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.


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

more posts →
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.
load comments (19)
  • Matthew

    Thank you for this excellent breakdown of design thinking! It resonates with me deeply. Cheers!

  • Matthew Tso

    As a design student, this presents something to really aspire to and work towards. Great article :)

    • Noah Brier

      Thanks Matthew

  • Andi Parker

    I love the breakdown of these types of designers. I would say, though, that in my experience the ‘Painter’ is becoming more and more extinct. Interaction design (or ‘Flows’) to me, is really the foundation for any good designer these days. Great article.

    • Noah Brier

      Totally agree, though we still see a lot of resumes for people in this camp.

  • Julie Ng

    I think this article is pretty accurate.

    But I don’t like what “levels” implies, that someone who is at level 4 can do everything else on levels 1, 2 and 3. My experience tells me that often the 3s and 4s are terrible at 1 – which is fine. Jacks of all trades are usually specialists of nothing.

    I think it’s also important to keep in mind that number 1s are really important when a company reaches the level of Apple and Google – the polish makes a difference. As Mies van der Rohe said: “God is in the details”.

    To any students out there – look up “The Elements of User Experience” by Jesse James Garrett. I think it gives a better paradigm for examining different types of designers.

    Lastly, this is a snarky comment, but I find the graphic slightly demeaning that number 1 is the only female, and an Asian looking one at that!

    P.S. No I’m not a painter. I’m more of a developer.

    • Noah Brier

      Julie, thanks for the comment. On the graphic, I had nothing to do with that and didn’t see it until the article went live. I agree with you.

      Re: Someone who can do everything – I don’t quite agree with you on this. Broadly you’re right, jack of all trades is frequently a masters of none. However, I wouldn’t call these multiple trades. I consider this all part of the package. In my life I have met one level four designer who combines the ability to fully imagine a product opportunity with the ability to fully execute the design, states and flows of that product.

      The point I was trying to make is that in my experience this provides a pretty good framework for thinking about how designers grow within organizations (Percolate being the most specific example). We expect all our designers to come in with deep graphic design ability. That’s a pre-requisite and we just wouldn’t hire someone who didn’t have that polish. I expect folks here to start with some experience in designing layouts and flows and, as they mature, to eventually master those as well as states. A designer who can handle graphic design, layouts/flows, and states is an incredibly rare talent. The last step is just icing on the cake and speaks, more than anything else, as an answer to the question of what’s the endgame for a designer: Having those four skills sets you up to be anything you want in the company, from the CEO to a CCO/CDO to a product manager or just about anything else.

      Lastly, I totally agree the polish is hugely important. I’m not sure if it came across that way, but I in no way meant to take that away. As I said, I just take it for granted since I would never even dream of hiring someone who couldn’t deliver that. My point, more than anything else, is that’s not enough.

      Hope that helps.

    • VeryThorough

      I’m bugged by the graphic, too! I actually left my RSS specifically to comment on it. I though maybe I was being oversensitive, but at least I’m not alone.

  • Ryan Catbird

    Thanks for sharing this, Noah– always interesting to hear people’s personal approaches to design! I was actually struggling with how to articulate what I wanted to say in response when I realized I should just do what we designers always do to communicate– draw a picture :-)

    This is how *I* would interpret what you’re describing to make it also jibe with how my colleagues and I might think of it…

    • Noah Brier

      Ha! I love that. I’d just add that flows and states should intersect. They’re not just different sides of the same coin.

  • Peter Osgood

    Noah has the good fortune to have been born with the ability to be both one of his left and right brain simultaneously. Oh, if I were only young enough to play on his team.

    • Noah Brier

      Thanks Peter :)

  • Sean Pyne-Moran

    I think these people are web designers and developers and not designers – the only reason I say this is because I felt the title was a bit misleading. I was expecting an article on a design team for entrepreneurs; Art Director, Marketing Director, Web Designer, etc. I agree with your view on the web design team however I just don’t think it should be blanketed under Design. My experience as an Art Director does not just fall under Web Design – though it is a major part of it, and calling someone who brands a look and feel of a company as a Painter is insulting so I will assume you just meant within the realm of web design.

    I really appreciate the article though. It’s good to know how one can grow as a web developer and plan ahead for the responsibilities it entails. I think that your level system does show the growth and responsibility difference between a budding web designer and a project manager is spot on.

    • Noah Brier

      Sean, that’s fair. I’m specifically talking about digital product design, not marketing design. I agree that communications design is a different discipline.

  • Dave Benach

    Interesting levels, but I’m left with the uneasy notion that leaving the strategic contributions a truly badass designer can make to level 4 reduces junior and mid-weight designers to tactical executors.

    Regardless of whether you’re working on a digital product (which includes, but is not limited to web), physical design, or some fun & funky permutation of the two, a designer who understands the -reasons- why they’re making specific design decisions (through research, observation, analysis & synthesis), will ultimately arrive at more effective solutions for your product’s users. If that skill is coupled with stellar craftsmanship as described in tiers 1-3, then you’ve got a designer on your hands who’s truly dangerous, someone who understands function AND form in equal measure.

    Furthermore, many young designers are now being educated much more concretely in the strategic aspects involved in design challenges, and are coming out of school with a desire/anticipation that they’ll be activated in the ‘thinking’ realm as well as the ‘doing’. Of course the needle shifts on the distribution between the two as a designer matures in their career, but strategically activating fresh design talent early in their career could very well lead to exciting new avenues fro both your product and your talent roadmap.

    Of course, all of this falls under the typical IHMO and YMMV qualifiers :)

  • Paola

    This is a very articulate description of the development and evolution of a designer in his career. Not many companies talk about how to become a well rounded design professional and set a clear process for yourself that can help you understand what tools, lessons and insights to search for down the path. For that, thank you Noah!

    My only question would be: as an industrial designer myself with a 6 month experience in digital product design, I have a stronger L2 than a L1 at the moment. My design training was focused more on usability and behavior, therefore, thinking in flows and the user experience comes naturally. Nevertheless, my “painting” skills wouldn’t necessarily be better than a recent graphic design graduate. How do you account for this with your hiring process and the development of your designers? Or is it that mostly only graphic designers apply for this kind of job?

    • Noah Brier

      Paola, sorry about the delay. So far (the company is only two-and-a-half years old) we hire designers with 0 – 4 years experience so that we can train them up. Personally I think there is a base level of graphic design skills I would expect. Polish can come with time and training, but there’s a base level we definitely require. I’m unfortunately not the best person to give instruction on how to build that skill if you don’t have it, but I have to imagine it’s something that can be learned.

  • Paola

    Any reply to my previous comment?

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