Main illustration: Andy Gregg
In times past, design was an afterthought. The last stage of the product creation process. The final visual layer and the point in time when someone artistic was dropped in to “make it look good”.
However, over the past few years, things have changed. Design has moved from being the last step of the process to playing a more fundamental role in any good product. How a product functions, and the role that design plays in bringing that to life, is now recognized as a critical piece of the puzzle. One that requires designers to be involved early and often, as important decisions are made. As such, what it means to be a designer has also evolved.
Being involved throughout the process means we don’t have the whole path mapped out for us when we start to design. So if we are to embrace our newfound opportunities we need to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The answers lie outside Photoshop and Sketch.
Get comfortable with thinking about things other than design
For years designers have been pleading for “a seat at the table”. To be thought of as critical to solving big problems and therefore being included in the important conversations. However, now that we have been given that seat, we seemingly feel uncomfortable stepping up and throwing ourselves at the “non-designer” aspects of running a business. We need to embrace that discomfort.
Being involved at the conception of a project requires asking some fundamental questions about business impact. We’re on the hook for some key metrics more than ever before. For example, designers at the Intercom Brand Studio directly influence the number of qualified leads entering the top of the sales funnel and also the type of prospects we may be attracting. So we should ask the correct questions about how our work plays a role in the mission and objectives of the business. We need to understand not just the “design” problem, but the “business” problem which lies at the heart of every brief. For example, what types of businesses are we attracting as potential customers?
An example of this might be better understanding how marketing leads are qualified and the process that the sales team uses to convert those leads into paying customers. What can we do as designers to influence that process and make it better for everyone? The answers lie outside Photoshop and Sketch and in the world of Google Docs and spreadsheets. When we understand a lead’s journey through the funnel, we are better equipped to ensure their journey is smooth and results in them becoming a paying customer.
Get comfortable with communication
More and more you will be asked to attend meetings that aren’t design reviews or working sessions. You will be asked to attend meetings with cross-functional peers from finance, research, analytics and sales. You need to get comfortable with their language and how they think. Those of us who rely on the right sides of our brains may bristle at leaning more heavily on the left. But knowing and understanding the impact of our work across the breadth and depth of the business is critical.
We also need to get comfortable with how we communicate as designers within the design team. Presenting work is hard. And offering work up for critique is uncomfortable at best and sometimes even downright terrifying. But growth doesn’t come from being comfortable. Stretching ourselves and our methods of communication, whether verbal or written will result in stronger work and better business results. Better brand awareness, stickier products and more paying customers.
We have to be open to others having an impact on design
Get comfortable with code
Get comfortable with being challenged
If there’s one thing designers know a lot about it’s design. As we start to become embedded deeper within the core functions of the business and begin to have a broader impact on how the business operates, we also have to be open to others having an impact on design. That means two things. First, we need to listen. Listen to what others have to say. Listen to product managers when they set the high level goals for a project. Listen to researchers when they tell you the job that we are trying to solve for. And listen to the engineering team when they make suggestions on how something could function and perform better. We should be open to the fact that they may have valuable insights to bring to the discussion.
Second, we need to leave our ego at the door and be willing to be wrong. Be willing to be shown a better way to a more successful solution. In short, we need to be open to having our precious designer feelings hurt a little bit. That street goes both ways, and as Jared Spool and Daniel Burka reminded us in this Twitter conversation and Medium post, anyone that has an influence on what the design becomes, is a designer. So it’s fair game to have our work and ideas challenged from outside the creative team.
As designers, we’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to make some dumb suggestions and we’re definitely going to ask some silly questions. We have to be ok with that. We have a great opportunity in front of us but in order to really grasp that opportunity we have to be open to new ways of working and reinventing what it means to be a designer. And to embrace the uncertainty that comes with it.
If getting a little uncomfortable sounds interesting to you, we’re hiring for our Brand Design Studio : )