Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Op-Ed: An Entrepreneur's Take on Building a Great Design Team

For most of my career I have been working around, and many times managing, designers. During that period I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes designers unique and how to best work with them. When we started Percolate two years ago I got to put those theories to the test and, as we’ve grown the design team, I’ve refined my thinking.

Over the last few months I was having the hundredth conversation about how we think about design at Percolate and I thought it was probably worth articulating some of this publicly.

First, though, a warning: I’m not a designer. I can’t do any of this stuff, which is why I spend so much time thinking about how to get the most out of people with a set of skills that are the top of my “wish I could do” list. With that said, below is a look into how I’ve come to think about working with and hiring designers, broken into four levels:

Level 1: Painter

A level one designer is someone who can apply and evolve a brand’s design system, tone, and language. They are a talented graphic designer and have a good eye, but they require someone else to do the architecture and other user experience design so they can come in at the end and put a fresh coat of paint on.

My issue with this person lies in my problem with wireframes: They’re too high-fidelity. As a result, whether they mean to or not, the UX designer becomes the graphic designer in that they make all the decisions around layout and hierarchy, basically leaving the painter to, well, put a final coat of paint on. This might be fine, but if you trust the UX designer to make all the layout decisions why don’t you trust them to make the final graphic design touches?

Level 2: Flows

The second level designer is where we expect most new designers at Percolate to start. They are a talented level 1 graphic designer who is starting to think in layouts and, more importantly, flows.

Designing for flows is about understanding how the fifth step in the process is going to inform steps one through four. It’s about taking a brief or specs and being able to interpret it as a living entity that needs to guide people through a process to reach a goal.

The distinction between a flow and a layout is incredibly important. For most talented graphic designers, layouts come fairly naturally. They’re taught about hierarchies and how to move the eye. Flows, however, start to get into the nitty gritty of what it means to be a product designer. Instead of thinking in static images, a flows designer is thinking through the series of events that a user will be completing as part of the product experience.

It’s about taking a brief or specs and being able to interpret it as a living entity

Level 3: States

If level two comes naturally to most designers who have grown up in a digital world, level three most definitely does not. States are about understanding all the different possible outcomes of a given task within a product and being able to design for all of them. Things like errors are obvious, albeit often forgotten, while actions like escapes and backs are much less frequently planned for.

To draw a parallel, a great engineer thinks in states. Before they write a line of code they have come to understand all the different outcomes and use that understanding to design a fault-resistant system. One of my favorite lines from one of our engineers recently was, “when I start typing the work’s done.”

Front-end engineers are some of the best state designers on the team because the only way for them to get through their day is making sure they have been given all the designs for all the states of any given feature. Everyone has witnessed this breakdown, when the front-end engineer goes back to the designer to complain that they’ve forgotten to design a button or error message for the most edge of edge cases.

This is something I’ve seen take a lot of time. The beauty, of course, is that when you’re designing products you tend to be surrounded by folks like engineers who are very good at states and, when involved early, are happy to help think through all these outcomes and lay out any additional states the designer has yet to consider. Long term, though, a great designer needs to be as solid a “state thinker” as the engineers they’re surrounded by.

One of my favorite lines from one of our engineers recently was, “when I start typing the work’s done.”

Level 4: Opportunities

A level three designer is incredibly valuable inside an organization. A level four designer takes all that skill —basically the ability to take a product idea and turn it into a full-featured product — and layers on top of it the ability to understand market opportunities. These level four folks are incredibly rare and it’s our goal at Percolate to help every one of our designers reach this level.

A designer at this stage can pay attention to the world, analyze the market, speak to consumers, watch customers and take all that information to identify an entirely new market opportunity. Because they also have all the skills in levels one through three, they can then take that idea and turn it into a product from scratch. The skills in level four are what you look for in an entrepreneur (or product manager). When they’re added to the aesthetic and user experience sense of a level three designer, you have an individual who can execute entirely on their own— an amazing feat.

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Part of the impetus for this thinking was a question of growth for designers within the organization. In many places, as a designer moves up they take on more management responsibility. However, like engineering, I don’t think this needs to be the case. The question became how to give designers a clear path that doesn’t include management which, for many great designers, is not something they’re interested in. The four phases have helped clarify that path for me and our designers while at the same time defining the role of design within our product team.

If you’re a level two designer or above and this all sounds interesting, you should come join Percolate as the fifth member of our design team.

What’s Your Take?

Are you a creative leader building a design team? What has your experience been?

Designers, how does this measure up to how you think about evolving your skill set?

More insights on: Hiring, Leadership

Noah Brier

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Noah Brier is the CEO of Percolate, a technology platform that helps brands create content at social scale. Previously, Noah ran the strategy department at The Barbarian Group. In 2009, Noah was named to Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People in business.
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