Building Strong Design Teams

A few thoughts and ideas for leading and building a strong design team.

Published January 02, 2019 · 10 min read time

On a stone in southern Scotland there is a magic square and a quote typically attributed to William Shakespeare that reads "What E'er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part."

A magic square is a grid filled with numbers in such a way that the sum of each row, column and diagonal is equal. The numbers must be arranged specifically, and each square must contain a unique number for the puzzle to be complete. I think the magic square, along with the Shakespeare quote is a perfect metaphor for “team.” A team requires many distinct and diverse members, and the arrangement and position of each member needs (and can) support the whole

stone tablet The image of the relief sculpture above contains geometric shapes arranged in a magic square. Each shape represents a number (points of the stars, sides, shapes). When the rows, columns or diagonals are added together you will always reach the sum of 18.

How to Build a Great Team

The most rewarding and challenging aspect of a career in design is getting the chance to build and grow a team. Design teams are especially fun because of the creative nature and diversity of talent.

Teams in the workplace are finicky—they are living entities in a constant state of change. Team members come and go, relationships change, and external forces exert their influence in both positive and negative ways.

When things are good, a team can accomplish more than the sum of its members could do on their own, energy is high, creativity abounds, and stuff gets done.

When things are not good, the opposite happens. Individuals on a team get less done than they could on their own. Creativity stagnates, energy is low, and it feels impossible to get things done.

To build a fantastic design team that operates in harmony it is critical to allocate time, energy and resources to the following areas:

  1. Building Empathy
  2. Increasing the Team’s Capabilities
  3. Hiring (and Retaining) the Best Humans
  4. Ongoing Care & Nurture

These areas are sometimes overlooked, or neglected by leaders who might focus primarily on deliverables or output of the team.

In this article, I’ll address each of these areas along with ideas and examples of things I’ve implemented to build fantastic design teams.

1. Building Empathy

Just as designers are taught to build empathy for customers, a design leader and team members need to develop an understanding for each other, and for those with whom we work. Having an accurate pulse on the team’s emotional well-being at all times is critical.

A leader needs to have a high emotional intelligence to understand and uplift team members.

The best way to keep a pulse on the team is to ensure that effective one-on-ones with employees are held regularly (even weekly). Regular and consistent one-on-one meetings are the best way to stay on top of the emotional health of your team. Make sure they are a top priority, don’t cancel them, and if you do need to cancel, always make adjustments in your schedule to meet when it’s best for your employee.

One-on-ones should not be exclusively between manager and employees. They can be between anyone and can provide an excellent opportunity to share knowledge, skill, and build common understanding within the team.

Things I’ve done to try and build empathy:

  • Team skill and interest audit — approach the team just like you would a design problem. Interview members, identify fixable problems and adapt regularly.
  • Interpersonal communication training - Ensure the team has training in interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution.
  • Book club — business books can be the worst, but there are a few books that teach concepts you want everyone on your team to adopt.
  • Make time with customer a business metric – Track time spent with customer and help the whole company increase the amount of time that they spend listing to real customers. This is probably the best thing a company can do to increase empathy with it’s customers. An interesting side effect is that everyone in the company becomes champions for customers.
  • Celebrate out-of-work successes – employees are people and often have rich and interesting lives outside of work, finding ways to be aware of and celebrate employee successes outside of work can help everyone get along and understand each other better.


2. Increasing the Team’s Capabilities

I’ve been in the industry long enough to go through many significant technological changes that have affected the work that I do. I started as a print graphic designer, moved into CD-ROM development with Macromedia Director, moved to HTML and CSS (tables), then to Macromedia Flash, back to standards-based web development, and into mobile apps.

For several years our small design team had a great business building and distributing CD-ROMs. We authored the CD-ROMs with Macromedia Director (LINGO) and had them duplicated and printed. As the Internet progressed and allowed more visual content, we could see that our business would diminish, and we’d need to shift to web development (HTML), or we’d be out of business. I remember the day that I sat down with the team and told them that “…if we don’t learn how to design and build websites, we won’t have jobs…”

Technology is changing faster today than it was ten years ago. The way we design websites is a little different today that it was just last year. There are new tools, new methods, and new capabilities—if individuals are not increasing their abilities, and you’re not enabling or pushing them to do it, something in that bucket of new is going to eat your lunch.

Here are a few ideas that I’ve implemented or supported as a leader:

  • Group learning—ask employees to investigate and share new tools and technologies. Ask them to use promising tech in project work and present in a meeting or internal conference. This provides an opportunity for employees to learn something new and hone their presentation skills.
  • Skill assessment—understand fully what your team is good at and what skill gaps might exist. Understand what your team wants to be good at. Sometimes what they are good at and what they want to be good can be different things.
  • Conference attendance—in conjunction with the skills assessment, make a yearly specific plan for conference attendance and have employees report back what they learned. Get your team to conferences and trainings that address individual or team shortcomings.
  • Guest speakers or fellowships—invite someone that your team looks up to or an expert in the field to provide guidance or even just a creative boost.
  • Self-guided learning—I have an employee who put together a plan where he visited New York City museums, design studios, and explored their creatives process. I would love to see this kind of initiative happen more often.
  • Create paired mentorships—pair employees who have complementary skills to help them learn from each other.

3. Hiring (and Retaining) the Best Humans

Your team will only be as good as the humans on it. Nothing will bring a group down faster than a negative team member or a-hole who treats others like dirt.

Robert Sutton sums it up best in his book “The Asshole Survival Guide” when he compares a-holes to the worst kinds of infectious diseases that you should avoid at all cost if you care about your life.

I don’t know if there’s a litmus test for identifying a-holes before you hire them, but it is worth focusing on people’s interactions with others. Do they build or tear down others? Is their ego bigger than it should be? Do they blame others, or take accountability for their actions?

I’ve seen toxic employees create a rift in a team quickly and had to deal with the cleanup. It’s best not to have to deal with the situation, but better to deal with the situation than to let it continue to fester. If you allow an a-hole to stay on your team and disrupt others because you value their skillset, you will lose people who won’t deal with it.

A few tips for bringing the best humans into your team:

  • Prioritize your values. Make it a higher priority and more important value to hire a good human than to hire a “rock star” or a “ninja” who is an a-hole.
  • Build an internship program. Having a constant flow of interns coming into your team every year has multiple benefits. Mid-level employees get the chance to mentor and manage interns, and you get to see what they are like (are they good humans?) before you are committed to hiring them full time.
  • Check references. Don’t skip this. You may end up overlooking the best hire you could make, or you could end up making a big mistake. When interviewing, ask the person about others who worked on projects with them. Do they talk about them with respect?
  • Provide soft-skill training for your team. Like you can increase the technical capabilities of your team, you can improve the soft skills. Sometimes this is left to Human Resources, but I think it’s essential to focus regularly on communication, character building, and leadership training just like you might focus on technical skill improvement.
  • Don’t hire people just like you. They might amplify your strengths, but will likely also amplify your weaknesses.

4. Ongoing Care and Nurture

Keeping your team at it’s best is a matter of constant care and dedication to the effort. You can’t ever assume that all is going well. One single employee may be the glue that holds the whole thing together, and if they become offended or move to another company, your whole thing can unravel.

It’s important to realize that you can’t do anything without your team. If you don’t trust your team, they will never trust you.

Your team has better ideas about how to make a great team than you do. As a leader, you need to enable your team to try their ideas. When they are involved, they care more about the success of the team as a whole, and everyone grows together.

  • Involve everyone you can in hiring an interviewing team members and leaders. There’s nothing worse than not getting a say in who your new boss will be, or who your new work partner will be for the next year.
  • Don’t be afraid to let people grow into leaders. It can be powerful for members of a team to mentor and learn the ropes of management, even if they only have 1-2 direct reports. It helps spread the load of administrative tasks and provides meaningful opportunities for employees to grow and help others on the team. Provide lots of opportunities for learning and involve team members in teaching and presenting.
  • Prime the pump. Slack is a fantastic tool for team collaboration. It also provides a signal for your team’s health. Do what you can to keep positive, engaging, and useful conversations happening. Use Slack as a testing ground for team nurturing ideas. You’ll quickly find out what people love to talk about together and what topics should be avoided.
  • Re-enforce positive culture and expectations. Slack bots can be great reminders and re-enforcers for team culture. We wanted to reduce the use of corporate jargon and built a bot that would poke a little fun whenever certain phrases were used.
  • Provide opportunties to get to know each other away from work. We’ve held team picnics and cookouts. Roasting and eating a whole pig with your teammates is way more exciting and fun than going to a restaurant.
  • Let your team run with their ideas. One team member appointed himself the “team president” to plan and encourage events, lunches, and inspiration. Another employee suggested we have an “Art Day” to paint and make prints. This kind of initiative should always be encouraged.

It All Comes Down to Caring About the People

A company and its products are a reason for people to work together, but it is mostly an empty shell without the people who make it happen. No company can survive by only satisfying its executive staff. In the end, the only way anything is going to happen is when people are engaged and satisfied with their work.

We spend the larger part of our days at work, and our personal happiness can be affected greatly by what happens or doesn’t happen at work.

When you first care about the people and make them a priority, all other things will fall into place.

Additional Resources

  • Nolan Bushnell’s book “Finding the Next Steve Jobs” is an entertaining and insightful look at how to hire and manage creative people. Lots of ideas from this book can be applied to strengthen your teams.
  • Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull is a fantastic book that explores the principles, structure, and methods used by Pixar. Lots of great stuff in here for working creatives.
  • Robert Sutton’s Book “The Asshole Survival Guide” is a great reference not only for how to deal with a-holes, but for how to avoid becoming one.
  • Managing Humans by Michael Loop is a great book to read for managing in software and engineering teams. He has great stories and practical advice for managers.
  • It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. I personally recommend everything from the Basecamp founders (37 Signals). Many great tips on how to create a “calm company.”
  • Good to Great Is one of the first books I read about management that really made me think differently. Jim Collins breaks down the differences between companies that are “good” and those that are “great.” Leadership style and team organization are one of the defining factors.
  • Redesigning Leadership by John Maeda is a really interesting book about John’s learning and experiences as he became the President of Rhode Island School of design. His experiments and new approach to university leadership is quite refreshing.
John Dilworth

This was written by John Dilworth. John lives in Ogden, Utah with his wife and two children.