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Design teams are more complex than ever

What does that mean for design work?
Design teams are more complex than ever

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: The days of design for aesthetic’s sake are over. Today, businesses are tying design directly to business results, which has led to a shift from “cool” design outputs to outcomes based on strategy and the customer experience. 

In other words, the entire meaning of “design” has changed quite a bit over the last few years, which has caused something of a ripple effect across the industry. It’s not just the idea of what constitutes “good design": that has changed — it’s how the design function gets carried out at an organizational level.

As design has changed, so have design teams

Perhaps one of the most impactful changes of shifting design from outputs to outcomes has been how design teams are set up and structured. As the function—and ultimate goal—of design has changed, design teams have had to evolve to keep up.

“Where before there were more generalists, you see now that more people are following their passions and specializations,” says Andy Vitale, VP of Product Design and Content at Quicken Loans. “Early in my career, people would ask, ‘What kind of designer are you? What do you design?’ As the industry matured, designers went from being generalists to specialists. That specialization drove what we now consider UX Design. Then, as our focus shifted from web pages and screens to digital projects, Silicon Valley began to call these more T-shaped designers with multiple specialities, Product Designers — and it caught on.” 

Ultimately, there are now more — and more specialized — roles than ever before. This means the average design team’s size has increased and will only continue to grow more in the future. Of the 1,000 designers we surveyed in the State of Design 2021, 86% of them were part of a larger design team, and 78% of them were planning on adding up to 5 new designers to their team within the next year. 

But while the overall makeup of design teams has evolved, there is too often a lack of understanding outside of the team when it comes to picking up on the nuances of these changes. 

“At my previous company, we eventually had six core competencies within our design team: information architecture, content strategy, interaction design, visual design, front-end development, and design research, says Vitale. “But we found that the rest of the organization didn’t really understand that there were different disciplines.” 

As you can imagine, it was frustrating to put the time and effort into developing design into something that suited the organization better, only to have those changes met with confusion and, at times, indifference. 

“I found that the easiest way to communicate the value that we bring as designers is to involve people in our process,” says Vitale. 

There’s more collaboration now than ever

Involving more people in the design process means increasing stakeholder involvement. This, coupled with the overall growth of the size of design teams, has led to an increase in collaboration — both among designers and between designers and stakeholders. Our survey found that 53% of respondents collaborate with other designers daily, and 47% collaborate with stakeholders weekly. 

Given this trend, being a good design leader now means facilitating more streamlined collaboration. In fact, half of our survey respondents said that integrating their design’s workflow with stakeholders was “critical” to their team’s success. 

In general, this is a good thing. More collaboration means more communication, which means there are more opportunities for alignment when it comes to meeting company goals and doing effective work. 

But the downside of increased collaboration is that it can lead to a “too-many-cooks” situation. This can be especially prevalent in startups. 

“They’re competitive places,” Melissa Cullens, former CXO of Ellevest and founder and CEO of Charette. “Oftentimes you have a culture led by somebody who may not know how to lead with productive dialogue or understand that their job is CXO and not ‘chief designer’”. 

Overall, the more stakeholders are brought into the design process, the more they want to weigh in on it. After all, it influences the work they’re responsible for, too. Our survey respondents confirm this as 56% said a lack of inter-departmental integration was among their organizations’ most significant challenges.

We can’t make design less complex, but we can be better-equipped to handle more complexity

So how do we solve the problem of increased complexity due to larger design teams working with an increasing number of stakeholders? It’s true that many of the contributing factors can’t be changed—design as an organizational function is more closely tied to business results than ever, which means that more people will continue to weigh in on it. 

As design teams—and the work they do—inevitably get more complex, it’s best to put guidelines and structure in place to help curb chaos. 

One surefire way to introduce order is to streamline the way feedback is captured and metabolized. The more stakeholders are involved in the design process, the more likely it is that feedback will come back to the design team in a scattered—and often confusing—way. 

Having to field feedback requests from Slack, email, JIRA, and meetings can cause too much “work around the work”. Ultimately, this prevents designers from getting into a flow state, and can prevent the team from producing good work if they’re trying to appease too many conflicting opinions. Scheduling regular design reviews where key stakeholders can have the opportunity to talk through design work and offer their feedback in an effective way is a great first step. 

One function that’s also become more prevalent as design has grown more complex is DesignOps. This involves appointing a dedicated person or team that both enables great design work and minimizes friction at any point it may occur— be that the discovery, collaboration, revision, or handoff stage. 

Ultimately, design work should aim to achieve better business outcomes

No matter your intentions, a certain degree of chaos and complexity comes part and parcel with design work. Regardless of where your organization is in its journey to streamlining design processes and communication with stakeholders, it helps to have business outcomes as your north star. 

Sarah McIlwain, our Director of Product Design, says design work boils down to one simple question: “If we do this right,” she says, “what gets better in someone's life?” In other words, having your customer’s best interests at heart can help cut through the clutter and lead you to better decision-making.

Want to read more about the challenges today’s designers are facing—and how to solve them? Read the State of Design 2021 report.

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