How to Turn a Band of Weirdos Into a Stellar Design Team
Design is the medium through which a user interfaces with a company. We see this interface come to life through a variety of modalities, whether that’s an app, hardware, software, voice, or otherwise. That interface is the conversation between the company and the user. It drives emotion; it’s not just about what the company delivers, it’s about how what they deliver makes their users feel. Design is a company’s secret weapon to making users feel awesome when they interact with a product or service, and this is the value and edge good design brings to any company.
But good design doesn’t just happen. Neither is it the product of a single genius or even a few very talented people working independently. Truly great design requires a stellar team working cooperatively, supported and led by a design leader with the authority and independence to drive business impact. Building teams like that isn’t easy, but it can be done. This is how I create my own stellar teams.
Build a Stellar Design Team With These 3 Tips
- Look for people with varied backgrounds that give them the perspective and expertise they need to create amazing interfaces.
- Use rituals and empowerment to give your designers ample opportunity to express their creativity, grow as professionals, and live the values you, as the leader, instill in the team.
- Invest in a chief design officer role the same way a CMO or CTO would be to align the company and its leadership around the intended user experience.
Finding Great Designers: Gather Your Band of Weirdos
As a seasoned head of design and industry leader, I’ve built teams of designers and researchers at hyper-growth venture-backed startups, at design-focused consulting firms, and at large-scale publicly traded companies. I think of building my teams as “gathering my band of weirdos.” I look for people with varied backgrounds that give them the perspective and expertise they need to create amazing interfaces.
The first type of background I look for is the human one. To create an experience that deeply resonates with users, you have to understand your users, and not just your users’ points of view, but also how their brains work, how their bodies work, how they behave. Designers are experts in this realm — they live to create for humans. The designers I bring into my teams have studied subjects like human factors and biometrics (understanding the human body and how it works), psychology (understanding the human brain and how it works), ergonomics (understanding how to make things beneficial and efficient for humans in their environment), and human-computer interaction (understanding how people use technology). These skills make them experts in how humans work, whether that’s physically or emotionally, and make them natural empaths. They are able to become the user and truly understand the frame of mind a user is in as they use a given service. They ask: What is the user trying to accomplish and what’s getting in their way?
I look for people with varied backgrounds that give them the perspective and expertise they need to create amazing interfaces.
The designers on my teams combine these scientific skills with creative skills to design interfaces that are instinctual and beneficial to users. These experiences lean into the ways that the human brain and body work and the ways that we use technology. They speak to the user in their own voice, reflecting the user’s lived experiences back to them. The designers on my teams have spent years developing a wide set of creative skills through the study of art history, art theory, graphic design, painting, cinema, TV arts, computer science, industrial design, visual journalism, architecture, civil engineering, and more. They’re experts at using lines, shapes, colors, materials, sounds, words, and motion to interact with users, to guide them through task flows, to make the everyday more intuitive, and to infuse in those experiences the emotions a company wants to communicate.
Understanding users and creating interfaces that resonate isn’t easy and rarely does it employ the obvious answer. Designers on my team employ vastly divergent thinking to get outside of their own brain and experience. They deep dive to uncover a problem space — not a solution looking for a problem — but rather a deep, foundational need that people have. My designers are curious, they ask why? 500 ways, and they explore a multitude of possible approaches to the problem space. With rigorous testing and data, design directs teams towards a convergent solution, or oftentimes a few convergent solutions, that work for the business and for the user.
Building the Stellar Team With Rituals and Empowerment
OK, so you’ve got your band of weirdos, your talented designers from varied backgrounds who can utilize their skills to create interfaces — now what? How do you take your team from a group of great designers who sit next to each other in an office to a truly stellar team that’s high performing and tight-knit?
Rituals and empowerment.
Rituals are the pieces of traditions you put in place with your team. These are things like daily standups, weekly workshops or reviews, monthly education opportunities, coffee breaks and breakfasts. Rituals are a way to instill a set of values in your team. The values I bring to my team are investment in our own growth, investment in each others’ growth, and deep respect for one another. One example is Design University, where monthly, someone teaches the team a new skill, whether that’s prototyping with a new tool, influencing others, public speaking, or otherwise. Another example is our book club, where we started with Thanks for the Feedback, so we could have a shared vocabulary about how we give and receive feedback as a team. A last example is our weekly design breakfast, where we check in (using colors!) to talk about how we’re feeling this week. Designers share personal feelings, professional feelings, and we walk away feeling closer to one another.
You’ve hired experts, now get out of their way.
Empowerment is giving people authority and autonomy. You’ve hired experts, now get out of their way. Encourage them to own pieces of the team, encourage them to add to the rituals you’ve started. In each of the examples above, I started the ritual, but I don’t own them. For Design University, we have members of the team teach one another or bring in experts from outside the company they want to learn from. One of my young designers who was passionate about feedback led our book club, and my most empathetic leader runs our design breakfast every week. In fact, he came up with the color system and the team loves it. I would have never gotten us there if I was doing everything myself. Empowered teams are invested in themselves, each other, and the company.
Stellar Teams (and Companies) Deserve Stellar Leaders
Don’t underestimate how hard it is to create an empowered, design-forward culture in your organization. Too often, design is seen as purely divergent, or worse yet, as the team that “makes things look good.” Design is brought in at the end to work on pixels, but not properly employed at the beginning to create a holistic solution that resonates with users.
To truly inspire user-centric design thinking from top to bottom, companies must invest in the chief design officer (CDO) role the same way they invest in a chief technology officer, chief operating officer, or chief marketing officer. The CDO’s job is to create and drive experience strategy. It’s their job to align leadership and the company around the intended user of the experience, it’s their job to set a vision of how to best serve that user, and it’s their job to lead the team who will design the interfaces that will speak to the user and drive positive business impact. This work can’t sit under product, under marketing, or under another piece of your organization — it needs to be leading those parts of the organization and bringing them along in focusing on the “how” and “why,” not just the “what.”
Bottom line: A stellar design team is greater than the sum of its parts. It brings together people of diverse perspectives and puts in place rituals that reinforce team values. A stellar team empowers people to use their expertise, and deserves a great leader to encourage their growth and to give them the space and the support to do their best work. It takes bold thinking from the company, but I promise, your users — and your CFO — will be happy with the results.