The Beginner’s Guide to Building Design Teams

Published March 13, 2014 by Jane Portman

If you have tons of venture funding and don’t particularly care about outrageous design costs, stop reading now. Just go hire one stellar designer and he’ll do all the work for you.

But if you’re here for long-term results, you probably care about building an efficient team that’s worth the investment. Listen on.

I recently talked to my friend Iain about hiring designers.

What did he say?

The last person I worked with was a total disaster. She did okay work, but boy was it an uphill battle dealing with her and everything became SO EXPENSIVE (even though her hourly rate seemed quite competitive).

And these are the words of a seasoned business owner who’s “been there and done that” with so many designers! With all his experience, finding the right people is still a challenge.

We all are fighting an eternal battle between quality, speed and cost. You, the business owner, have to be as wise as Solomon to judge between these parameters.

Build a system

Here’s a thing. There is no linear solution. You’ve got to build a system to make it work. This way unique (think expensive) qualities of top members get distributed to the rest of the team.

Seth Godin argues against any exploitation systems that streamline and unify the working process. Seth says that modern economy is based on unique human personality and any system works against that.

I agree that top-level business is all about human relationships and personality. But there is a limit to what a single person can do. For scalable results we need to exploit the “mass-market” workforce which isn’t always unique and talented.

Here I’ll talk about organizing designers, but you can easily apply most of the principles to all kinds of teams: developers, copywriters, etc.

The micro-team

Simple and efficient, a micro-team is a combination of one good senior designer who’s doing the main part of the job, and one supporting junior (technical) designer who handles everyday needs.

One designer, no matter how stellar, is rarely enough. There is always a number of mundane design jobs that you should delegate to someone else: think exporting assets, preparing content, etc.

Not only is it expensive to export buttons for $100/hr, but top-level professionals won’t enjoy this either. The last thing you need is accumulating aggravation and unhappiness.

Moreover, senior designers usually come with the “perk” of limited availability. To keep your business stable, you should have another (less stellar) person available 24/7 for urgent needs.

The scalable team

If you decide to scale, you probably won’t be able to find a whole lot of great senior designers. Or if you do (lucky you!), they might easily slip into a conflict, unable to decide who’s giving orders to whom.

Here’s the trick. You can get away with a few mid-level designers. It’s not a problem if they cannot solve challenging tasks. The main criteria is their responsibility and willingness to learn, rather than a decade of experience and dramatic talent.

How can you work around that?

You’ll need someone to guide them and to perform the most critical tasks. This person is a lead designer, or a creative director. It should be a person with years of problem-solving experience, who knows the design process inside out.

A creative director can tackle the most important tasks himself and smartly distribute the rest of them among the team. For each problem, the key becomes finding a versatile design solution, and then providing good instructions of how to employ it.

Frameworks and templates

Avoid creative challenges in your workflow. You should try and replace them with more transparent everyday tasks that require less “talent.”

For this, I highly recommend building in-house frameworks and templates. They should fit typical client needs and be easy to customize. This way junior designers can build new projects quickly, on a semi-automated basis, without picking the brain of top-level executives.

More importantly, frameworks help to maintain the same level of quality, but with less money and time.

It does take a lot of experience and qualification to build a versatile framework, but such an investment is totally worth the effort.

Nourish master-apprentice relationships

Hierarchic structure also helps all team members to learn from each other. Top-level designers exercise their ability to approach problems holistically and systematically. While junior members polish their key expertise and learn from the seniors.

In the long-term, you will end up with a team of experienced designers (who once were your juniors) with a great level of loyalty. Such a business asset is pure gold.

Employ specific talents

A great benefit of having a larger team is having full-time access to a wide range of narrow skills. Professional assets are key for top-notch projects. It’s awesome to have some of them developed in-house, without outsourcing these tasks.

Here are some good examples of in-house professionals with narrow scope: icon designers, typeface designers, illustrators, motion designers, 3D artists (especially for package visualization), photographers.

You don’t necessarily have to hire separate people with these qualifications. It just would be awesome if some of your team members possessed any of these skills.

As I shifted from agency creative director to solo consultant, the biggest part I missed was immediate access to all kinds of in-house talent. No matter who says what, outsourcing even small tasks is a big managerial burden.

“Medium” doesn’t mean “mediocre”

No matter what, you should try and surround yourself with the best people you can find. Never settle for anyone whose personality is not a good fit.

There are always great people available at any stage of professional development (junior, mid-level, senior).

Nevertheless, scarcity is easy to explain — the number of available folks declines as their level goes up. The majority of accomplished professionals are happy with what they have and don’t go looking for another job.

Here are the key qualities you should be looking for: responsibility, responsiveness (availability, speed), general intelligence and honesty.

See, actual professional skills are not on this shortlist. They are important, but entirely useless if you cannot efficiently extract and employ them.

Work around processes, not talents

You should try and build a workflow that is independent and scalable.

Don’t rely on the qualities or skills of individual people: it should work well today, and it should work five years from now.

It’s awesome if your top designer has outstanding management skills, runs a few client accounts and outsources development work, for example. But imagine what will happen to the entire system when such a linchpin decides to move on?

And such a possibility is really high. A unique and wide skillset most likely comes with an independent, entrepreneurial spirit that will break loose sooner or later.

The afterword

My husband runs his own construction business (far from my field), but for both of us the same advice has worked wonders. Here it goes.

Once you find someone with a great personality, try to never let go. It’s easier to find a position for the right person, than to find someone trustworthy in an ocean of strangers.

To put a long story short — no matter what your system is, surround yourself with awesome people. And do awesome work together.

Did you find this advice helpful?

In this article I answered just a few questions that people often ask me as a creative director. But you can have ongoing access to my best expertise! Check out Correlation — monthly creative direction for software companies. Or join Coefficiency — the free course on managing designers.

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