A guide to surviving—and prospering—as a one-person design team.
Being the only designer at a company isn’t easy. You might be a one-person team for a handful of reasons: your company is just getting off the ground, there’s no budget for a design team, or maybe they just started to see the value of design and still aren’t quite sure if it’s that important.
A lot of creatives suffer from imposter syndrome—the feeling of not belonging, that you aren’t good at your job and have somehow stumbled into the industry. When you’re the only designer at your organization, at times you might feel like you have to prove yourself more than others there have to (especially, again, if not everyone’s in agreement about design being important).
I want to take this opportunity to tell you: You’ve got this. Keep going. You are where you are because you’re good at what you do.
It can be hard push the importance of design throughout the company, especially if you have no support from other designers (whether in-house or in a design community). I joined Flowbird as the only designer—with no design process to follow—and my job was to make our web apps and software look nice.
What started out as just a job in UI design turned into something so much more. I understood the full power of a design process, the necessity to research, test prototypes, and gain as much feedback as possible, and I couldn’t wait to share design with the whole company.
I’ve faced many obstacles in my attempts to spread design thinking and incorporate a design process. These challenges are normal and will help you improve as a designer and get you ready for leadership.
For me, one of the biggest challenges was breaking the mold. Others at your company won’t be used to change, be it at a process level or at a design level. Just because something was the way it was before, does not mean it’s what the user needs or what is right for the business. You’ll need to explain this to them and help them understand.
“You are where you are because you’re good at what you do.”
Two years later, I’m now Design Lead at Flowbird where I manage a small but growing team of designers. Flowbird has embraced design thinking, and the design culture throughout the company is growing all the time.
It’s exciting to see how design is starting to influence decisions. I went from a lone designer, who suffered from imposter syndrome and wasn’t part of a design community, to the complete opposite in just a couple of years.
If you’re facing a similar battle or you’re struggling, here is a guide to not only survive, but to prosper as a one-person design team.
Tip 1: Be enthusiastic
Real enthusiasm is persuasive and contagious, so let your passion for design show.
Not only will you make others think about design, but you’ll also start educating them on how design solves problems. Most of the conversations I had at work with fellow colleagues would often end with me talking about the power of design.
Being enthusiastic isn’t just about how you talk with others—it’ll also show in your design work. Treat every project as a chance to show others the power of design. Just like how attention to the small details can make a huge difference to the design, the small projects play their part, too.
Enthusiasm also plays a huge part in getting buy-in from higher-ups in the organization. By doing the great work you’re already doing and being enthusiastic about how design can transform the company, you’ll certainly grab their attention.
Tip 2: Communication is everything
Talk to developers. And not just about design work.
Work on creating a great working relationship with developers. Your working relationship will vary—you may get along with some more than others, but having that foundation built with them will help you educate them about design. It’ll also allow you to easily engage with them about designs in the future.
I’ve become good friends with one of the developers at work who now, when going through websites, will always talk to me about the user experience and what they think should be improved. Guess what? It means they appreciate what you do and that they’ll work harder to ensure what’s developed meets the design as closely as possible.
Tip 3: Be strategic
At the moment, you’re probably not following your design process exactly, or it isn’t where you want it to be.
Perhaps you want to start incorporating user testing. You know how vital it is to the design process, but others see it as a waste of time or too expensive. Talk to someone you get along with well, like a product owner or manager, about carrying out a user testing session in-house.
Related: User research isn’t too expensive
Explain to them it doesn’t have to take up much time or cost much money. Focusing on one area of the design process within one area of the company will allow you to gain support from colleagues who have more influence. They will then be able to support your enthusiasm.
Do this repeatedly. Eventually when you’re trying to follow a new step in the design process, you’ll have immediate support around you.
You don’t need buy-in to user test. Instead of presenting your work to others, ask them to try out your prototypes.
Once you’ve gathered support from elsewhere in the company, take on extra responsibility. Feel like you could add value elsewhere in the business? Try and add value. Design ties into marketing, development and business goals so there are plenty of areas in which you can add value.
What may start off as adding only a small amount of value to a project can easily end up with you being able to incorporate more of the design process into the project/product. Soon this will mean you start to have too much work to handle efficiently. Here’s when you ask for help (if you even have to!).
It should be clear that you can’t carry out the design process you have implemented as well as contribute to many different projects/products.
Tip 4: Educate others about design
At this point you’ll have buy-in, but many people within the company still won’t fully understand the process.
You’ll most likely have a lot more work and responsibility now, so you’ll want the fundamentals of the design process working as efficiently as possible.
A good design process gathers great feedback. Incorporating design thinking at a company is not an easy task but it’s so important to push design further. Good feedback allows you to iterate faster, get to a solution faster, and speed up development.
Poor feedback means that errors will be found during development and testing, which could have been solved during the design process.
“It’s your responsibility as the designer to gather quality feedback.”
Gaining quality feedback is the responsibility of the designer, and workshops are a smart way to start to educate others on design thinking. The timing of educating others is so important. You need others to trust what you do and understand that design is important even if they aren’t sure what it is. By having this in place first, others will be open to your ideas and the change it might bring.
When you’re first starting, invite a small group of people who already understand a little bit of the design process. This will allow you to get early feedback on your workshops and make sure they’re extremely valuable to others moving forward.
Teach others about why the design process is so important. Then teach them about why their feedback is so important to the design process. Show them what sort of feedback you’re looking for, and get them to start asking questions about how something will work and what it will mean for the end user.
Getting feedback like this is key—it’ll help you cover scenarios you might not have thought about. Plus, it’ll help them understand user research and why it’s conducted.
Make these workshops as impactful and engaging as possible, and I bet you’ll have people asking when they can attend a workshop and learn more about design.
Tip 5: Design your design team
As you start to gain support from senior colleagues at your organization, it’s important that you’re organized and transparent about how you’re trying to move design forward.
Don’t get bogged down trying to decide how the structure of your design team will eventually look. You need to look at the products that your company offers and where more design input would be beneficial. Employ other designers and researchers because of a job they specifically need to do. If you take this approach, your organizational structure of the design team will come together. Ensure that your hiring process is thought through. I recommend setting a design challenge for candidates you want to interview, and then having them present their work during their interview.
Related: How to design a design team
Think about how the designers you hire will work as a team. You’ll need to apply design thinking to come up with the best solution. So look at how other teams operate within your company, and research how other companies are set up. Having this clearly mapped out will prepare you for growth.
Producing a roadmap for design will not only help you organize your team as it grows but will also help higher-ups in the organization to buy into the plan and know what exactly you’re trying to achieve.
And that will be a huge help in creating a design culture. Treat your company as the end user.
Tip 6: Be part of a design community
The most important step you can take as a lone designer? Join a design community. Share your work online, surround yourself with fellow creatives, go to events, and engage with others on social media.
It wasn’t until recently that I joined a design community. My enthusiasm was depleting and I was suffering from imposter syndrome. I then stumbled across Epicurrence. Flowbird agreed to send me, and it’s something I’ll be forever grateful to them for.
Epicurrence is a small conference for creatives. The most recent one was three days, at Tenaya Lodge about a mile from the entrance to Yosemite National Park. There were workshops on everything from Studio to vector illustration, so attendees got a chance to learn lots of new skills. But even more, Epicurrence was a chance to connect with fellow creatives and talk about anything and everything, not just design.
Being surrounded by fellow creatives who were all enthusiastic about design and had different stories and experiences to share was incredible. It was a place where I could get feedback on what I was working on and gather different ideas for solutions.
Epicurrence is not just a design community, but a design family—and every creative should be a part of one. Being surrounded by trust, empathy, humility, kindness, and love for all things creative helps you not only improve, but beat imposter syndrome.
Until Epicurrence, I hadn’t shared any of my work with other designers, let alone present design work in front of many extremely talented designers. On the last day, I got up on stage and presented some work around the Yosemite design challenge that had been set earlier in the week.
I originally wasn’t going to enter, but I got so much encouragement to give it a go that I decided I had to leave my comfort zone—and I’m so glad I did. I improved my design skills, grew as a person, conquered fears, and beat self-doubt. All thanks to being a part of a design community.
If you can’t attend a conference like Epicurrence, reach out to other designers in person or on social media and share your work. You’ll be surprised by how many of them would love to share their experiences with you and help you. While you may be the only designer at your company, you won’t be alone in your journey.
Using design to transform the way your company works is a challenge, but that’s what makes it so rewarding. Remember to always reflect on the progress you’ve made—you may be surprised by how far you’ve come after just a year or so.
by Sam Harris
Design Lead at Flowbird. Love all things associated with technology and a passion to make products easy and a joy to use. Design evangelist. Designing the future.