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  • Andy Schultz

Design team structures

The field of design has finally received the attention it has long deserved. The demand for designers has been holding steady for a while and will continue into the future. This is partly because there is a robust need for tech talent in general. It's also a result of businesses realizing how important design is in influencing a product's user experience. This has been particularly true for all types of businesses, from enterprises to business-to-business and business-to-consumers.

Accelerating demand generates complications of its own. This is particularly true for organizations that are establishing design teams or granting design its first "seat at the table." Alongside the exponential growth in demand, the availability of skilled designers has traditionally been constrained by a variety of factors. Even more difficult to locate is design leadership talent that comprehends the business and can build scalable design organizations.

Scaling and organizing design

I’ll start by stating that building and scaling a design organization is a design leader's hardest function. Especially in my case, where building a design team was thrust on me by surprise at QuillBot.

The environment and dynamics within an organization could dictate a lot of what’s possible, but I’ll try and share a structure for a scalable design organization that has worked and delivered high-quality results for me.

A well-designed organization should deliver better outcomes for customers, the business, and team members. Delivering better outcomes for team members is more important than ever, and I spend a good portion of my time on it. With the demand for designers increasing, they have a choice of which organization to join. Their growth and role within an organization become determining factors in deciding which organization they’ll join. In that context, the way you structure a design organization within a company could determine what talent you end up attracting to your company.

Candidate evaluation

As part of the hiring process at QuillBot, all designers complete a whiteboarding session in front of a three-panel panel remotely. Successful candidates come prepared for the exercise, end with wireframes, and, most importantly, involve the panel as part of their design process. Product designers who blend process, creativity, speed, and curiosity are people who inadvertently raise the bar for team members and get hired.

Design team structures

As a design leader, there’s a lot that goes into effectively leading a design team, but let’s start with how you’d like to structure yours. There are three common design team structures you can follow: Centralized, cross-functional (also known as embedded), and flexible. For example, a product designer leading a centralized design team may have a weekly design critique meeting where team members present their work and gather feedback from each other. In this structure, the leader plays a key role in setting the design direction and ensuring consistency across projects. On the other hand, a flexible design team structure allows designers to move between different project teams based on their skills and interests, promoting a more dynamic and collaborative environment within the team.

Centralized Design Team

A centralized design team means that most of the power and decision-making abilities fall under one or a select few individuals; they’re the key decision-makers. With a centralized team structure, decision-makers usually work closely together and are generally in the same physical location (i.e., an office).

Some benefits of a centralized team include:

  • a focused vision across all projects

  • Well-defined roles on the team

  • Reduced internal conflict

However, it’s not a perfect system. Some disadvantages include:

  • Bureaucracy

  • Creative impediments constrain velocity

  • Creation of silos

Cross-Functional (Embedded) Design Team

A great example of how to embed your designers cross-functionally is Spotify’s Tribe model. Although the design team still holds their functional team meetings, they are embedded with other teams in the organization, including engineering and product teams.

Your design team organization chart will still look the same, where all designers report to your design VP. However, it’s their day-to-day working life that changes. Instead of only working with other designers to complete a project, they will work alongside product managers, engineers, UX writers, researchers, and marketing to get the job done. As long as scope alignment and personal morale are maintained, the embedded approach fosters trust and collaboration across departments and can boost business velocity. If the scope is not controlled, workflows become misaligned.

Flexible Design Teams

When working under a flexible structure, it’s important that you take note of the current design team skills that you have. If you have great UX designers but are lacking on the graphic designer front, a flexible structure will give you the flexibility to bring on external resources to fill in the gaps; consider this an agency model.

For example, some design projects are likely to be larger than average and require more time and resources to complete (especially when your team has other ongoing work to focus on). Those kinds of surges in production can be difficult to manage with a fixed team. Organizations with flexible design teams typically have dedicated project managers or creative directors to fill in design team gaps and maintain momentum. Design and creative agencies tend to employ these models to keep teams on track when major projects come in.

How to Optimize Your Design Team

What works for one team may not work for another. It’s important that you continue to test different strategies for your team in an effort to optimize your processes, communication, and overall work. To help get you started, here are a few strategies you can try implementing:

  1. Give your team the right design and collaboration tools.

  2. Build a design system.

  3. Start with a design brief.

  4. Hire the right people.

  5. Focus on your team's growth.

  6. Understanding design operations

1. Give them the best tools.

Does your design team have everything they need to do their jobs successfully? This can be done by bringing on tools like:

  • Figma is the de facto tool in user experience design that includes Figjam for collaborative brainstorming and DevMode, making the transition from wires to code seamless.

  • enables companies to conduct remote user experience testing, obtaining valuable insights by observing real users interacting with their digital products.

  • Notion is an all-in-one workspace and collaboration platform that combines note-taking and project management and allows teams to create and organize content in a flexible and collaborative manner.

2. Build a design system

A design system will save design and engineering teams hours from building components from scratch. This optimization provides a centralized and standardized set of design components, guidelines, and assets, ensuring consistency and efficiency in developing and implementing user interfaces.

3. Start with a design brief

A design brief is essential at the start of a project as it prompts product owners to carefully consider the problem, establishes a clear timeline for collaboration between product managers and designers, and ensures alignment of expectations regarding content and solutions, fostering a smoother and more effective project development process.

4. Hire the right people

The New Design Frontier report by Invision found that organizations that have invested in and mastered design have experienced outcomes like:

However, before you start hiring, decide how to structure your design team. Take the time to understand where the gaps are in your team and what is most important for you to fill.

When building and optimizing your design team, start by hiring experienced design leaders who can:

  • Create and share a vision.

  • Inspire the design team and the organization.

  • Advocate the importance of design to those in executive roles.

And yes, a designer leader can vary from a "design lead," who may just be a more senior designer. Seniority and experience only bring so much; skilled mentorship and advocacy make a great leader. When design teams are led by true leaders, there will be a greater impact on your organization’s bottom line.

And the list goes on. Depending on the company, design roles can range from as broad as a singular designer on a team to very specific design roles that focus on particular types of design tasks (like animation or branding).

5. Focus on their growth.

According to Soapbox’s 2019 State of One-on-ones report, 25% of managers don’t discuss growth and development in one-on-ones. Furthermore, Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce found that when you give employees consistent performance feedback, they become emotionally and psychologically attached to their work and workplace. When your team feels like they’re growing and that you are invested in their growth, it makes the difference between an engaged design team and one that’s not. Make your team’s growth and development a regular and ongoing conversation.

If you’re not sure where to start, try adding any of these one-on-one questions to your next meeting agenda:

  • Who would you like to learn more from in the company?

  • What professional goals would you like to accomplish in the next 6 to 12 months, and what makes you say that?

  • What else can I be doing to help progress your career?

6. Understand design operations

In a nutshell, DesignOps focuses on improving an organization's design function. Beginning in 2022, as the design team's growth stabilized, my focus shifted from hiring to operations. Establishing practices that would level up the team's quality and output was a clear and natural step. These are a few responsibilities of design operations:

  • Implementing the right (design) tech stack

  • Hiring the right team

  • Managing design teams

  • Establishing foundational processes

  • Building design systems

  • Setting up the right communication channels

  • Collaborating cross-functionally with other teams, like product and marketing

What a great design looks like

Starting from seeds to where the team has grown makes me proud. Each design discipline has matured to the point where they're truly partners and collaborators with the organization. The design leads have played a crucial role in this growth, ensuring that the right tools and technologies are in place to support the design team's work. They have also been instrumental in recruiting and managing talented designers, writers, researchers, and design systems team members. Their efforts have established efficient processes and systems that allow for seamless collaboration. Yet work continues to surpass expectations!


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