Design/UX Team Structure

9 years ago from , Design System Lead at YouCaring

Our current design layout is we have two designers on our marketing team who works on our marketing site and event collateral. And then there's me who works across our core development and product teams as well as marketing, doing design and front-end development.

We're currently in the middle of interviewing designers and front-end developers to help me out, because I'm stretched super thin. I'm sort of hoping to find someone like me who can do both, but we're ending up finding more people who only really do one or the other.

I'm trying to decide what the best hire would be and how to structure the team. I don't want to drop them into the boiling pot that I'm swimming in right now. I'm currently thinking about starting more of an internal agency system, especially if we end up hiring a front-end developer specialist, as I'd still be the only designer working across a lot of projects.

Do any of you have experience working on a small design team at a large company? Better yet, growing one? How'd it work for you?


  • Joshua SortinoJoshua Sortino, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

    Edit: Some people suggested I compile my comment into an article... so I published it here: https://news.layervault.com/stories/30825

    I helped build the design team at Disqus and now I'm helping build the design team at Teespring.

    Always make sure you're hiring exceptional people (that applies to all departments, not just design). People who have a passion to create and build will be your smartest employees. It's better to hire someone who has a problem solver's mindset but lacks a specific skill than to hire someone who has that skill but lacks a problem solver's mindset.

    Ask yourself, "what does this person do better than I can?" Make sure each designer brings a unique skill to the team. When everyone is good at something different, everyone settles into projects that fit their strengths and they won't run into ego battles.

    "Unicorns" can be great, especially when the company is small. Unicorns can code and design, but don't forget the more designers are coding the less they're designing.

    As a company grows, you want hire more specialists. Unicorns who are "T" shaped (i.e. they have a broad skill set but are still very good at one thing) will experience fewer growing pains.

    With a few exceptions, I have often found Unicorns to be slightly less skilled in the artistic and visual department (myself included). Sometimes it's useful to have one person who is just really good at branding, visuals and interaction design without knowing how to code.

    Don't make exceptions. Even if you're extremely desperate for help, a bad employee will cost you more time and money than what they temporarily saved you.

    “Steve Jobs has a saying that A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn't take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.”

    This leads me to my conclusion for how to structure your team. You've hired the best possible employees you could find. Everyone brings unique skills to the table. Do you really need to structure the company like a traditional agency? A flat organization structure keeps egos in check and shows your employees you value them equally. If you really did hire the best, let them know they can use whatever external title they want (Senior, Lead, etc...) after they move on from the company.

    Last, don't be intimidated. Building a strong team is time-consuming, tedious work. But let me tell you, it's some of the most satisfying work you'll ever have.

    27 points
    • Jad LimcacoJad Limcaco, 9 years ago

      Great advice Josh!

      0 points
    • Tony GinesTony Gines, 9 years ago

      You should just copy paste this response into a Medium article. Good stuff.

      0 points
    • Ryan Hicks, 9 years ago

      Best advice I've read on the subject. Well put.

      1 point
    • Matt Felten, 9 years ago

      Thanks Joshua. Immensely helpful. It's hard to look past short-term needs (Holy crap! I need help) to make sure you're hiring the best people.

      Did you have front-end developer specialists on your team(s) or did you only have designers and "unicorns"?

      Aside: Is there really not a better term for "unicorn" yet?

      2 points
      • Joshua SortinoJoshua Sortino, 9 years ago

        I really hope there's a better term than unicorn! I only use it because its meaning is recognized throughout the tech industry.

        0 points
        • Matt Felten, 9 years ago

          Yeah, not a slight against you at all. It's pretty ubiquitous now. I just can't help thinking I'm saying "UI Rockstar!" or something.

          0 points
      • Joshua SortinoJoshua Sortino, 9 years ago

        And to answer your question... we hire both. Some designers on the team code, some do not. If they're good at what they do, you'll find (or they'll find) where they fit in.

        Like I said, the more a designer codes, the less they design. If you really need help and you can't find a "unicorn", maybe you should consider hiring both a front-end engineer and a designer? If you don't think there's enough design work to go around, hiring a design contractor (and a full-time front-end engineer) might be a better route.

        0 points
    • John OatesJohn Oates, 9 years ago

      Great post! We've been currently having a lot of discussion about our structure and process, do you have any suggestions for reading materials, books/articles? Thank you for your insight!

      0 points
    • Brandon FinnBrandon Finn, 9 years ago

      Ya Josh!

      0 points
  • Joshua HynesJoshua Hynes, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

    A lot of the suggestions that I would offer, Joshua already gave. I think one thing to remember is that a lot of people are struggling with finding solid talent. There are a lot of people who call themselves designers, by finding talented "A-level problem-solvers" is difficult.

    The design team at Stack Overflow is only 4 people. We maintain over 120+ communities as well as design a developer-focused careers product. Needless to say, we have a ton of stuff to work on.

    Another wrinkle for us is that we're a completely distributed design team, stretched from Indiana to France. When we look for designers, we look for a few things:

    Can you design?

    It seems like a really simple question, but given that we're Stack Overflow, we get a lot of people who apply that have stronger developer backgrounds and design occasionally. While having a development background helps, you're first and foremost a designer — so can you do that well?

    Are you a problem-solver?

    A lot of the stuff we work isn't generating templates or knocking out marketing collateral (though we do that). We tend to work on bigger projects that require a lot of thinking. Can you create not only beautiful interfaces, but beautifully intuitive interfaces and workflows? Sometimes the best workflows have minimal visual design, but they're presented in a really logical manner so they work.

    Can you hold your own when it comes to front-end development?

    We're not talking about being an expert here. We're looking for some experience though. Having some experience shows you're open to doing. It also helps you to better understand the medium you're designing in every day. At Stack, we don't have a single front-end developer on staff. Our reasons are many, but basically any developer or designer we hire needs to be able to work within code.

    Can you get stuff done without having co-workers or your boss nearby?

    Almost every designer on staff comes from a background where they were the sole designer on staff, worked in a remote situation, or were an independent contractor. We've all shown the ability to get things done, even if we aren't in a sweet office environment. Being all in the same office has its benefits, but being remote allows us access to a lot more designers who for one reason or another can't or won't live in a major metro area.

    Considering all these items, it's hard for us to find talent. But as Joshua said earlier, better to take your time to find the right person than hire the wrong person too quickly.

    3 points
    • Matt Felten, 9 years ago

      Really great stuff Joshua. I think it's pretty interesting you don't have any front-end developers on staff and all designers work with code.

      I've been looking at a lot more front-end developers recently, just because they seem easier to find. From what I'm learning from this thread though, that might not be the best way forward.

      0 points
  • Ryan McLaughlinRyan McLaughlin, 9 years ago

    I think Joshua nailed most about the skillsets, but I can speak to the "agency" aspect. My team functions inside the Product team alongside Development, both reporting to the CPO. We organize our work as if we are a standalone agency.

    Obviously the development team is a "client" with a pretty regular task list (staying ahead of their AGILE development for a new set of products currently under construction), but we're also assisting/leading Marketing in a large website redesign and brand refinement project, collateral, event branding, etc. While we ramp up our bandwidth and resources, that will spread to Sales, Training, etc.

    The team is still really new (hence our dated website & products) and we're currently juggling a lot of things, but once all the new stuff is released we will be the gatekeepers of anything design- or brand-related within the company. My rule is that if a customer or potential customer's eyes will be on it, Design needs to approve it. As the company grows we will likely expand that rule for internal items as well.

    I think this is the best way to function, but it required having an executive team that truly sees the value of design in order to allow them to have some final go/no-go say on big projects that lots of people work on. If that can be part of the company culture, I think you will be very successful.

    1 point
    • Matt Felten, 9 years ago

      Really interesting Ryan. Having design as an "internal agency" seems the most logical to me, although that's pretty much what I'm used to. An agency structure.

      I was also reading about a "hub and spoke" approach, where designers are actually divided out into respective teams and integrated closer to the actual work they're doing.

      That said, I don't think, even with hiring one more designer, we'd be able to do that, so I'm probably putting the cart in front of the horse here.

      1 point
      • Ryan McLaughlinRyan McLaughlin, 9 years ago

        I'm not a fan of the hub and spoke approach to be honest.

        • I think you get more stylistic deviation creeping in an organization laid out that way, especially as you grow. Lots more pressure on the director to manage that.

        • You have to consider budgeting disparity. If your designers all need a new version of software, but the designer in Marketing doesn't have the budget, then what? You'd still have to ensure your design team got their own budget.

        • What if the Sales team does really well and celebrates by taking the team out to an outing? The one designer goes and the other designers are kinda left out. You lose a lot of the "team" vibe IMO.

        It probably can work, but if the ultimate goal is consistency and quality of work from the designers, I think as a director it's better to keep everyone close to the nest.

        1 point
        • Matt Felten, 9 years ago

          Great points Ryan. I think you've convinced me. Internal Agency looks to be the way forward.

          0 points
  • Brian BaileyBrian Bailey, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

    There are few things greater than pairing a UX designer with a front-end developer.

    With your set-up, you could possibly oversee the work of the other two marketing-focused designers, who I'm sure would love to dip their foot in all-things-UX, while you and your new-hire developer concentrate on the finer details.

    1 point
    • Matt Felten, 9 years ago

      Yeah, I haven't thought about potentially grabbing the marketing-focused designers for some projects. They've traditionally been pretty siloed for marketing projects, but I like that idea.

      I feel that design should be cross-departmental in order to get a unified brand.

      2 points
      • Ryan Hicks, 9 years ago (edited 9 years ago )

        Certainly strive to unify and connect with the other designers and departments, but be very mindful that they are probably more traditional. While they can learn they may not be what you're looking for. I work with traditional designers and I constantly have to oversee them and their workflow to ensure they are doing things right when doing digital work. It's a pain albeit sometimes rewarding that you get to teach someone something, but a pain. Then when you recommend they do it a certain way and they don't it's frustrating. Because then you have to go through the process again to show them why it didn't work, and ask why didn't they just listen to you in the first place.

        1 point