How to design a design team

4 min read
Ileana Georgiu
  •  Feb 22, 2018
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The topic of design not only continues to evolve, but it’s become much more of a core concept in the business world. That means assembling your design team takes even more careful consideration than it did five years ago, especially since top talent is becoming more and more difficult to secure.

In this article we’ll share some of the tips and tricks we use inside New Haircut when it comes to building reliable, resilient design teams. Specifically, we’ll cover the kinds of culture and mindsets that make top design teams, the roles and capabilities that matter, and how to conduct your interviews.

Designing your design culture

Before thinking about the kinds of designers you need and the roles you’re hiring for, think first about the outcomes you’re expected to deliver. Get clear on the kinds of products and services you’re building.

For example, when building digital products, a typical design squad would include a UX lead, UI designers, UX designers, UX researchers, and front-end developers.

Related: Handsome’s designers on building trust with your team

But as you move from culture to culture, company to company, and sometimes even department to department, the language changes. What’s expected of a UX researcher in one is managed by a UX designer in another.

All images by New Haircut

To eliminate confusion around vocabulary, we’ve moved away from titles. Instead, we focus on the person as a whole. We think, instead, about the combination of both skills and personalities our team needs in order for there to be cohesion and efficiency.

By thinking about what our team needs in order to be successful, it becomes easier to spot the gaps we need additional help with.

For example, in just about every engagement, we need help with the following:

  • Someone to conduct user interviews
  • Someone to run user testing sessions
  • Someone to create compelling user surveys
  • Someone to create lo-fi / hi-fi prototypes, storyboards, and user stories
  • Someone to create design concepts and style guides

If you manage to put titles aside and instead focus on the core skills your team and individual members need to succeed, you’ll be on the right path to building a rock-steady design team.

Roles and capabilities

Having established your ideal design culture and the people who will form that culture, you can shift your attention to the fundamental skill sets your team needs. Your focus should be forming a healthy, well-balanced, and productive team.

Start by eliminating the perception that “unicorn designers” exist. Except within the smallest, leanest startups, one person should never be asked to fill every design function.

“Put titles aside and focus on the core skills your teammates need to succeed.”

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While good designers can and should balance multiple design chops, it’s almost impossible to be a top performer in all. The best designers will possess two strong, fundamental skills and be moderately capable in two more.

With that much clear, you can start by identifying the core capabilities your team needs. Things like:

  • Lo-fi and hi-fi prototyping
  • User testing
  • UI design

Then, you can move onto the nice-to-haves:

  • Data analysis and reporting
  • Content strategy
  • Animation

Another thing that’s very important: Allow flexibility within the team’s roles.Twitter Logo By being flexible, you provide the freedom for people to experience different needs and functions of design, as well as produce different deliverables.

Flexibility can also come in the form of giving people the opportunity to shift to new projects, therefore eliminating project fatigue. But also be sure to safeguard against the opposite problem, where people are being moved often and suddenly, constantly having to shift focus.

It should be expected that your team will evolve. Technology, process, and company needs will all push and pull your team in different ways. Similarly, your people will develop some core skills more than others.

As a design leader, it’s your job to notice and understand these changes, mentor them along their journey, and encourage them to reach for their full potential.

Avoid forcing them to remain on the same track for which they were hired. Challenge them with new projects, new tools, and new expected outcomes. By doing so, not only will you get more out of your people, but you’ll gain their loyalty and respect.

“People’s skills are enhanced by their personality.”

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Finding your next team member

As we know now, we should be looking for a combination of personalities and skill sets.Twitter Logo But since trades can be taught, mindset will be the more important criteria to screen for when interviewing. A bright mind with full potential, curiosity, and a willingness to learn is often much more valuable than raw crafts.

Values to look for:

  • Passion. What motivates them?
  • Curiosity. Are they willing and prone to ask important questions, especially before they start creating?
  • Communication. How do they articulate the problems they’re working on? How do they help others understand the solutions they’re considering?
  • Engagement. What’s their view of the design process? What steps do they take to approach it?
  • Autonomy. Are they able to understand the big vision and work toward it? Are they pushing the team forward with new insightful ideas, or are they dragging it behind by needing to be told what to do next?

And how will you identify these values in your interviews?

Our hiring process has two steps for identifying the ideal designer: The Interview and The Test.


Because people’s skills are enhanced by their personality, you’ll want to ask questions that reveal their true intentions and passions, as well as how they interact with others. Ask questions that make them reveal themselves. Ask questions that allow them to articulate their strengths and weaknesses—people who can self-evaluate are very valuable to upholding team chemistry.Twitter Logo


After you get to know them during their interview, the goal of a design test is to provide insights into their technical and problem-solving capabilities.

We could write an entire piece to cover each of the different tests, depending on the person and skill set you’re looking for.

But for now, one test we typically ask UI design candidates to work on is a take-home test. Their challenge is to design a solution to a potential real-life problem that they can best to relate to. By providing a story around the constraints, environments, personas, and technologies, you’re hoping to provide them with enough relevant context that they can immerse in the problem and work up creative solutions.

We prefer this type of test much more over actual projects your team is or has worked on. Why? For one, your team has access to lots more research and discussion around those topics, which is going to skew your thinking (good or bad) based on the solutions you came up with. Second, candidates may feel like they’re being asked to do work for free as opposed to the test described above, which is clearly testing their creativity and problem solving.

Finally, make sure you clearly communicate the criteria the test is designed to evaluate against. For example, you might provide an explanation of how you’ll test for the following:

  • Design concept
  • Structure
  • Consistency
  • Problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Presentation

Wrapping up

Design continues to become more integral to the vision and values that drive company strategy. That means there will be increasing demands placed on your design team, which is often now front-and-center, instead of being an afterthought. But that also means that bigger, cash-rich companies are making bigger pushes to retain designers—think IBM, Accenture, etc.

With the right approach, you’ll not only be able to separate top-tier designers from the pack, but you’ll create a culture, environment, and process that attracts the best people for your team and company.

Learn more about what it takes to be a successful design leader—read the Design Leadership Handbook at

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