In 2015, Dropbox’s design team was expanding rapidly and experiencing some growing pains. They reached a point where managing the requests for design work was a job in itself, so they hired Collin Whitehead to step in as an Executive Producer. Day to day, he ran the communication, coordination, and budgets required to consistently produce quality design work at scale. Over time, the ripple effects of this new position were noticeable: Managers were finally able to pull themselves above the fray of the day-to-day and set a longer-term vision, and individual designers, researchers, and writers were gaining more time to hone and develop their skills.
This is a common story: As more companies mature in regards to their design, we’re seeing an acute need for managing across all teams and projects. Enter: DesignOps, where people like Collin are hired to take care of the workflow, maintain morale, and make sure creative talents have the space and support to do the work they were hired to do.
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There usually are three signals that it’s time to introduce DesignOps at your organization:
- Increased role specialization. UX designers no longer wear numerous hats. Instead, there are dedicated roles for design researchers, UX writers, motion designers, illustrators, and brand designers.
- Increased entropy in the design team. Essentially, this comes down to difficulty in scaling. Once a design team reaches a certain size, it’s inevitably harder to keep everyone on the same page while efficiently producing top-quality work.
- Increased demands on designers— Once an organization embraces the value of design, the requests start coming in fast. In order to do their best creative work, designers need buffering from the grind and thrash of the business.
So for the organization that is at (or maybe beyond) these thresholds: Where to start a DesignOps team? According to Collin, it starts with hiring one producer, program manager, or chief of staff to work as design leadership’s respected peer. Meredith Black, former head of design operations both at Pinterest and Facebook, echoed this opinion on the Design Better Podcast. She said that the first hire’s job should be to continually ask the design director and product manager, “How can I help you?” Not only will they provide immediately-needed support, they’ll also help gradually establish the value of DesignOps to the organization. (Good tip: Meredith likes to hire tenacious, flexible people with agency experience as they know how to hustle and make tight deadlines and budgets work.)
Depending on the needs and size of a particular design team, DesignOps typically function in one of two models: Operations or project support.
In operations support, an executive producer (sometimes called chief of staff) works to set standards and refine processes for the entire design team. Often, this is the de facto model when hiring a first DesignOps position. In those instances, the producer becomes the design director’s right-hand person—identifying areas in need of triage and determining how design can create the most value for product managers and lead engineers.
An organization chart of the Operational Support model
Some common responsibilities include:
- Standardizing the tooling and systems used to scope, resource, track, and archive projects
- Setting meeting cadence and documenting clear meeting agendas and action items
- Managing team development through recruiting, onboarding new hires, and establishing curriculum for continuing education
- Managing contracts for external providers by setting the scope of work, negotiating terms, and coordinating with the finance department
- Forecasting and tracking budgets across projects, vendors, agencies, and freelancers
- Organizing special projects, recognition ceremonies, or other priorities with no natural owner.
[Want to see the operations support model in action? Check out how USAA took this approach.]
There’s also project support, where a producer or program manager embeds into each specific project. They’ll manage workflow and facilitate the creative process in partnership with design leaders. In this model, a producer or program manager would typically manage a subset of the above-listed tasks within the context of a specific project team.
An organization chart of the Project Support model
As the DesignOps function grows within an organization, this becomes the de facto model as any new hires are assigned to project teams. However, some organizations also choose to undergo this model with their first hire, with an executive producer heading up broad-based operations support. When this is the case, it’s usually because a design director has already done a lot of the heavy lifting establishing processes. It might also be when there’s a specific, large, or critical project that needs immediate, dedicated support.
[Want to see the project support model in action? Check out why Pinterest took this approach.]
Interested in learning how DesignOps can help you create centralized services and systems; grow integrated, high-functioning design teams; and operationalize across workflows, hiring, team alignment, and more? Check out the DesignOps Handbook.
Plus, be sure to subscribe for future episodes of the Design Better Podcast.