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Building DesignOps through strong design culture

4 min read
Aarron Walter
  •  Dec 3, 2019
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Five designers. When a team reaches that size, it can benefit from DesignOps, according to Meredith Black, who previously ran DesignOps for Pinterest.

As a guest on the Design Better Podcast, Meredith shared some practical advice for establishing DesignOps within an organization. But before we get to that, let’s take a step back and look at the purpose of DesignOps.

In her recent talk at the Leading Design Conference in New York, Meredith described DesignOps as “a relationship-building function.” It’s a nice way to frame it, as DesignOps producers (or program managers, as they’re often called) build relationships within the design team and beyond to improve coordination and establish design culture.

How DesignOps works

In 1997, Maria Giudice founded Hot Studio (where she hired Meredith as a producer in 2011). When Facebook acquired the agency in 2013, Maria, Meredith, and the rest of the Hot Studio team were responsible for introducing DesignOps to the social media giant, where the role is now a prominent part of the company. Maria did the same at Autodesk where she served as VP of Experience Design after leaving Facebook.

Design leader Maria Giudice, formerly of Hot Studio, Facebook, and Autodesk, on the power of culture in creating DesignOps.

Like many large companies, Maria said Facebook and Autodesk wanted designers, but they didn’t know how to manage and organize them. Without an empowering design culture, she said designers get lost in the back-and-forth between engineering teams, relegated to being nothing more than “wireframe monkeys.”

DesignOps adds legitimacy and adds power inside these companies so that designers can step up and be leaders instead of followers,” she explained when she joined the DesignBetter Podcast. “The role of the producer is not only to get work done and keep people on track, but it’s also to put forth the culture and define the design vision that’s inside these organizations.Twitter Logo

By taking leadership, design becomes more than just a service organization and begins to have a voice in strategic decision-making.

Getting everybody on the same page

One of the first steps in building a design culture is establishing processes and systems. It’s a nuts-and-bolts thing, and the kind of practical—but not always simple—job that DesignOps can take on to facilitate greater efficiency within teams. It includes choosing what tools designers will use to allow for seamless collaboration.

As the design team grows beyond a dozen or so people, processes and systems start to become ever more important.

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DesignOps will need to establish its own systems for tracking work, resources and the skill sets of different designers.

At Pinterest, where Meredith’s ops team supported more than 50 designers, they met weekly with design managers and design directors to walk through every active project. The goal wasn’t to critique the work, but rather to talk about what’s going on and how one thing may or may not affect another.

“It’s become a strong tool and something that everybody really looks forward to,” she said, “because we catch things before they get out the door, and we catch things before they even get out of design.”

Keeping people happy

Arguably the most important part of establishing a strong design culture is keeping your team happy. This, too, is a big part of the DesignOps job.

“If people are super happy, and they are feeling heard, and they’re valued, that’s where the seeds of great culture begin.”

Maria Giudice, formerly of Hot Studio, Facebook, and Autodesk.
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She went on to add that it all starts with a good “servant leader.” That’s a term we’ve heard used to describe DesignOps on several occasions. “I always said that my job is to hire people much smarter and better than me, and my job is to be in service to the people who work for me,” Maria said.

So what makes a good servant leader?

What characteristics help a producer keep designers happy and productive? Here’s what Meredith had to say about it.

  • Emotional intelligence. “I was a criminology and sociology major in college. I actually think those majors are ideal for DesignOps because I feel like a lot of my job is unearthing what’s going on, sensing how people are feeling, how to get projects done, how to navigate the storms, how to work with cross-functional partners and drive toward the same good.”
  • Flexibility. “Every day has different challenges and every day your role slightly changes. Whether or not a product manager is in the room or not, and you’ve got to be the voice of reason for one side of the team and not the other…I think you need to hire people who are flexible and who can really flex their skills in cross-functional leadership and management.
  • Hustle. “I hire a lot of people now from consultancies because they know how to work with clients. They know how to push deadlines. They know how to navigate the murky waters of uncertainty. They bring that in-house, and they help steady the ship so to speak. And they hustle more than anybody else.”

Start small and stay focused

When Meredith was hired to start DesignOps at Pinterest, there were 10 designers. She said that was an ideal number—small enough that she could organize their work and have an immediate impact. “If you’re going to start a DesignOps organization, start with one person who’s got the tenacity to build the org out, and who wants to build it based on the business needs and what the design team needs.”

Meredith Black, former head of design operations at Pinterest, shares her insights on establishing DesignOps.

Relationships are central to the work of DesignOps. Meredith said the natural place to start is working hand-in-hand with the head of design or design directors. But pretty quickly, you’ll want to begin connecting with cross-functional partners in product and engineering to understand their needs and demonstrate how design can help. That’s the organic way to grow DesignOps.

“Once one product manager and one designer realize what you’re doing with them, another hears about it…before you know, you’re asked for more producers on the team, because people start to find the real value in it.”

Meredith Black, former head of design operations at Pinterest
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“They find that while product managers should be more strategic and should be the mini CEO of that product, and the designer should be designing the experience, there’s somebody in the middle supporting them both. Somebody is helping to do everything else that needs to be done.”

More resources for DesignOps

Both Maria and Meredith said there’s one book that’s required reading for DesignOps: Org Design for Design Orgs by Kristin Skinner and Peter Merholz.

There’s also an active and growing community of DesignOps professionals. A recent West Coast meetup had representatives from CapitalOne, Lyft, Conde Nast, Twitter, Uber, and more. They tackled questions like:

  • How do you staff projects properly?
  • How do you advocate cross-functionally for the role?
  • What are effective communication methods?
  • How do you map and document things to avoid fragmentation?

For more insights and instruction on how to bring DesignOps to your company, be sure to download the DesignOps Handbook available as a free eBook and audiobook at designbetter.com.