Getting the most from your design team

5 questions for Peter Merholz: Building design orgs, eight core design skills, and how culture influences outcomes.

By Mary Treseler
December 1, 2016
Acrobats. Acrobats. (source: Pixabay)

I recently asked Peter Merholz, design executive and author of Org Design for Design Orgs, about what he has learned building and managing design teams. At the O’Reilly Design Conference, Peter Merholz will be running a workshop with Kristin Skinner, Org design for design orgs: The workshop.

You’re teaching a workshop at the Design Conference, and you’ve written a book on organizational design for design organizations. You’ve commented that organizations that recognize the value of design aren’t realizing the return on their investments. Can you explain what you mean and why you think this is happening?

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Companies are building sizable internal design teams. These cost money—headcount, facilities, fancy new MacBooks. I think there’s an expectation in many of these companies that this investment in design will help them get ahead, compete better, possibly even transform the business. However, if these companies treat design like any other corporate function, they will constrain its potential. And they might wonder if it’s worth the investment, not recognizing that simply hiring a bunch of designers is not enough—there are organizational, operational, and managerial matters that must also be addressed in order to get the most out of that team.

What are some practical steps for building a successful design team?

You want to begin with a strong leader. Too often, a company hires as its first designer someone junior whose job is to bang out screens. If the company is a startup, hire a senior designer, someone who is still comfortable with making, but who understands how design works, how to recruit and hire, how to productively interact with other functions. If the company is a more established enterprise that is only just now establishing an internal design capability (this still happens!), that person should probably be director level, and be given a headcount to grow a team. Either way, the senior-most designer should be no more than two levels from the CEO.

Early on, that leader and their team should make clear a shared sense of purpose for the design team, perhaps by drafting a charter. Something that establishes why the design team exists, it’s role within the organization, the impact it hopes to have. Without this sense of purpose, as the team grows, it can get lost, resorting to design for design’s sake. With the sense of purpose, the team maintains a point of view that encourages better decision making as the team grows.

In the book, we identified eight core design skills for digital designers: user research, interaction design, visual design, information architecture, writing, prototyping, front-end development, and service design. In building a team, try to establish this breadth of skills as quickly as possible. This doesn’t mean hiring eight specialists—it means hiring two, three, four generalists whose skills complement one another.

What are the organizational models design teams can adopt?

We have an entire chapter about that! Design teams typically operate under one of two models—wholly centralized or decentralized and embedded within product or business teams. The centralized org resembles a design agency, where designers are assembled on teams for projects throughout the company. This disempowers the designers, as they are brought in after requirements have been set, and are expected to simply execute. It also frustrates their internal ‘clients’, as they have to wait for design to be available. In the decentralized model, designers are embedded within products teams, reporting up through business units. This works well at first— things move faster, as there’s no wait for design resources, and designers are more engaged as they’re involved throughout the product development cycle. Over time, though, designers grow bored of solving the same problem repeatedly, and also feel lonely and isolated, longing for a community of designers to connect with.

A new model has emerged that some organizations are adopting, a hybrid of the centralized and decentralized approaches, which we call the Centralized Partnership. It’s centralized in that all the designers report up through a single design leader. However, they don’t work on projects. Instead, designers belong to teams that are in partnership with business units and their product teams. Designers benefit because they are part of that larger internal design community, which proves great for their professional development. The team-based commitment means they are also involved throughout the product development cycle, so they are inform the strategic thinking, which deepens their ownership of the work.  

What role does culture play within a design team and across an organization?

Within a design team, culture is essential for driving successful outcomes. An activity that is key for getting to great design is critique—the process by which designers review and provide feedback on one another’s work. Critique can feel brutal—your work is put out there for others to assail. For critique to succeed, there must be a deep well of respect between the designers, and such respect is the product of a an inclusive, respectful, and joyful culture. The designers respect one another, they appreciate critique within a context of making the work better, as opposed to criticizing each other as people.

No matter how positive a specific design team’s culture tries to be, if that team operates within an organization that has a more traditional corporate culture, it’s impact will blunted. Design as a practice thrives on collaboration, respectful candor, willingness to experiment (and fail), an appreciation of wholeness and beauty, all of which are not found in a typical corporate environment. For companies to get the most out of design, not only do they need to appropriately invest in design, and create a space where design can thrive, the rest of the organization may need to transform it’s approach so that design can productively connect with other functions.

You’re speaking at the O’Reilly Design Conference in March. What sessions are you interested in attending?

So many! Dan Hill is always thought provoking, and his keynote on the UX of buildings, cities, and infrastructure I’m sure won’t disappoint.

Aarron Walter’s stewardship of MailChimp’s design for so long tells me that his Hard-earned lessons in leading design talk will come from a place of deep experience.

As a citizen of Oakland, I’m curious to see Seeing government: A digital-savvy facelift for the City of Oakland.

The Designing for diversity in design organizations session addresses a serious issue our industry needs to face.

Post topics: Design
Post tags: 5 Questions for designers