GV Library Design

Design without a design team

Photo by Jase Curtis

In an ideal world, every company has a dedicated design team. There’s at least one expert in each of the many design disciplines that Braden previously outlined and the team works together to create a consistently excellent product.

Whoops, sorry! Daydreaming again.

The reality for most startups is quite different. Fewer people take on multiple roles to make the company work. The business-development person organizes marketing events; the engineer draws the illustration for the funny 404 page; the office manager runs the mailing list. This is why startups are full of T-shaped people with an area of deep expertise, but also a broad range of other skills to fill in the gaps.

So what’s a startup to do? Must they wait until they’re big enough to hire a full design team before they can practice good design? Or will good design naturally arise from a sufficiently talented hodgepodge of T-shaped folks? Neither, I say! Good design doesn’t happen automatically, but with the right people taking on a full set of design roles, a startup can build the skeleton of a solid design process today and flesh it out with the meat of a dedicated team later on.

Assign design roles to people with compatible skills

A startup doesn’t need to hire a dedicated expert in each design discipline right away. As long as important design roles are covered by people who have the skills to get the job done, you’ve created an environment where good design can happen.

Here are some design hats I consider important for a successful design process. Try one on for size:

Design decision-maker

The team member wearing this hat is ultimately responsible for product design decisions. While everyone on the design team contributes to the process, it helps when the buck stops with a single person. Otherwise, the dreaded design-by-committee monster can rear its ugly head and wreak havoc.

This person should understand the big picture of where the product is going and how the pieces fit together, and they should be able to communicate that to the rest of the team. Someone with other big-picture responsibilities, like a CEO or product manager, is often a good fit for this role. It can be a difficult role for someone with detail-oriented responsibilities (like an engineer).

Visual design leader

The team member wearing this hat defines the overall visual language for the product. They’re responsible for creating a consistent visual system that they and others can apply to the product. They also solve difficult visual design problems that arise during the implementation of new features.

This person should have bad-ass visual design chops and be able to think creatively about solving problems visually. As with the design decision-maker, a team member with other big-picture responsibilities can be a good fit, while someone who’s down in the weeds may find this role challenging.

Owner of the product’s voice

The team member wearing this hat designs how the product will communicate with users, and ensures that it happens consistently. A well-designed product has a personality and particular way of speaking, just like a person. This team member might be responsible for writing copy and/or creating tools (like style guides) that allow the rest of the team to use the product’s voice.

Wearing this hat requires both writing and content strategy skills. Experience managing or editing other writers is useful too, especially when the entire team will be writing copy. This hat can fit well with other roles that involve outward communication, like support or marketing.

Detail-oriented design implementer

The team member wearing this hat synthesizes high-level design decisions and uses tools provided by the rest of the team to flesh out the low-level design details of the product. Wearing this hat requires many skills, but solid interaction design skills and sweating the details are at the core. Good communication skills help when working closely with the other design roles. Patience and humility make the copious iteration and frequent failures of the process easier.

This person might create detailed specs and wireframes for engineers to build, but it’s even more effective if they can help to build the product directly. For that reason, front-end developers are often best suited to this role, but they must be able to separate implementation details from design decisions. Depending on the size of your product, you’ll probably need more than one person that can wear this hat.

Qualitative data advocate

The team member wearing this hat is responsible for staying in touch with the product’s users and advocating for them in the design process. They collect and synthesize both the problems and successes that users encounter. Good design is informed by qualitative information from users, but not controlled by it. This person needs to filter the noise and direct the signal back to the rest of the team.

This role benefits from qualitative user research skills when gathering information and good communication skills when reporting actionable results. Good data can come from organized user studies or surveys, but it can also come from support tickets. For that reason, someone whose primary responsibility is customer support can be a good fit.

Quantitative data advocate

The team member wearing this hat answers questions about the product using statistical analysis. They’re an advocate for hard numbers and aggregate data in the design process. They work with the rest of the team to design questions to ask and collect data that can be used to answer those questions. As before, good design is informed by quantitative data, but not controlled by it, so creating insight from raw data is the goal.

Obviously, this role requires statistics and qualitative data analysis skills. Good data visualization skills are also necessary to effectively communicate actionable information back to the team. A back-end or database engineer who’s in touch with the product vision and loves statistics and data visualization can wear this hat well.

Distribute design roles thoughtfully and deliberately

Do any of these hats fit someone on your team? If you haven’t thought about design roles in your startup before, you can start now. Find people on your team that can take on each of these roles, and talk openly about who’s doing what. When the roles are clear it streamlines the entire process.

What about the hats that nobody on your team is well-suited to wear? To fill the gaps, you need to orient your hiring plan around what’s missing. Maybe the next engineer or community manager you hire will also have the skills to put on that unworn design hat. Think about how each person you hire can contribute to your design process.

These ideas are based largely on my experience working with a small team of T-shaped people at Typekit. Even though we’re not all designers, we all care deeply about design and our product. Being thoughtful and deliberate about design roles has helped us to be successful.

A startup doesn’t always have the resources to hire a dedicated group of design professionals. But with the right people, a small team can cover a complete set of design roles. We can achieve good design today while also building the framework for a dedicated design team as the company grows.

Do you think about design roles in your startup? Which ones am I missing that you’ve found to be valuable? Let us know in the comments!