Bob Baxley has scaled a lot of design teams in his tenures at Yahoo, Apple, Pinterest, and beyond. Today, he pours his experience and passion into serving as an adviser—and helping to grow the next generation of design talent through mentorship and education programs.
Bob Baxley, design executive
Bob recently took some time with us to talk scaling design, building a great design team, and design’s positioning problem.
The 2 sides of scaling design—production and creativity
Claire from InVision: In our Design+ Scale event, which you moderated, you mentioned that 7 or 8 years ago, we wouldn’t be having conversations about scale. How do you think the conversation has evolved from “give design a seat at the table” to “how do we scale design?”
Bob: Whenever I get asked about scaling, I always tell people that we need to take a step back and really think about, “How long have we been designing software for keeps?” In my opinion, that only dates from the advent of the App Store.
With the move to mobile, the cost of design friction became intolerably high, and that forced a lot of companies to realize that design was more than a competitive advantage—design was actually a predictor of whether or not the company would survive. People had a computer in their pocket—they wouldn’t tolerate crappy software anymore.
Related: The business impact of design
So it’s a natural progression that now, 7 or 8 years on, we’re having this discussion about how you scale. It’s a process, and we need to embrace the idea of trying a bunch of stuff and seeing what’s working.
Well, and if the move to mobile kicked things off, the challenges are only growing as the number of platforms has grown, right?
Right, there’s pressure to deliver software on many platforms now. You have iOS, Android, mobile, desktop—and you want to deliver a consistent experience across all those touch points. It’s forced companies to think differently about how to design their products.
Think of it like the blockbuster of the past versus today. Back in the day, you put out a blockbuster movie—the equivalent of desktop software like Microsoft Word—and that was it. Today, you have to think of the franchise—the next movie, the TV show, the animated series, the theme park, and on and on. And it’s the same with software across platforms.
At some point, the question of scale just comes down to raw production—how do we make all that stuff? That’s where systems, standards, component libraries, patterns, and all of those helpful things come in.
“At some point, the question of scale just comes down to raw production.”
Talk to me a little more about this idea of scaling design productivity versus scaling the creative side of design. Finding that balance seems to be a recurring theme in discussions of scale.
The emphasis on scaling production comes out of that idea of the sheer number of products and products across platforms. And it’s great, and necessary, to scale production.
But it’s also a more hierarchical way of thinking about scale, which is kind of how scaling in engineering works. Need more work done? Hire more people, and as the number of people grows, structure them hierarchically.
“Hierarchical scaling is a proven model…. I don’t know that it’s a great way to scale thought.”
Hierarchical scaling is a proven model. It works very well when you need to execute. It’s a great way to scale action. I don’t know that it’s a great way to scale thought—and it’s certainly not a great way to scale innovation or imagination.
How do you scale that creative side?
I think you need to delineate. I’ve been seeing the emergence of dedicated production design teams. Airbnb is one of teams doing this, and we did it a little bit at Pinterest when I was there too. This team is responsible for delivering assets and making everything run on time.
There’s an enormous amount of production work that goes on now. You don’t want to have the people who are responsible for thinking about the next features to also be thinking about different assets for international localization or resolutions and such.
So now, how do you scale the other part? How do you get everyone to operate in concert not just with production, but with ideas? That one’s hard. It’s not something a lot of companies have figured out.
When I was hiring someone at Apple, the key to being a successful designer there was your ability to channel this “thing” that’s the idea of Apple. I used to joke that there was some ball out there in the cosmos that was radiating this indefinable essence of what it meant to be Apple. And while I couldn’t fully describe it to you, you could feel it, and you could start to pick it up over time—as a designer and as a consumer.
“When I was hiring someone at Apple, the key to being a successful designer there was your ability to channel this ‘thing’ that’s the idea of Apple.”
My goal was to get everyone to first understand what that essence was, and then for everyone to marry their own creative impulses with that channel of the company. And this takes companies a long time to figure out. It’s a journey of personal discovery as an organization and it requires them to figure out who they really are. So when I look at most companies who are struggling with this idea of scaling creativity, I think, “Well, they haven’t been able to figure out what it really means to be them yet.”
What companies do you know that have figured out that indefinable essence of creativity and can communicate it through their product design?
I think Airbnb is pretty close. It does help when your leadership comes from a design background—it sort of accelerates the process. The leaders there communicate extremely well, and I think they’ve been able to power through those formative stages faster than others might.
One of the things Airbnb did early on with their Snow White project—which I think was really profound—was to really define the emotional journey of what it means to be an Airbnb guest and host. They wanted a consistent experience for guests, but because they were ultimately dependent on the community of hosts to deliver that experience, they needed to be extremely clear in what type of experience they wanted to deliver and then constantly communicate and reinforce that objective.
So they went out and hired someone who had been an illustrator at Pixar, and together they drew up a series of storyboard panels for the host experience and the guest experience. And I want to emphasize again—this isn’t screenshots. It’s not the technology. It’s the emotional journey—what it feels like.
Then they took those storyboard panels and framed and hung them in every Airbnb office around the world. That brings everyone back to this touchpoint of, “This is what we’re building, this is who we’re building for, and this is how things are supposed to feel.”
It’s just one example, but that kind of shared vision goes a long way.
How much of that vision comes from the executive level? Who’s driving that?
For a lot of companies, it comes down to returning to core principles: “Why are we here? What is this company about?” And yes, in that way, it comes from the executive level. The executive level has to be clear on the answer to ‘Who are we?’, and if they’re not, they should be pushed to get clear on it.
“You can’t pick the right solution without criteria, and that criteria has to be tied back to a consistent vision—and that comes from the executive level.”
Designers and design teams can help provide vision, but ultimately design is about finding ways to solve problems. And you can’t pick the right solution without criteria, and that criteria has to be tied back to a consistent vision—and that comes from the executive level.
Building the Golden State Warriors of design teams
I’d like to come back to the idea of the dedicated production design teams you mentioned before. What does that look like and how do you see that shaping design organizations of the future?
This comes out of that same balance between production and creativity—you need to delineate between people who are creating the assets and people who are applying design thinking to bigger-picture problems. Every company is going to need production designers as they scale.
These production jobs can also be a great entry point into the industry for people who want to go into design, but don’t necessarily have access to a top design school or even a college education. They can get in, learn the programs and the industry, and then either make a career of production design or transition into other areas.
I think as an industry, we need to do a better job of thinking about these types of roles, and of honoring these jobs and realizing the value they bring to the entire design operation. This also gets us as an industry to stop saying, “We’re going to have one designer to do everything. We’re going to try to have a unicorn ranch.”
“Stop saying, ‘We’re going to have one designer to do everything. We’re going to try to have a unicorn ranch.'”
Instead, let people focus on where their strengths lie. You have one person who’s a wizard in Photoshop and extremely detail-oriented? Awesome. They’re probably a terrific person to have as a production designer. You have another person who’s much more product-oriented and perhaps a great story teller? They’d probably make a great product or brand designer.
Related: Product design industry report
As a design manager, a major part of your job is understanding the unique cognitive style and strengths of the individual designers on your team—and then making sure they’re matched with design challenges that emphasize those abilities.
What other roles or factors go into building a design team that can scale?
In a lot of instances, when a team is ready to really scale, up to that point there’s been a design leader who was responsible for starting the design team in the first place. So the question is really: How do you turn your design org into an institution that can function without the founding leader involved?
Think of the Golden State Warriors [NBA basketball team]. For the past 2 seasons, there have been substantial periods of time when their head coach, Steve Kerr, wasn’t able to coach the game because he was out with a back injury. During those periods however, the team never really missed a beat because he had established such a strong and consistent system that everyone knew what to do even in his absence. When a team continues to perform at an exceptionally high level when their coach isn’t even present—well, that’s the mark of an incredible leader.
Like a lot of sports teams, the Warriors are also instructive in that they’re a combination of grown and acquired talent, which is something we often lose track of in our obsession with design pedigree.
Many design organizations have this notion that they’ll just go out in the marketplace and find the perfect designer they need, fully formed, having been trained by someone else—usually a top-tier design school. And then I keep hearing that hiring designers is hard.
“Many design organizations have this notion that they’ll just go tout in the marketplace and find the perfect designer they need. … And then I keep hearing that hiring designers is hard.”
Coaches in the NBA can build these institutions that continue over a long period of time because there’s a focus on the system and developing players, and a mechanism that allows them to integrate new talent with the existing core team.
More design organizations should be focused on developing their designers. Some companies are thinking of internship programs, but that’s still closer to a professional sports draft—”We’ve seen this good player in college and we’ll grab them if we can”— which is different from really identifying and developing young, unproven talent.
You’ve mentioned the focus on design schools and college-educated designers a couple of times.
As a profession we’re still highly biased toward college-educated designers and especially those from certain design schools. Only about 1/3 of U.S. adults have a Bachelor’s degree and that number is only trending up a few points for Millennials.
“If you’re only looking at candidates with a 4-year degree, you’re leaving more than 60 percent of the population out of your pool.”
If you’re only looking at candidates with a 4-year degree, you’re leaving more than 60% of the population out of your pool. And moreover, you’re ignoring a massive group that likely has a greater degree of demographic, experiential, and cognitive diversity than the college-educated group.
We have to find ways to bring more and more diverse people into the profession. We need to widen our scope and make the path easier.
Design should be more of a portfolio profession, at every company. Do you have game or not? Show me what you’ve got. [Cleveland Cavaliers star] LeBron James didn’t graduate college, but no one cares. Obviously, I’m thinking a lot about basketball these days, but the parallel works. Some of the most talented and successful designers I know didn’t graduate high school.
Design is not art—repositioning as part of the business world
You do a lot of mentorship and career counseling with students as part of your work. What do you say about design as a profession?
When I talk to high schoolers who want to go into tech design, I’ll counsel them toward architecture or filmmaking more than going directly to design school. If you think of education as training your mind and not necessarily learning individual skills, in my experience, film and architecture have the most transferable education for software design.
My own background is in film, but I’ve seen a lot of people move very successfully from architecture into product design—Evan Sharp, Chief Creative Officer at Pinterest; Leslie Witt, now leading design at Intuit and previously at IDEO; and Melissa Mandelbaum at Dropbox, who actually has a whole group of people who are former architects-turned-designers.
Right now I’m also involved in a project with The Designer Fund and IDEO.org around getting high schoolers exposed, aware, and interested in design. It starts with getting them to think of design as a profession, the same way they’d think of medicine, law, or engineering. Design is non-credentialed—which I think is a good thing—but it’s a real profession.
Do you think a lot of people, especially high schoolers, don’t see design as a viable career option? What can the industry do to change that perception?
A lot of my pitch to students about going into design is trying to help them see it as a profession—the high demand for talent, where they might work, compensation, etc. A lot of designers are squeamish about talking about compensation, but we shouldn’t be. You can’t be a legitimate profession without talking about career ladders and compensation.
I was thinking to myself, if one of these high schoolers told their parents they were going into advertising, the parents would probably think of that as a legitimate career path. But if that same kid told their parents, “I’m going into design,” there would be a lot of head scratching.
And it dawned on me that it’s sort of a positioning problem. Advertising, for example, is seen as part of the business world so it’s perceived as a legitimate extension of business.
Design is usually positioned as an extension of art, which means many people assume that designers are some sort of artists. I have no aspirations to be an artist. I don’t even really practice art in my spare time. Of course I know a lot of designers who are artists—but I know a lot of attorneys and engineers and teachers who are as well.
“Of course I know a lot of designers who are artists—but I know a lot of attorneys and engineers and teachers who are as well.”
Design is not art. I think it’s a problem-solving skill that’s perhaps more closely related to engineering than anything. Design only exists in the context of business, whether you agree about the engineering comparison or not. And perhaps if more parents and students understood that, they might realize that a career in design can be incredibly rewarding, gratifying, impactful, lucrative, and a heck of a lot of fun to boot.