Like a lot of companies, we’ve set ambitious goals for Abstract in 2019. To prepare ourselves for the year ahead, we took a deep dive into how the best design organizations are investing in systems to scale their teams, giving them the leverage they need to hit their goals.
With new studies showing that companies prioritizing design are seeing 32% higher revenue than those who aren’t, it’s no surprise that the conversation around design trends (a word we all love to hate) is no longer about gradients.
The way designers work is changing. Whether it’s product or brand design, we’re seeing some dramatic shifts toward more intentional systems and processes, and a more open dialogue between design, product, engineering, and marketing. Working in design no longer means working in a silo.
Many of us are bullish about adopting this new, collaborative way of working, while some of these changes may make others uncomfortable, or even scared (and it’s not just designers). We still have a ways to go before we’re fully able to move from “my files” to “our files.” But we’re living in a golden age of design. And it’s about to get even better.
Automation is killing tedium and paving the way for innovation
Designers used to spend cycles on tedious and mechanical tasks, like creating redlines, exporting assets, and updating a hundred instances of an element every time a global style was changed. To avoid the need for constant updates, we’d often reduce the complexity of the elements we were designing.
The good news is that software now does a lot of these tasks for us. This automation is freeing up our time to focus on solving human problems and designing solutions with more breadth and depth, reaching a wider audience, across more mediums.
We now have the ability to create libraries of reusable components and styles, collaborate asynchronously, track changes between different people’s work and elegantly weave them together thanks to version control.
By freeing ourselves from the tedium of duplicating assets and laboring over file naming conventions, we can begin to think about how to reallocate this headspace toward solving for more pervasive and meaningful problems. To rise to the challenge, we have to think beyond our tools, and look at our skill sets.
Mary Meeker’s latest internet trends report emphasizes the importance of constantly upskilling in a world that’s increasingly more cross-functional. “Designing for the future starts with redesigning how you show up in the now. The most successful design leaders are investing in personal growth, helping them scale themselves and their teams. They’re challenging assumptions about how organizations work and creating the way for more healthy, inclusive teams to thrive,” says Mia Blume, founder of Design Dept. and former design leader at Pinterest and Square.
Her company is (smartly) focusing on helping designers translate their design skills into leadership skills, to increase their impact and drive more innovation at the highest levels in organizations.
The zeal around Blume’s workshops and coaching offerings highlight that in 2019, we’ll see designers investing time in learning business and relationship skills, including building cross-functional partnerships, driving organizational alignment, and leading business strategy.
Design systems are no longer novel, they’re essential
Over the last few years, the concept of a design system, or component-based shared resources between product and brand, has quickly gained momentum. Companies regularly publish their design system documentation, and entire conferences, like Clarity, have emerged dedicated to this topic. Design systems represent yet another way we’re automating work that was previously considered part of a designer’s purview.
2019 is the year that design systems will become a must-have for any company of consequence. By implementing design systems, forward-thinking companies will not only have an efficient codebase and consistency across platforms and products, but they’ll be able to get more from their design teams; to unlock their true potential to dig into tough problems, where they were previously spending cycles recreating existing UI.
Beyond just documenting the components we use, these systems encompass how a team’s work is produced—design principles, accessibility guidelines, and learning resources.
A decade ago, designers mastered a consistent set of tools. Fast forward to today, and designers have more options than ever before. But building a design system is as much about the people and communication as the tooling you choose to manage these systems. And when it comes to design systems, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
We often hear from our customers that no one knows how this “should” be done, and each company has to figure out what will fit their needs. It’s not enough just to replicate Google’s Material Design. As Spotify’s Josh Mateo and Jillian Nichols say, “Everyone’s business is set up differently and will need to lean into their values and structure to move in the right direction.”
Scaling your team means investing in Design Ops
By eliminating more of the “work around work,” we’re seeing a new focus on the emergence of DesignOps, or the practice of optimizing individuals and teams, and setting the conditions for excellence.
Josh Silverman, the first DesignOps hire in Twitter’s Product team, and now an independent consultant currently helping Salesforce with DesignOps, says, “Design Ops has become critical for medium and large product companies. But every kind of organization benefits from a horizontal role, specifically managing tools, workflows, processes, governance, critique and collaboration, end-to-end employee experience, cultural and inspirational activities, and much more. DesignOps is contextual work that improves aesthetic work, with the ultimate goal of making the business more efficient.”
Designers benefit from bringing infrastructure, repeatable processes, and scalable programs to a team, which enable them to thrive and do their best work. This area of expertise is more nascent, but one we’ll undoubtedly be seeing more of.
The decision to start investing in DesignOps depends on the distribution of your team. Once your design team is larger than 20, it’s time to consider a full-time hire.
Developer “handoff”will be obsolete
As designers start to enter into this new way of working, there will be more crossover between roles as we understand them today. The lines between designer, developer, and PM are already blurred. Our tools are supporting a broader gamut of disciplines, and this allows people with different expertise to work together in a shared context, with a shared language, rather than tinkering in silos and throwing rough concepts over walls.
Design has historically tackled the human problems while engineers took on the technology solutions. But the process of translating the designs into code was typically messy, and fraught with endless feedback cycles (not to mention, edge cases that weren’t often accounted for).
We’re entering a new era of collaboration in which design is being brought into the fold earlier in the process, and platforms are enabling a more seamless integration between design and development (as opposed to that old timey “handoff”).
Already, many tools have begun to support the ability to inspect specifications for design files. With Inspect, the file effectively is the spec. Developers can quickly grab the CSS and move designs into production much faster than before.
We’re starting to bypass the need to independently communicate designs to developers. Communication and collaboration now means just looking at the design, and knowing that as the work evolves, updates will appear automatically. We’re leaving the “where’s the latest file?” world behind. And it feels so good.
The shift from “my work” to “our work”
No doubt, the role of a designer is different now than it used to be. And it will continue to change. Across the board, our tools and jobs are shifting. We’re starting to spend just as much time as engineers optimizing and improving our workflows. We’re taking on more challenging problems, much earlier in the product development process.
Until very recently, design happened locally and individually. We’re becoming much more collaborative with other business stakeholders. And as we tackle more complex problems, we’re boldly attempting to reconcile our different ideas and approaches to design.
I for one am feeling energized by what this new era of design will enable us to do.
Thanks to Josh Silverman, Mia Blume, Ben Blumenfeld, Kasey Fleisher Hickey, Payam Rajabi, Tim Van Damme, Jordan Staniscia, and Daina Lightfoot.