Bringing Design in House


TLDR: Design encompasses a collection of diverse skills, and requires preparation and commitment from leadership to bring it in house. Design is 70% strategy and 30% production. Treating it as such ensures efficiency gains, and makes room for more scalable, high-quality, customer-centric products.

tartups looking to build their own in-house design team often do so to obtain control over the creative process and have assurance of timely, ongoing delivery. What startups often don't realize is that bringing design in house will actually slow efficiency—at least, temporarily—until they settle in to their new way of working. Design is another chain in the production process, and as such, requires some shifting to make room for it to function properly.

Startups looking to build their own in-house design team often do so to obtain control over the creative process and have assurance of timely, ongoing delivery. What startups often don't realize is that bringing design in house will actually slow efficiency—at least, temporarily—until they settle in to their new way of working. Design is another chain in the production process, and as such, requires some shifting to make room for it to function properly.

Inefficiencies that occur after bringing design in-house isn't due to the design process itself, but is more likely due to misunderstanding or not accounting for what designers need to kick off their work. Unless an experienced design leader is at the helm of this transition, this role is commonly left to non-designers who may be unaware that there is an established design process that accounts for defining objectives, approaching design solutions iteratively, and building in reviews with stakeholders at key milestones throughout the project. Professional designers have been trained in this process, and it is easily adapted into many team structures to increase efficiency because of the built-in checks and balances.

To enable designers to deliver high quality projects efficiently requires providing designers with what they need to make decisions that will support both the user and the business. There must also be a willingness to integrate design into existing workflows, rather than wedging them into workflows that only serve the needs of engineers or marketers. Without experience or exposure to how design works, it's rare that an organization can successfully attract or retain design talent because they will inadvertently place designers in a position that prevents them from delivering meaningful value. For example, instead of being able to meet with customers to explore pain points and present insightful solutions for feedback, they are often told where and when to make changes to a pre-existing UI. This effectively relegates designers to a role of scooting pixels around a screen, rather than capitalizing on their practical problem-solving skills, strategic systems thinking, and natural empathy for customer needs. Designers need an advocate in leadership to ensure they receive enough context and latitude to allow them to deliver value. Designers generate more powerful work when they are given the opportunity to explore and then articulate informed solutions.

The ROI of design is pre-determined by the amount of investment a company is willing to offer in terms of scope, time and responsibility. Unfortunately, many companies begin and end their quest to bring design in house by hiring one or two junior visual designers, and then marvel at how ineffective design is for advancing the business. While it seems more affordable than springing for a senior level designer, a visual designer is focused on very different problems to solve than someone whose job is to improve product quality, brand differentiation or customer adoption. While some may see minimal improvements in output from visual design, they miss out on the strategic advantage of working with seasoned designers that can provide insight and guidance into crafting customer-driven products.

Instead of focusing first on the visual expression of a product, startups should know that for best results—and the least amount of disruption and waste—they should first invest in identifying what they need in a design team. Every company’s culture, budget and processes vary, so it is wise to seek advice from someone who has experience building a design team, and can accurately assess both the workload and organizational dynamics at play. Making room for design to operate in-house is not as simple as hiring a designer or two and putting them to work. It requires preparation, team buy-in, and a leader who is committed to seeing a new function established and integrated with the rest of the company in a meaningful way.

For design to be fully integrated into a tech startup, a few things should be considered:

  1. Design is its own unique discipline. It comes with its own process, its own tools, and its own nuanced modalities and roles. 99% of designers use a Mac rather than a PC. They need licenses for professional design software, like Adobe Cloud, Figma or Sketch. And, for best results, they need to be given room for both quiet, independent study and collaborative white boarding (virtual or otherwise). Depending on the type of work, they may also need specially calibrated retina monitors and additional licenses for third party tools, like Loom, Zeplin, font libraries, Dropbox or a Brand Management Platform. Depending on their role, they will need access to stakeholders, customers, business metrics and future business development ideas so they can consider how the product needs to evolve to meet demands. Though this may seem like a lot, these aren’t the wants of pampered artists—they are the needs of effective creative workhorses.
  2. Designers have widely varied skill sets, some of which don’t even include visual design. UX designers, for example, are explicitly trained to consider the pathways by which a user can move from one place to another to complete a task. As designers of experiences, not visuals, they may not have the design acumen to go beyond drawing boxes and arrows diagrams. Yet, it’s not uncommon for designers of all types to be expected to write copy, design icons, piece together interactive prototypes, animate page transitions, or conduct user research interviews. The range of skills embodied in a generalist designer is commonly needed in a startup, especially in the very early days. But without proper awareness of what to look for in terms of skills and experience, it will be exceedingly difficult to find and attract such versatile, high caliber designers. These varying skills (and more) are not going to be performed to the same level of quality or accuracy by every designer. It’s critical to consider which abilities are most important to accomplish particular design tasks. Hint: Visual design should be lower down on the list of priorities.
  3. Design is 70% research, strategy and systems planning, and 30% execution. If design isn’t given time to do the heavy lifting up front, the risk of needing to redesign escalates immediately and as the product scales. Just because something looks polished, it doesn’t mean it will perform as seamlessly when it’s in the hands of users.
  4. Design needs a heads up. There’s typically a period of triaging that takes place before design has the opportunity to tackle projects with less urgency. Problems start when designers are never given relief from this way of working. Just like engineering teams can acquire tech debt over time, designers are hit with loads of base-level systems work that only grows with each new project. This is one reason why it’s important to have a seasoned designer guide the workload and develop a strategy for delivering hair-on-fire requests and long-term strategic feature development effectively. Design is most useful in a strategic capacity, which means they need a longer runway to research, explore solutions, test solutions and package up the deliverables for implementation. If leadership doesn’t allow room in the schedule for these activities, it’s not just the product or project that will suffer, but the team’s morale will too. No designer wants to stay in a role where they are asked to do menial tasks in an emergency setting. It’s unpleasant and unfulfilling for any serious creative, and they won’t stay for long.
  5. Design led by non-designers is very risky. Design is one of those things that can appear to be straightforward and approachable. Some tasks may not seem that complex to pull off initially. In fact, many startups ask designers to simply repurpose layouts, taglines, or onboarding flows they’ve seen other companies do. Not only is that illegal in some cases, it also shows a lack of understanding for the value design could bring to the company. If a non-designer is leading the charge on projects, the focus on problem-solving tends to shift to arriving at a solution as quickly as possible. This shortcut shortchanges the company. Instead, by following the full extent of the design process, beginning with research, and iterating towards a solution, the real root problems that need to be solved can be identified and addressed more appropriately and permanently. This approach not only saves the company from producing poor quality work, it also ensures that the users' needs remain in focus throughout the product development lifecycle.

Prepping for the Transition

Transitioning from what is typically an engineering- or marketing-led implementation process to one that incorporates design can cause a series of disruptions if not orchestrated well. So, before drafting any job postings, first understand your organization’s reasoning and expectations for bringing design in house.

  1. To help outline expectations and explore any necessary reorganization of team structures, consider hiring a design expert to consult.
  2. Conduct an audit of the existing product and roadmap. Again, this is where an outside consultant with design expertise can be particularly helpful. Examining the extent of the workload, skill sets and responsibilities required to meet expectations will ensure right mix of designers are brought in to the company.
  3. Consider how the existing organizational structure may need to flex to make room for designers. To do their jobs well, designers need accommodations of time and the permission to follow best practices for design. The most common blockers to this occur because design is squeezed into an existing workflow without being consulted on how they can best offer their services.
  4. Finally, clarify how processes will evolve to include the necessary time, tools and approvals to ensure a cohesive, streamlined experience for all. Each of these factors play key roles in your success, and in minimizing disruptions.

Every team is different. But as long as leadership starts with clear expectations, makes room for designers to operate, and commits to including design in the process, the results should speak for themselves. ⚑