Design Team of One

· January 30th

I’ve had a long history of working on small teams with mostly developers, the occasional marketer or illustrator, and exactly one designer: me. For the last year and a half, I’ve been the only designer at a startup. Super fun, right? Well, yeah, actually. But it’s not without it’s challenges, too. When I accepted the job, I had a lot of excitement about the opportunity to build out the design from the ground up. At the same time, I was anxious about being responsible for so much on my own. There were challenges I knew were coming, as well as a few that took me by surprise.

I’m going to share with you the biggest lesson I learned about how to be an effective design team of one, either at a startup or on a team in a larger organization: Play Nice with Others! I found being successful all comes down to this. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it turns out working by yourself is really about working well with others.

Let me explain…

Play Nice and Collaborate

A lot of designers, myself included, can feel protective of their work. We’ve been taught design should be pixel perfect, and that’s the way we want our work to be before we show it to other people.

It’s so easy to keep your head down, do your own thing and never talk to anyone. In the beginning, I never wanted to bother the engineers. They’re busy. They’re engineers, you know?

But…

Once I started to feel comfortable getting involved with projects and letting more people get involved in my projects, the quality and efficiency of all our work skyrocketed. Working on projects together allows you to work simultaneously, which means faster production time. It also enables you to give and receive feedback much faster and more often, reducing the likelihood you’ll have to completely overhaul something you’ve been working on for months.

Also, it’s fun! Working with people who know things you don’t know is awesome. A cross-functional team is always greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Play Nice and Trust Each Other

Remember that whole “being protective of our design” thing we talked about earlier? Well, let’s say you’ve already let down your walls, allowed some collaboration to happen, and now you have a really awesome thing going on. Presumably, the developers have already been building the scaffolding, and now you’re ready to pass on the final designs.

But…

You probably haven’t thought of everything. In fact, you definitely haven’t. Every state. Every possible error. In this situation, you can either require that you design every state that might appear, training your developers to run to you whenever this comes up, or you can trust them to make some decisions on their own.

You might be surprised about what they come up with. Of course their solutions won’t always work. This is an opportunity to teach them why. Over time, they’ll get better at design thinking, making your life much easier.

And because fair is fair, take every opportunity to learn from them as well. This will make you better at thinking about technical possibilities and limitations, which will make all of your lives better!

Play Nice and Let go

Okay, seriously, remember that thing about being protective yada yada yada? Really, we need to totally let that go. Burn it down.

So you’ve designed an amazing, original, intuitive interaction.

But…

It’s going to take an extra 3 weeks to implement it. Is it worth it? The answer is maybe. At this point it’s important to evaluate your priorities. How important is this? Is it make or break? Is there a simpler — and regrettably less fantastic — way to achieve the same effect?

As the only designer, you’re likely the only one going to bat for it. If you waste your influence on this one decision, that might mean you have to concede the next one. Plus, being kind and understanding of other people’s time will do a lot to build trust and allies for the things you do decide to fight for. Remember, your time is valuable, and everyone benefits when you spend it wisely.

Play Nice and Don’t Let Go

Alright, alright. You’re the designer. The idealist. The dreamer. Oh, you want the fancy interaction? You want this dynamically generated and perfectly aligned? Keep dreaming.

But…

Developers, bless their hearts, can be sneaky little liars. They’ll tell you something is too hard or worse, impossible! Sometimes if you push on them….just a little… they’ll suddenly discover new possibilities. You don’t want to push too hard. This is how designers get the stereotype of being stubborn and unrealistic. If it’s not important, don’t worry about it, but if you think it’s worth the extra effort, make your case for it. If it truly can’t be done, you’ll open the discussion, potentially leading to new, maybe better, ideas. The worst that could happen is someone feels like they owe you one.

Find Your People

One of the most surprising challenges I found as a lone wolf has actually been missing the company of other designers. Don’t get me wrong, my developer co-workers give valuable feedback and I love them dearly.

But…

Nothing compares to having peers around who actually understand what you do, can give educated feedback about color and hierarchy, and who laugh at your stupid typeface jokes. If you don’t get “expert” design advice inside your office, make a point of going out of your way to meet other designers, either online or at design specific meetups.

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So that’s it. If you’re currently a design team of one or thinking about it in your future, I hope this was helpful.