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What is DesignOps?

Setting a design team up for success
What is DesignOps?

In the film Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s titular character is a sports agent. His job is to take care of all the behind-the-scenes work to help make his clients’ careers run smoothly. 

“I’m the guy you don’t usually see,” he says in the voiceover monologue that opens the film. “I’m the guy behind the scenes.” 

To illustrate his point, he shows viewers a newspaper photograph of one of his clients signing a new contract. As we zoom in on the photo, we see Maguire, barely visible and slightly cropped, at the very edge. Sure, he had done all the planning, negotiating, and cajoling to make sure the deal got done. But once the contract was signed, the bright lights were on the client, and Maguire was in the background. He proudly exclaims that he exists to make sure the end product — for which someone else will likely receive credit — gets done. He’s the nearly-invisible operations part of it all.

DesignOps does for organizations what Jerry Maguire did for his clients. In a 2017 twitter thread, design leader Dave Malouf said it’s at its best “when it feels invisible and just works.” 

So how do we define it?

DesignOps is a dedicated person or team in an organization that focuses solely on enabling the design team to work as well as it possibly can. This is made possible by closely analyzing the tools, processes, and working relationships the team has at its disposal and making sure these things are set up in a way that a) enables great design work and b) minimizes friction at any place it may occur — be that the discovery, collaboration, revision, or handoff stage.

Here are the benefits you can look forward to when you set up this function:

  • It gives Design a seat at the table: DesignOps encourages teams to think about how Design affects — and is affected by — each area of the organization. 
  • It allows you to “automate the important to focus on the critical”: In his article, “How to Get Your DesignOps Team Up and Running”, Abstract Design Advocate Scott Welliver writes, “Invest in toolsets and mindsets that help your automation happen at scale ... By using drawing tools, version control, and a common platform for design and development, you will start seeing efficiencies for the important stuff.”
  • It allows you to rebuild processes that scale: Young design teams need to be scrappy and flexible. When that team grows, however, so does the need for processes that are scalable and repeatable. 
  • It builds trust by encouraging open design: For other teams in an organization, what actually goes into the design process can be a bit of a mystery. DesignOps builds trust between Design and every team they interact with by focusing on improving the way these teams work together.
  • It allows you to communicate the value of good design: Adding more reliable inputs to your design systems (processes, guidelines, and tools) gives you outputs you can attach success stories to. It allows you to start building a case for what happens when it’s done well.

We’ve interviewed industry pioneers about how they’ve built and grown the DesignOps practices at their organizations in our book, Why your organization needs DesignOps.

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