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Why design operations could save your designers

4 min read
Rebecca Huval  •  May 2, 2018
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Design is as much about aesthetics as it is about function. Sometimes it’s channeling your creativity to beautify a logotype; other times, it’s optimizing a department or an entire company.

Enter the design operations manager. As more design and creative jobs migrate from traditional advertising agencies to in-house companies, entire fields and roles have moved along with them. One seemingly new industry to appear in the past few years is DesignOps.

I say “seemingly” because this role has existed for decades, at least since the early days of Hollywood, in the form of the producer.

“Films would have producers on them, and then ad agencies on Madison Avenue opened up and the producer role was appropriated—same with art director, copywriter,” says Collin Whitehead, Head of Brand at Dropbox.

“One DesignOps person can make a world of difference.”
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Like any field still defining itself, design operations has a fairly different job description from company to company. Dave Malouf, designer and an organizer of the DesignOps Summit, has identified three main strains: the Program Manager, Community Manager, and Business Operations Manager. Broadly speaking…

  • Program Managers optimize designers’ day-to-day workflow
  • Community Managers promote design within a company
  • Business Operations Managers ensure designers align with the business’s goals

That breakdown holds true based on the DesignOps professionals who opened up to me from Pinterest, Dropbox, and Atlassian. If anything, these multitasking mavens might add a few more categories to Malouf’s list: the Therapist, the Meeting Shield, the Chaos Absorber, the Designer Whisperer.

What is DesignOps?

Each design operations manager I spoke with offered a new perspective on what Design Operations Manager can and should be. Across the board, DesignOps was described akin to a diplomat, translating across the cultures and languages of disparate departments as an emissary from the world of design.

At Pinterest, the DesignOps team seems to take on more of a program management role, shielding designers from unnecessary meetings and representing their needs, while also ensuring the designers don’t lose sight of the business’s objectives as they go hogwild with their own artistic visions.

“It’s our job to understand each of the designers we work with to make sure we’re creating these holistic teams, and designers are optimized to do what they do best,” said Anne Purves, Design Operations Manager at Pinterest. “I look at us as the block or preserver for the designer so they don’t have to deal with the ancillary conversations about resourcing and project sourcing—I can be the ambassador of design for them.

“The role is a lot of meetings, five hours a day.”

“There are three main reasons to bring on DesignOps: for companies to scale, to further specialize, and to safe harbor the designers.”

Over at Dropbox, Whitehead oversees all of creative, as opposed to the typical DesignOps manager in an agency who might report to a creative director.

“I treat my function as a restaurant owner: I am not the star chef—I’m making sure there’s plates and fresh produce and the front of the house is talking to the back of the house,” he says. “As DesignOps manager, you’re really protecting those creatives to do what they do best and taking out the logistics and communication and that workload off their shoulders. It gives them time to create and find flow and focus in what they’re doing, and knocks down barriers that would create blocks: late feedback, negative feedback.

“You protect your designer resources from turnover.”

The view from Sydney, Australia, looks much the same: Tim Paciolla, Head of Design Operations at Atlassian, comes from a design background. Though his role involves less program management than Pinterest’s DesignOps department—he doesn’t dig into the day-to-day of any teams—Paciolla still acts as a voice for design within the multinational company.

“I’m the person who helps the organization that I work with be more efficient and more effective,” Paciolla explains. “That could be new processes and tools or organizational shape—or a new designer we need because of a change in the market.”

When does a company need DesignOps?

Of course, not every company will require a design operations team to succeed. But certain bottlenecks or systematic problems might indicate that it’s time to ask: Should we consider hiring a DesignOps staff?

“If you have designers and 90 percent of their time isn’t focused on design, that could be an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, am I using this person’s talents in the best way?’” Purves says. “How could I be better at leveraging this person? That could be bringing in a DesignOps manager and making sure [the designer’s] focus is on what they’re best at.”

Whitehead said there are three main reasons to bring on DesignOps: for companies to scale, to further specialize, and to safe harbor the designers.

“As DesignOps manager, you’re really protecting those creatives to do what they do best and taking out the logistics and communication and that workload off their shoulders.”

“Oftentimes, B2B teams or any creative team has a leadership level above them that aren’t aligned on what to create and why, and it creates a lot of thrash”—disconnect or blowback, he says. “There’s a lot of burnout now within creatives, and that turnover is due to the sheer frustration of the process.”

He adds: “I’ve been in a situation where they’re debating the business model of a product while we’re designing the ad campaign.” For example, at a young company, an executive might ask to see a completed video as opposed to simply asking for the script. When the higher-up rejects the video, it inevitably creates turmoil for creative teams after all those hours of effort. DesignOps can shield against such grave misunderstandings.

“One DesignOps person can make a world of difference in your life, for a creative,” he says.

Who makes a good DesignOps Manager?

At networking get-togethers for DesignOps people, Purves has noticed some predominant personality traits within the industry. When the organizers asked if the DesignOps workers would prefer an agenda or free-flowing meetup, the answer was unanimous.

“We want an agenda,” Purves says. “It’s a very producer thing: Let’s make sure we have an agenda to talk about the things we want to. It’s organized, efficient. We’re doers, people pleasers for sure. We like to talk to people with different personalities, we’re all people-people. We’re very extroverted, chatty—how can we get something done together? That’s the personality as whole.”

To act as the go-between for such disparate types as designers and engineers requires diplomacy and grace. Not only do DesignOps managers act as a representative at meetings, but also they occasionally have to let down designers by saying: No, your creative idea doesn’t align with the business’s goals right now. This requires empathy.

For Whitehead at Dropbox, DesignOps are leadersTwitter Logo, proactively ensuring that designers have set a high bar for quality. Beyond that, DesignOps absorb stress like a sponge.Twitter Logo

“The best producers operate like a duck above water: It seems effortless and smooth as they move across water, but underwater, it’s a constant hustle,” he says. “They need to project an aura of calmness that convinces people they’re doing it in the right way.”

Also: “The best producers are fantastic diplomats, and there’s a lot of mediation that comes because of the subjectivity of our work.”

The DesignOps workers agreed that designers or agency producers or professionals from any background can move into DesignOps. It just takes the right mindset.

Paciolla misses the hands-on aspects of design, but he considers his new role to be that of a designer—not of product, but of operations.

“To work in DesignOps, you need to care about all the little details.”
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“It’s for people who like to dig into big, organizational problems,” Paciolla says. “You have an analytical or process-oriented mindset, but you know you’re working with creative people, too.”

Before any designers out there consider making the switch, remember: The devil is in the details. That’s true of all design, whether it’s fine-tuning kerning or organizational charts. Just consider which details get you fired up.

“You have to be the type of person who wants to see things through to the end,” Paciolla says. “Some designers are conceptual and don’t want to work on all the little details. And to work in DesignOps, you need to care about all the little details.”