Creativity and design are just part of Stephen Gates’ DNA. As a kid, he self-published books on the printing press in his basement with his creative director dad. He went on to study computer graphics at Syracuse before eventually heading up the entire global design team at Citi.
In an AMA hosted by Designer Hangout, Stephen shared ways you can crank up the power of design in your organization by building trust company-wide, how to integrate research in your design cycle from beginning to end so it can be applied with purpose, and much more. Here are some of the highlights from his AMA.
When asked about design team leadership coming into a new company, Stephen explained that for the first few months, he observes. So many people come into new design leadership positions with tons of ideas—and they try to inject those ideas without actually understanding the deep-set problem areas that already exist in design teams and organizations.
So Stephen spends time listening and observing so that he can clearly identify major pain points and address those first. Then he focuses on process, culture, and creativity.
When asked about how he’s achieved so much success leading studios all over the world, he had this to say:
“Most companies I’ve worked with aren’t short on ideas, they’re short on leaders and people who understand how to get those ideas out the door.”
“Building a coachable, tierable design culture where you can say, ‘Our process is the way that we do things, our culture defines who we are, and our creativity defines our value,’ is very important. A lot of it is putting those 3 pillars in place.”“Hire people you really believe in.”
He also explained the secret behind his hiring process:
“When hiring, focus on the ability to think, passion, hunger, and chemistry. Hire people you really believe in.”
Someone asked how he maintains sanity and a cohesive design methodology across all of the studios. Stephen answered:
“One of the first steps was to create our Citi Digital Design Language. It’s an Atomic Design system with a scalable series of design elements that are organized into bigger and bigger modules. It’s form-factor agnostic, it’s responsive, and it’s ADA compliant. We installed it into the middle of the design organization and it gave us a common vocabulary that creates visual consistency. It’s housed on a website instead of a PDF because it’s a living document and it expands from there. It allowed the designers to focus on actual design.”
An attendee then asked about Stephen’s team structure.
“Our team is broken out into pods of people. Each one is made up of a creative director, a designer, a writer, a prototyper, a producer, and a strategist. So basically it’s a mini agency. There are multiple pods per studio, and multiple studios around the world. It allows us to be able to flex across the various different lines of business.”
This recap barely scrapes the surface of the amazing tips Stephen shared during his session. As an added bonus, he’s also hilarious. You should definitely check out the full recording of his AMA if you have time. (When you do, you’ll find out why he mentioned sitting in the corner painting watercolors of his spirit animal.)
And if you love the AMA as much as we did, you can also tune into his podcast, The Crazy One.