Illustration by Bhavya Minocha

Building a high-performing design team is all about putting talented people in positions, and on projects, where they can be successful while also growing as designers. In order for that to happen, leaders need to be intentional about team dynamics and create an environment for success.

As design leaders, we realize there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy or way of working that guarantees successful outcomes every time. Each team is different, and the complexity and design maturity within companies varies greatly. However, there are approaches that can be taken and areas we can focus on to help our teams and organizations thrive.

Align your organization on a shared vision and outcome

As design, and our understanding of design, has matured, the challenges we are trying to solve have become more complex. Now that design has a seat at the table, and is brought into the creation process earlier, it’s more widely understood that designers have a toolkit that provides great value when focused on solving larger problems – and that they’re not focused on just aesthetics.

This comes with the responsibility of fostering collaboration with other parts of an organization, with people who might have different perspectives and things they are accountable for. Designers continue to improve their skills at articulating design decisions, especially in ways our partners can understand. As our aperture has widened, we have become skilled at breaking down silos, leading and facilitating sessions to help align an organization on a shared vision and outcomes.

In order to then scale your team effectively, you need to build advocates and gain momentum. When others see the successes your team has had and speak out about them, there are more opportunities that will come up (and more scaling up your team to meet demand).

Iterate on team values and principles

At Truist, our design team’s values are tied to our organization’s purpose – Inspire and build better lives and communities – and values: Trustworthy, Caring, One Team, Success and Happiness. It’s good practice to build upon the purpose and values to create design principles. Although design principles can evolve over time, it’s important to revisit and iterate on them as a team.

When interviewing potential candidates, focus on certain aspects of your values and principles. From a cultural standpoint, it’s good to look for individuals who have similar values, but you also have to look for people who bring a different perspective and background to the team. As you add people, they will influence the culture, and we are always exploring ways to evolve the team.

Keep the creative spirit alive and improve collaboration

Fueling creativity has to do with the maturity of design and the culture within an organization. Managers and leaders should always remove roadblocks and provide necessary support for designers to do their best work. The working agreements between design teams and other teams need to account for designers to have the time and conditions to actually design. I know timelines are tight, and we need to deliver and build, but designers need the creative oxygen to recharge and refocus. Carving out time for designers to work on projects together, learn together, or just simply take time to socialize and eat together is important to get the team a little creative oxygen. It’s up to managers and leaders to make this happen.

Mentoring, for example, plays an important role in keeping the creative spirit alive. It also helps personal development, as it gives a designer the opportunity to ask for advice or learn from someone else’s experiences, which is very valuable. Mentoring should be different than a development plan because people are sometimes more comfortable showing vulnerability to peers they do not report directly to. I highly recommend encouraging team members to seek mentorship; work to build channels to help them find a mentor that can help them be more successful.

The way design feedback is handled can also impact collaboration and creativity. It’s crucial for the team to find a process that works for them. Designers understand the importance of feedback and critique and how it improves the overall quality of design. It’s up to the leader to establish a governance model for quality, providing guardrails for feedback processes to work. It’s even more important to provide a safe environment where people feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback. Like any other way of working, this process should have retros, be reviewed and improved over time.

At the end of the day, designers want to collaborate, and design outcomes are best when co-designed. One of the best qualities that differentiate designers is empathy, and how they apply it to solve problems with a human-centered approach. It helps us understand the perspective and feelings of our target audience, share that with our organization, and continue to advocate for them throughout the design process. For a design team to be successful, our empathy must go beyond the people we are designing for and include the people we are designing with. Applying empathy to collaboration and co-designing helps everyone feel included; it lets them know that their ideas and experiences are valued. This empathy helps create better relationships between teammates and leads to better outcomes. As leaders, we need to ensure designers, and our cross-functional partners, have the opportunity to gain empathy throughout the process, from ideation through validation and into future iterations.

Be flexible and empower your team to make their own decisions

As leaders we have a vision of how our teams work best and the processes that help them do their best work. But, what works for one team may not necessarily work for another. You have to be flexible and open to change. You also have to create an environment where your team feels comfortable suggesting different ways of doing things. This means you have to put your ego aside and let them experiment and iterate on what works most effectively for them.

Empowering your team to make their own decisions and trusting them to deliver the best outcomes is of the most importance. In order to do this there needs to be psychological safety. When a team feels safe with their leaders and each other, they are empowered to be honest with everyone; to feel not only heard, but also that they are a key part of the team’s success. You have to enable them to be curious, to make mistakes and learn from them, to question things, and to feel comfortable making decisions.

For many leaders, especially new ones, not making every decision yourself, and the idea of servant leadership, can be difficult; but above all, your focus should be on clearing roadblocks for your team and providing them with what they need, so they can do their job well and continue to grow.

Changing workspaces, changing tools

In order for designers to thrive, and continue to learn and grow, they need the appropriate space to do so. Having the most current tools and a state-of-the-art space is good for the morale of the team. It also instills a level of confidence for others in the organization who are working with designers. Let’s use the analogy of going to the dentist. Where would you feel more comfortable – the office that looks like it hasn’t changed in 15 years, or the modern layout with all of the latest tools and equipment? So don’t be afraid to try the latest tools, to determine if they improve outcomes and your team’s workflow.

Every team is different, and when you add in how they work with cross-functional partners, it’s important to try different ways of working together to find which are the most effective. For example, we were seeing open workspaces becoming more common, but at the same time we’ve been seeing case studies of them being both effective and ineffective, and it’s too early to tell what impact COVID-19 will have on these types of workspaces. You may need to prototype different workspace arrangements to see what works best for your team.

Design tools are also constantly changing. The tools we used years ago aren’t the tools we use today, but a lot of the principles are still the same. The core foundational knowledge, solving problems – and more importantly, making sure we are solving the right problems – will outlast design trends and even workspace layout trends. With that said, if you want designers to be successful you have to provide them with the environment and tools to allow them to do their best work.

The rise of remote working and distributed teams

Another change for a lot of companies is managing remote/distributed teams. Designers, and really anyone working on digital products, have gotten used to working this way and across time zones over the past several years. But it has been a big change for many people in a lot of companies, and because of this there tends to be a lot more meetings. Having dedicated core hours can help this situation.

It’s also important to point out that there’s a difference between having a distributed team and having a team that is suddenly distributed because of a pandemic. Most of us have never dealt with the latter before. People are nervous and worried about the unknown, and they have a lot going on. This is a time to check in on them and genuinely see how they, as humans, are doing. Early in our work-from-home transition, Scott Zimmer, who leads the Innovation and Design practice at Truist, kicked off a call by setting the expectation that conference call mishaps, in our new environment, were expected. He reinforced that barking dogs and interruptions from children would be welcomed and embraced, and he encouraged the team to not be embarrassed when they happened. This type of leadership, coupled with things like virtual lunches or virtual happy hours, are a good way to help teams feel safe and connected in times of crisis. When work returns to normal, I’d like to see these kinds of initiatives carry over to our distributed teams as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with distributed teams who’ve had flexible work schedules for some time now, and there are tools to ensure that remote workshops, brainstorming, and ideation sessions go smoothly. It’s a great time for designers to show empathy for those who are new to it and lead by example. It’s also a great time for design leaders to let our teammates know how much they are appreciated.