• Employee Development
  • December 22, 2017

Build a Culture for Better Design – Insights from the Leading Design Conference 2017

What makes a good design leader? What do you need to do to build a successful design team? How do you operate in the context of larger organizations? How do you advocate design in an environment where the odds are against you? These questions are just a small sample of topics discussed in the wonderful Leading Design Conference held in London in October 2017.

Design has become an integral part of any organization that wants to succeed in the ever-toughening landscape of digital products and services. The best teams are lead by the best leaders. While the role of the design leader can vary a lot depending on the organization, one thing remains clear: design leadership is extremely challenging. Having the opportunity to listen to industry leaders talk about their experiences, advice and even their own insecurities and failures offered us a wide range of perspectives and ideas to analyze as the year changes to 2018.

Build a culture of openness

Successful recruitment is at the core of successful growth, which means there needs to be extra careful when expanding the design team with new people. Design Director Adam Cutler of IBM kickstarted the conference by sharing his experiences of recruiting 1,500 new designers to the organization, and set a theme that ran through many of the presentations we listened to during the two-day conference: recruiting skilled people is just the start. To truly tap the potential of design you have to build a culture of trust and empathy that supports producing a quality design.

Design teams are often composed of people with wildly different educational and professional backgrounds. This means there is great potential for development if all the various skills of the team can be shared and communicated to everyone. To do this, you must have a culture of trust, empathy, and openness that runs through all the activities each team member does, regardless of the project they are currently working.

Leadership coach Julia Whitney discussed how we as humans tend to behave in ways that minimize threats and maximize potential rewards. To build a great culture is essentially about creating an environment of psychological safety where everybody can feel good about sharing new ideas and offer constructive criticism.

Better processes with DesignOps

For a more systematic approach to team practices, several speakers talked about the importance of Design Operations or DesignOps for short. While the definition of DesignOps is probably going to fluctuate when the practice becomes more common, it's really about creating guidelines, ways of working and common rules of how the design team works together across projects and disciplines. To truly operate as an effective team, you should have rules about how to hire new people, what's the design language of the team, what kind of processes are involved in design projects, what's the team's vision for creating new products and so on.

Managing the practical side of design is not only for larger organizations, though. For instance, Director of Design Stuart Frisby of Booking.com emphasized that DesignOps is something you should invest in early on - not when the team has grown so big that creating common practices becomes increasingly hard as more people are hired. You should always plan for growth, don't react to it, because by then, it's too late.

Design leadership for crossing borders

Silo is a bad word. It suggests boundaries, isolation and non-communication. However, it is natural for people and organizations to organize into groups, departments and factions. The problem is that it's very difficult to establish common goals when everybody is working from their own agenda. This means that organizations like this, public or private, are often not built to support producing services that would offer excellent user experiences.

Design leaders have the unique opportunity to bring all these groups and departments to come and work together. Kate Tarling used the United Kingdom's information service Gov.uk as an example of how to operate across the organizational boundaries to build a service that reflects the citizens', not the organization's needs, and offered the following advice:

  • Focus on real-life scenarios when defining project goals
  • Communication should emphasize real end-user goals, expected outcomes of whatever's being built, and also discuss the results of bad design to underline the importance of collaboration
  • Foster trust and openness between cross-department work - everybody should contribute while retaining their autonomy.

Designers should not isolate themselves from the rest of the organization. To truly build great services and products, the entire organization has to strive for the same goals and outcomes. The design team has the responsibility to openly involve everybody in the process, creating a commitment to reach the same goals: not dictate how things should be done, but rather act as the catalyst of building the kind of culture that supports desired outcomes.

Kate Aronowitz from Google Ventures further emphasized this way of thinking with a warning: if design does not become more transparent and include the entire organization into the process, there is a risk that design becomes obsolete. In the past decade, UX as a discipline has established itself as an integral part of any product building process. Designers have their seat at the table now. To keep it, we can't be too jealous of our own craft but we have to build a culture where everyone in the organization is aiming for the same goals: to create great digital products.

It's not just about titles, it's about mastery

Peter Merholz compared the role of the design leader to a parent: it's about coaching, nurturing, guiding the team in the right direction while keeping them accountable for their actions. As with parenting though, just by having the title does not automatically mean being good at it. To master the art of leadership, there has to be constant self-reflection, personal growth and even some mistakes to be made along the way.

This is also why leadership is not restricted to those with the title, but everybody should have informal opportunities for leadership. Here we come back to the culture of trust and empathy the design team should have, as this gives an opportunity for everyone to act as a coach and a mentor, building not only opportunities for better design but the skills required in leadership as well.

Here's how we do it

The Valamis design team has established practices of sharing and critiquing our work together. We encourage everyone to come forward with whatever they are working on (excluding anything that's under NDA or otherwise business-sensitive) to discuss and work through the problem together. We have regular team critique and sharing sessions, and we encourage frequent one-to-one informal discussions among members of the team. However, to underline the point of empathy and openness, we are also actively working on fostering this culture of sharing. Everyone in the team should feel comfortable to bring forwards any problem they might have without fear of judgment from their peers. The benefits of this culture are not only that it makes everybody more comfortable about sharing their own work, but it also dramatically improves the quality of design as a whole. More discussion means more ideas for improvement.

Future of design and UX is looking bright, with conferences such as Leading Design showing the way for more specialized practices within the design field. Design management as a role and as a discipline is maturing. Many of the topics and ideas discussed in the conference will be further developed within the design community and also as ways of working within design teams. As the Valamis design team keeps growing in the year 2018, we will further develop these principles in our daily work - not just among the team but with anyone involved in the process of designing and developing excellent digital products and services.

About The Author

Matti Linna

Matti Linna

Senior UX Designer