed (and quite often crushed) by more experienced designers are a truly humbling experience. That’s what makes us better professionals (and humans overall). What I have being doing now to overcome that is trying to participate on online forums, open Slack channels, listening to a lot of podcasts. It has helped me a lot to feel part of a community again.
Help with obstacles
As I mentioned earlier, reaching obstacles is normal in you day-to-day work. What I learned is that having other designers around can make your path to the “right” solution way shorter. I’m still working on that. So far what I’ve being doing is trying to find other stakeholders to get their point-of-view, so I don’t get too comfortable with my own assumptions. But like I said, designers are slightly different on the way they express their opinions, I sure miss that!
It’s interesting to work on different team structures. Either being part of a team or in a lonely wolf mode are both good in their own way. You can learn a lot about yourself and bring that experience to your life. Trying to find a balance between being productive and creative either alone or in a design team is important for you career, it's part of become a more mature designer. ;)