Funsize’s Anthony Armendariz on designing a design team

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Dec 12, 2017
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Based in Austin, Funsize is a digital design agency that helps product teams of all sizes around the world uncover opportunities, bring new products to market, evolve digital services and products, and explore the future. Some of their clients include Facebook, Oracle, Capital One, Credit Karma, Adobe, PayPal, Honeywell, Electronic Arts, OpenTable, and Dell.

In addition to serving some of the largest design and engineering teams, they also partner with VC Funds to launch new businesses and even have a growing portfolio of startups they invest in.

They’re a relationships-first business with an emphasis on client and employee experience, transparency, agility, and creating industry defining work that’s meaningful.

Leading the Funsize team is CEO and Head of Design Anthony Armendariz, who co-founded the company with his wife, Natalie Armendariz, 5 years ago. We sat down with Anthony to hear his thoughts on culture, hiring designers, and how to be prepared for the future.

What’s your role as CEO and Head of Design at Funsize?

My primary objective is to envision the future and make sure we’re prepared for it. I have one foot in the future and one foot in today. I leverage my veteran design expertise by dreaming and applying agile and design and thinking techniques to constantly iterate and improve all aspects of our business. I guess that makes me a “business designer.”

Funsize’s Anthony Armendariz

I work closely with my wife and business partner, Natalie Armendariz, to set the vision for Funsize and I work with our leadership team to execute and measure. I design our design team, mentor and grow designers. I help design our engagements and ensure our processes are cutting edge and yield valuable outcomes for our clients.

I work with Mari Chamoun, our Managing Director, to identify client prospects that align with our true north and work closely with our current clients to ensure we’re delivering short and long term value and happiness.

“If you can’t adapt and evolve, you quickly become yesterday’s news.”

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To avoid being too conceptual, here are a few examples of what I worked on this year with the help of my amazing team:

  • Created a sales program that diverged from traditional sales where designers on our team our empowered to grow accounts and relationships.
  • Designed an employee journey that captures the experience that we provide to new candidates we’re hiring, their onboarding experience, their career at Funsize, the planned special and predictable friction moments along the way, and how we set employee goals and measure them.
  • Evolved our Apprentice program so we can bring fresh design talent in regularly, and help them get a design job at Funsize or with one of our partners.
  • Designed and launched a company profit sharing program. We all work hard and deserve to share the winnings.
  • Launched Funsize Method where we close the studio for a week each quarter to focus on 4 themes: Making, Learning, Teaching, and Experiencing.
  • Launched Funsize Ventures as a solution to meet the needs of the modern startups and invest in the ones we’re passionate about.
  • Redesigned our team structure to align with the work we’re seeking and set us up to do the best work we can. This included creating larger team pods, new design positions, career growth opportunities, optimizing for collaboration, continuous learning on the team and new internal design processes.

How are you preparing for the future?

Whether you’re running an agency or working at a product company, preparing for the future means you need people living both in the today and in the future.

Running a design agency in today’s world is hard and things change fast. If you can’t adapt and evolve, you quickly become yesterday’s news. I prepare for the future by dreaming years ahead, and try my hardest to implement things at least one year ahead of our competition.

The future depends on people. Without good people, you have no agency.Twitter Logo  Without the right people, you can’t reach your true north. So the future depends on how great you are at hiring, empowering, growing, and retaining amazing people. The majority of our designers have been working together for 2-4 years, and the trust they have built allows them to work at a levels most teams would be jealous of.

You can do impactful work when your team has trust.Twitter Logo Part of the trust is to reassure your team that we as leaders are looking out for their growth, career path, and future. I fully understand that my job is to make sure our designers are given the opportunity to shine, flourish, and leave Funsize better than they were; fully prepared for their next journey. It’s the honor of my career to be devoted to my team.

“Without the right people, you can’t reach your true north.”

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But you actually can’t have a business or a team without great clients with whom you also have a relationship of trust. To attract great clients, you have to solve modern critical problems that your customers actually need and value. Our primary clients are enterprise design and engineering teams at some of the world’s most valuable companies, so there’s a critical need to be strong at strategy and production, with the ability to deploy to both agile and non-agile teams, balancing the focus on today and the future.

Sometimes there’s a gap in an enterprise’s ability to balance innovation with aggressive production and iterative releases. I imagine it’s hard for executive leaders to invest in strategy and innovation when they know each hour they spend on production of incremental design correlates to short-term return on investment, leading many companies to primarily focus on the now. Funsize focuses on doing our best to balance the right amount of strategy or vision with production.

Startups are important too when you think about the future of Funsize and client services as a whole. They give our team the opportunity to grow and learn by working directly with their founders, driving strategy, taking new products to market, and executing a product’s evolution over time. That’s why we created Funsize Ventures; financing with forward thinking solutions like equity, deferred payment, or loans.

There’s not much money or impact to be made in just designing applications and web sites—that’s a commodity now. The real opportunity for agencies is to become more strategic. Strategy helps define and drive the future, so strategy is the future.Twitter Logo To properly deliver innovation and incremental evolvement, there’s a critical need to be strong at both strategy and production. Strategy is the future, and we’re working hard to make sure we’re prepared.

Creating enough structure to foster a positive and healthy culture, investing in and growing a team of extremely diverse designers, being aggressively dedicated to growing their careers, rapidly evolving our company and processes, and being great at production and strategy; is how we believe we’ll win.

Do you think things will stay this way?

Nothing ever stays the same, and I’m a firm believer that if you think they should then you might want to go find a different industry to work in. To appreciate what the future might hold it’s important to understand the past.

Back in the Web 1.0 days, you had to know how to hack together websites so they’d work on Internet Explorer and NetScape while also dealing with audio, multimedia, and all kinds of things. This was the era of the web master and the emergence of the web designer—you had to be a generalist.

Websites in the early to mid 2000s the Web 2.0 era were much larger, highly advanced, and leveraged “new” technology like CSS, JS, and Ruby. Budgets and timelines were massive because these products were primarily built in a waterfall format with the intent to get it right, launch it, and redesign it again in 3 years. Here, we saw the emergence of roles like strategist, information architect, web designer (visual designer), and other roles pulled from the agency world (i.e. project manager, creative director, art director), design technologist, and engineer.

With the release of the iPhone and the boom of consumer software, established companies and startups both began hiring designers, building design teams, and hiring freelancers and agencies. While there was a newfound appreciation for design, it required that designers evolve from more rigid design methodologies to more modern, lean, and cross-discipline collaborative work.

“Strategy helps define and drive the future, so strategy is the future.”

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In many cases engineering led design versus the former, which is what designers were used to. Here, we saw the rise of the user experience designer and product designer, and more or less the decline of the strategist and information architect. This era was and still is the era of the generalist.

However, we’re starting to see a transition into an era that will require both generalists and specialists. Mobile applications and web-based software aren’t going anywhere, but they’re highly commoditized now.

The real opportunity for agencies is to become more strategic. Today designers are now exposed to and working with new technologies and platforms like AR, VR, cyber security, drones, autonomous vehicles, connected devices, and virtual assistants. To do great work in such a wide space, we’ll need more diverse teams that should include both generalists and specialists.

Many new specialized design roles (i.e. industrial product designer, conversational designer, and flight designer) will be added into our existing teams of generalist roles (i.e. digital product designer and experience designer). I believe we’ll also see recommitment to other roles like information architect, design technologist, writer, and design researcher.

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” –Eric Hoffer

A few years ago, I created a presentation called “Adapting To Change” which takes a look at the past, present, and future of design and encourages designers to proactively seek change or die. In the future, we should expect to go through periods where the industry expects generalist, specialist, or both, and we should make sure we’re prepared both in our design teams and as individuals.

How do you take this into account when you hire new designers?

We champion and hire for diversity across the board. You have to be good, but you don’t have to be great—yet—because designers at Funsize work in highly collaborative teams where they constantly learn are given the opportunity to become great.

You do have to be obsessed about constantly learning and evolving, have no ego, value team success rather than individual success, love teaching and mentoring, care about being present and active, and be excited about design research, experience design, and visual design.

Generally, we’d prefer a diamond in the rough who possesses the qualities we look for versus an amazing rockstar designer who does not. At Funsize, there’s plenty of opportunities for industry veterans, specialists, generalists, and brand spankin’ new designers.


[For more on how Funsize hires, listen to this episode of their Hustle podcast.]

“I didn’t build all those those things. A group of us build those things. All of the things I’ve done in the past have come from amazing relationships and the ability of all of us to work hard to put ourselves in a position to be lucky.” –Jeffrey Veen

A modern agency needs designers of all career stages.Twitter Logo If we only had seasoned senior designers, we probably wouldn’t be able to stay in business.

Great designers are definitely not all male or senior in their career or abilities. When hiring designers, you need to seek diversity in seniority, skills, age, ethnicity, gender, views on work and life, and previous industry experience. You need to design your design team.Twitter Logo

Also, for the last 5 years, we’ve had an apprentice program that’s been fundamental to our efforts of filling our ranks while ensuring we’re doing our part for the industry and our special little community of Austin. More product design opportunities are coming to town, but there’s still a need to be able to train local designers so they’re prepared for these opportunities.

Side note: the design community is Austin is actually a lot bigger than most may think.

What catches your eyes when you’re going through portfolios?

It might sound like a cop out, but it depends on the role they’re interviewing for. We look for completely different things between design directors, design leads, product designers, and apprentices.

Personally, what catches my eye the most is the candidate’s ability to design a complete experience, their process, and how they tell the story. I don’t look for high-fidelity design. I look for things like the ability to uncover insights, unique experience design ideation, and completing end-to-end flows or features. These things help me evaluate how much they understand around the “why, what, and how” of a product and how excited they were about it.

How is the Funsize design team structured?

Our design organization is structured in team pods. Each team is led by a design director, who is a veteran design leader with vast experience designing software and collaborating with VP-level design leaders, product managers, engineers, and designers. The design director leads the other designers spanning multiple client accounts and is responsible for all project outcomes. They also help share in growing our designers.

The design director has support from their design leads, who focus on managing a subset of those accounts. Design leads are typically T-shaped, meaning that they have proficient knowledge and experience in research, experience design, and visual design but a depth of knowledge and strength in one of those areas.

Design leads are the main point of contact for our clients, run our process playbooks, set design direction, and work closely with the other designers on the team. Overall, the team is then stocked with designers of all specialities and seniority levels.

With this model, we’re able to staff projects and hire for extreme skill diversity where we can maximize collaboration and utilize each other for our unique strengths. The structure of the team provides each individual and the client with the right ingredients to create amazing work with incredible accountability.

While some clients may work with a few dedicated designers, they also get the added benefit of the full team’s perspective and skills.

Funsize started out with a 4-day work week. Tell me about that, and if there are other things you’ve done to make sure people have a good work-life balance.

We have just enough structure for the business to operate properly, but enough flexibility for everyone to manage their time in a way that makes best sense to them. Personally, I don’t think there’s too much of a difference between work and life when you truly love what you do. Balancing work and play is an important part of our culture and we’re always trying to find ways to maintain that.

“There’s not much of a difference between work and life when you truly love what you do.”

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Back to the question. Yes, we used to work a 4-day client work week. We worked Monday through Thursday with our clients and invested Fridays into our company and  our people. Having the extra day allowed us to focus on things that we were passionate about outside of client work. And honestly, in the early years, many of our clients were startups and they couldn’t afford the extra cost of that fifth day anyway, so it was also seen as a benefit for our clients.

After a while, I started to see an interesting pattern emerge: designers had to cram their work into 4 days instead of spreading it out over 5 days, and by the time Friday came around, people were in recovery mode. One day a week wasn’t enough time to work on or truly collaborate on fun personal or company projects together as a team because we would get excited about the possibilities—and then it was the weekend. The momentum was harder to build this way.

When our clients started getting bigger and had bigger budgets, we saw an opportunity to increase revenue and raise design salaries. At the same time, we didn’t want to lose the ability to learn and explore, so we came up with a new concept that would allow us to properly devote a significant amount of time to these. That’s when Funsize Method was born.

Funsize Method is a week-long studio closure that happens each quarter to focus on the themes of making, learning, teaching, and experiencing. This allows us to have regular, planned and budgeted, focused time to get inspired, leveled-up, design solutions for things we’re excited about, and experience a little life together.

During Method Weeks in 2017, we designed the Funsize Employee Experience and Journey, a usable Chrome Extension full of important company information, a design iteration planning tool we’re calling Marco, learned 3D design skills, had a watercolor workshop, broadened our understanding of the psychology of writing and Webflow, visited wineries, and had an amazing company vacation on a private ranch in the beautiful Texas Hill Country.

Suffice to say, we’ve got some big ideas for 2018.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard