Building your design operations team

4 min read
Will Fanguy
  •  Jul 5, 2018
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The recent surge of investment in design operations is a sign of big things to come. In fact, more companies are looking at design operations as a need rather than a want. These companies see their design operations teams as essential and, along with a renewed understanding of the value of design, they are investing in DesignOps in order to maximize the impact design has company-wide.

So how do you know when it’s time for your company to get started with DesignOps? And what exactly should a DesignOps team do? Where do they fall in your company’s org chart? Here are some best practices pulled straight from the Design Operations Handbook available over at

When is it time

First, a quick primer on what DesignOps teams do. DesignOps teams help to forecast workload, manage resource allotment, optimize the day-to-day project flows, oversee budgets, support team health and wellbeing, and facilitate anything that allows creative teams to focus on what they do best. They fight not only so that the creative team has a voice but also to build a set of best practices that protect the integrity of the team’s work.

As for when it’s time to create and define a DesignOps team, there are three main scenarios that serve as strong indicators: when it’s no longer realistic for team roles to blur, when it’s no longer possible to keep the entire team in sync, and/or when your designers need protection from the unpredictability and backlash that occurs alongside creative development.

“There are two predominant DesignOps strategies: operations support and project support.”

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Craft specialization

When businesses are just starting out, it makes sense to hire people who can do a little bit of everything. You don’t need a motion graphics specialist if there’s no one available to design your homepage. But as businesses grow and teams scale to match, processes begin to show their age. Your design team may begin to notice a need for specialists (as opposed to generalists). This is where DesignOps comes in handy by ensuring each person on the team gets the right feedback at the right time while remaining aligned to the same overall goal.

DesignOps makes craft specialization more feasible. In turn, that specialization presents a financial boon for the company by ensuring that people are doing the work they were hired to do rather than taking on work outside of their area of specialization.

“A feedback loop can be permanently detrimental to a designer’s ego.”

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Operating a team at scale

As a company grows, communication simultaneously becomes much more important and much more difficult. There’s also an uptick in the need for design in various areas (product, communications, etc.). Keeping these requests managed and in sync with all stakeholders becomes a job in and of itself.

DesignOps helps to ease the burden by creating roles for producers that help to manage workloads, deadlines, project specs, and the like. They can also function as intermediaries between design “clients” and the designers themselves, ensuring that the right messages are delivered to the correct parties.

Related: How and when to start building a DesignOps team [Podcast]

Designers need protection

Finally, DesignOps roles become increasingly necessary as your designers find their work subject to more and more scrutiny and open to growing levels of feedback.Twitter Logo As Collin Whitehead, the Head of Brand for Dropbox puts it: “On any given project, [designers] might receive bad feedback, late feedback, conflicting feedback, and even feedback from unknown parties with no apparent involvement in a project. After jumping through the burning hoops of a long creative approval process, a team will see their good ideas arbitrarily go down in flames.” That kind of feedback loop can be permanently detrimental to a designer’s ego.

In addition, as needs increase and expand, timeframes shorten and contract. This can lead to an environment where designers have to do more reacting than exploring and problem solving. That’s not a great situation for your creatives. DesignOps can help prepare the team for future projects and help to expose them to the decision-making process early, elevating them more to project partners and problem solvers than simply reactive executors.

What does a DesignOps team look like

So you’ve decided to create a DesignOps role or team. That’s great. Your designers (and your bosses) will thank you. Now it’s time to figure out where DesignOps fits in your organization chart. For the most part, there are two predominant DesignOps strategies: operations support and project support.

Operations support

The operations support model may be the best place to start if you only have a single DesignOps role. In this model, DesignOps sets standards and refines processes for the entire design team by building systems and features that impact design work at a high level. There’s a broad focus over the design team(s) as a whole that allows for a sort of “design work triage”. These big picture areas of focus could include communications, team development, and design tooling and systems.

Project support

Once you’ve been able to grow your DesignOps team a bit, it may be time to investigate the project support model. In this model, the DesignOps role embeds into each specific project team to drive and improve the creative process in partnership with design leadership. Instead of only focusing on the high-level impact, an embedded DesignOps role can work on driving and optimizing the day-to-day design workflow.

Now you’re ready to incorporate DesignOps into your company. But how do you find the right people to fill those roles? Check out Chapter 3 in the Design Operations Handbook, “Putting DesignOps into play”.

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