Beyond design: The importance of design operations

4 min read
Jess Thoms
  •  Jan 30, 2018
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While designers work on developing methods to problem solve, and in turn better help others, who then is helping the designers? Design operations (DesignOps) is how we help designers do what they do best.Twitter Logo

As a growing area of interest, there can be some inconsistencies in how DesignOps is defined and described. However, a general consensus is that you can hire the best designers in the world, but without systems and operations to support them, there is still a potential for poor output. That’s where DesignOps comes into play.

“Our main objective within the design team at BBVA is to help designers design. We take care of the rest.” –Pilar Álvarez, Head of Design Operations at BBVA

Austin Beer, Experience Designer at Elephant, offers a distinction to what design operations emcompasses. First, how does the design department work amongst themselves? And then how do they work with others? Austin notes that when integrating design teams to work on projects, there are various organizational models to do so—some of which are consciously designed processes, and others haphazardly designed processes.

Austin Beer

“Solitary—where designers work almost as freelancers to other departments, centralize—where all projects are handled by a single group, or federated—where small groups of designers work on projects.”

“These structures shape the level of authority designers have, the kinds of expected outputs, and the processes that design groups develop to achieve consistency,” says Austin.

Approaching organizational design processes requires management of collaborations, handovers, design deliverables to other departments, and overall communication management. Some operations teams may singularly focus on improving the output of designers. While others take a collaborative approach to promote ease across cross-functional collaboration—ensuring, for example, that engineering teams execute as closely to what was originally envisioned by design teams.

“DesignOps takes the stress away from designers and lets them do what they do best.”

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DesignOps functions within these organizational models in a variety of ways, with the ultimate goal of effectively defining roles, responsibilities, and outcomes for designers and managing performance. Operational leaders require communication skills that allow setting objectives, problem solving, and managing project outcomes easy to translate and understand.

Pilar Álvarez, Head of Design Operations at BBVA, points out that elements like project prioritization and personalized allocation of resources depending on each project’s requirements is as important as the design itself.

“BBVA’s design team is formed by all design disciplines—research, service design, UX, UI, and visual design. To be able to place value on BBVA’s exceptional design professionals’ work, it’s essential to have a strong operations team enabling the work to flow smoothly, avoiding any problems and complications that a design project could entail besides making a project sustainable.”

“The main objective of the DesignOps team is to facilitate an easy and effective collaboration between the different design disciplines,” says Pilar.


As the connection between product, business, and design—the DesignOps team is faced with many elements and actors, increasingly complex with teams across different locations. Therefore, coordination is the key to success. DesignOps is responsible for monitoring projects and ensuring the ongoing success of a high-functioning team.

To leverage design systems for BBVA, Pilar notes they’re building BBVA Experience as a suite of products including project intake and discovery tools, brand assets, design resources, engineering resources, and the UI Studio. As a cost savings tool, the UI Studio provides standardized, reusable components, substantially reducing the time and effort to launch products to market.

“The UI Studio also helps create a consistent look and feel across all products, using the BBVA visual style, as well as maintaining common coding standards,” says Álvarez.

Consolidating design systems and components into one central location boosts efficiency across design, marketing, engineering, and business teams to develop faster, while keeping BBVA design consistent across all teams.

“Without DesignOps, cross-department collaboration is left to unstructured, meandering communication that only hinders output and efficiency.”

Fluidity is also essential within DesignOps to understand and anticipate evolving design needs. A consistent set of operational systems will always be needed for designers, which help with onboarding team members, collaboration, execution, and more. But operational leaders should understand that systems are never concrete. Austin Beer uses the analogy of “wet clay” when referring to design systems.

“By design systems, we mean pattern libraries, style guides, and manifestos? Sure, they’re great! I use most of them every day. But that’s because here, everyone knows they’re ‘wet clay.’”

“Nothing is fixed. Everything changes. Everyone is an editor. Thinking that a system is done is what makes systems useless,” says Austin.

Developments in technology, which force design capabilities to constantly expand across new contexts like voice and messaging applications, also call for operations that can seamlessly lead the creation of new systems and processes. These new contexts also see designers and developers working more closely together as experience design comes more integral for technology products.

Operationally, decision making around design tools and processes need to be understood by a design leader rather than an IT department. Without DesignOps, cross-department collaboration is left to unstructured, meandering communication that only hinders output and efficiency.

DesignOps calls for flexible design leaders with enriched perspectives across design processes and systems, human resources, and project management. DesignOps is complex, as it requires a breadth of knowledge and doesn’t fall into a singular category.

Kristin Skinner, Head of Design Management at Capital One, delivered the opening keynote at DesignOps Summit 2017 and discussed the stages of setting up design operations within an organization. She points at differences even between a team of two initial designers within a company—with one needing to take the operational lead to manage early development of processes and educating the broader company about design.

Related: Go inside design at Capital One

From these initial designers, you then scale to a full team of five to seven people that include content strategy and communication design. Now, the step is taken from design team, to design org.

This is where DesignOps steps in. At some point the Head of Design who originated as that initial design hire is faced with an operational role of managing 20 to 30 people. Coordinating these diverse teams and skill sets is a complex task. Without proper operations, these design teams are left without a management system that allows them to focus on their craft.

In the end, taking the stress away from designers and letting them do what they do best is what DesignOps strives to achieve.

Header photo by #WOCinTech Chat. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

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