Design can be so much more than “problem-solving”

I’m reposting items written originally for peterme.com. This is from March 3, 2016.


I’m writing a book on building effective in-house design teams. I occasionally share passages from the book that stand on their own. What follows is something I’m have a beast of a time articulating. Feedback is welcome!

Design can be so much more than “problem-solving”

Business in the industrial and information ages of the 19th and 20th centuries was dominated by the analytical approaches typical in scientific management and engineering. These approaches are insufficient for tackling the complex challenges companies face now. This has lead to greater investment in design for the following reasons:

  • Squeezing greater efficiency has run its course, and design’s generative qualities are seen as means to realize new business value
  • By its very nature, software breeds complications that require design to rein in; with networked software, this complexity is exponentialized
  • The shift from products to services, with umpteen touchpoints by which someone chooses to interact, places greater reliance on design for coordination so as not to overwhelm the customer

While these challenges explain why corporations are willing to spend, focusing only on known problems limits the potential impact that design can have on a company. While design is often associated with “problem-solving,” the irony is that this view represents the same reductionist mindset that created the challenges that design is being brought in to address.

Problem-solving is only the tip of the iceberg for design. Beneath the surface, design is a powerful tool for problem-framing, ensuring that what is being addressed is worth tackling. Deeper still, and discover the core opportunity for design is to inject humanism into work. The best designed products and services don’t simply solve problems, they connect deeply with people. When design is combined with social sciences like anthropology and sociology, and other creative disciplines such as writing, there exists the possibility of creating a powerful expression of the human experience. As Steve Jobs said,

Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.

Hiring: reject a candidate for the right reasons, not just because they’re different

I’m reposting items originally written for peterme.com. This post is from February 18, 2016.


(I’m currently writing a chapter on recruiting and hiring designers. The following passage is about the debrief after The Day of Interviews, and how to proceed if the the interview panel is split. Essentially, make sure that it’s not just because the candidate is somehow different.) 

The challenge is when a candidate splits the panel, where some are strongly positive, and others are inclined not to hire. Navigating this proves to be among the most heightened and sensitive tasks for a design leader, because there is nothing more damning than a mis-hire, especially where there’s evidence that not everyone was on board.

In most situations where there’s a split, the easiest decision is the same as the right decision–do not hire. Given how costly it is to make a hiring mistake, this is where better-safe-than-sorry is an appropriate strategy. BUT. It is not a universal, and how this is handled is one of those areas that distinguishes design leaders from design managers. If a design leader deeply believes in the potential of a candidate, and can identify flaws in the rationale of those who object, the design leader should make the case for why an offer ought to be extended to the candidate.

There are reasons for rejection that design leaders need to be wary of, and call out if they are the only impediment to hiring.

Unfamiliar background or approach. Designers, particularly those with less experience, can be quite orthodox in how they evaluate other designers. They may be suspicious of any designer who doesn’t share their background or approach. An atypical background (maybe they didn’t study design in school), or unfamiliar approach (perhaps they don’t use typical design tools, or they’re unfamiliar with industry standard methods), can make panel members uneasy, because it’s not how they do it, and they don’t understand how other ways can be successful. The design leader’s role is to remind the panel of what is most important – results. If an unorthodox approach leads to great design work, the onus is on the team to figure out how they might be able to incorporate such different ways into their team. In fact, a willingness to consider people with atypical backgrounds provides two benefits: there will likely be less competition for that person (because other companies will also be hesitant with the unfamiliar); and the incorporation of new ways of working will increase the team’s diversity of perspective, and enable them to do better work.

Awkward communicators. If the interview process has one crucial drawback, it would be its reliance on conversations as the primary medium of understanding. The portfolio review mitigates this somewhat, but one of the things any candidate is being tested on when talking to people over the course of a day is how well they communicate. Many talented designers are not good oral communicators, and many are quite introverted. It might even be part of the reason they got into design–they may be more comfortable with pictures than words. People who are awkward communicators (and good designers) often process the world differently than others, and that difference can actually make for a stronger team by bringing in uncommon ways of working and thinking.

Candidate is a little weird. Maybe they talk fast or loud. Maybe they have some uncommon obsessions. Maybe they demonstrate unbridled enthusiasm or a lack of social graces. Whatever it is, you will interview candidates that are a little weird. Don’t let that weirdness be a turn-off. In fact, lean in to your team’s weirdness. If a design team can’t bring weirdness into a company, who can? If people on the interview panel grow wary when candidates’ let their freak flags fly, reorient their thinking to the quality of that candidate’s work, and whether they think the candidate will be truly disruptive (and not just a little strange).

“Head of Design”: Defining this role

I’m reposting items originally written for peterme.com. This is from February 10, 2016.


I’m co-writing a book on building in-house design teams. I’m also currently in the job market, so I’ve been thinking about, and talking about, the role of “Head of Design,” which you’re starting to see pop up across Silicon Valley. Here’s what I wrote to define the role.

Head of Design

For design to realize its potential requires focused, empowered leadership. “Head of Design” has emerged as a title for this role, which works regardless of whether they are considered a manager, director, or VP.

Whatever the level, the head of design is the “CEO” of the design organization, ultimately accountable for the team’s results. That impact is the result of how they handle three types of leadership:

  • creative
  • managerial
  • operational

A Head of Design provides a creative vision not just for the design team but the whole organization. They establish processes and practices for realizing that vision, and set the bar for quality. They contribute to the development of brand definition and experience principles, and ensure that those are appropriately interpreted through the team’s work.


Their managerial leadership is realized through the tone they set for their team. What kind of work environment do they foster? How are team members treated, and what opportunities are they given to grow? How is feedback given? How do they hire, and who does that bring in? The sum of these decisions defines the Head of Design’s managerial style.

Operational leadership is a combination of very little things and very big things, all in the interest of optimizing the design organization’s effectiveness. The little things are what the rest of the team sees, in terms of how communications are handled, which tools are supported, how work is scheduled, how team meetings are run. The big things tend to happen behind the scenes, and involve interactions with a company’s core operations teams such as finance, HR, IT, and facilities. These include opening requisitions for headcount, adjusting salaries to ensure market competitiveness, establishing employee growth paths, acquiring the necessary hardware and software, and claiming physical spaces.

A common mistake made by company leaders when hiring a Head of Design is to favor creative leadership qualities over the managerial and operational. They bring in a creative visionary with big ideas and a beautiful portfolio, but often those folks don’t have the patience or mindset for the mechanics needed to actually make an organization run. Team members struggle without good management, flail without tight operations, and the team proves far less effective than they could be. Admittedly, it’s a challenge to find an individual skilled in all three forms of leadership. Remember, this role is the “CEO” of the design team, and as such, managerial and operational excellence are crucial.

As the team grows, the Head of Design will not be able to perform detailed duties across these three areas. This is when you bring on Design Managers and Directors (for people management), Creative Directors (for creative vision), and Directors of Design Program Management (to run operations). With these lieutenants in place, there is still plenty to do. At that point, a Head of Design focuses on:

Recruiting and hiring. Always. There may be nothing more important in the organization than identifying talent and getting them to join the team.

Living the culture. Addressed in depth in Chapter 7, the culture of a design team is essential to its long-term success. A Head of Design not only establishes the team’s cultural values, but demonstrates them every day through their actions.

Process and practices. Working with design managers and creative directors, establish a methodological toolkit, and make sure it is shared, understood, and used throughout the team.

Vision. Developing a “north star” for the company is not a one-time act, but an ongoing process of refinement and evolution.

Represent design for the organization. The Head is the primary voice of design inside and outside the company, sharing its work, evangelizing its success, articulating its vision. And sometimes this representation means fighting for design in the face of policies, procedures, and bureaucracy that limits the team’s potential.

Thoughts on fostering a collaborative work environment

I’m re-posting items originally written for peterme.com. This post is from January 26, 2016.


[I just wrote the following passage for my book on building in-house design teams. It needs work, but I still felt it was worth sharing.]

Realizing the benefit of diverse perspectives requires a supportive environment where people are encouraged and comfortable sharing their work, spurring collaboration that makes the final output better than what anyone would deliver on their own.

Every member of the team must demonstrate respect to every other member, or the openness required for successful collaboration will not emerge. Dismissiveness, insults, cattiness, and behind-the-back gossip lead to people feeling shamed and shutting down, and cannot be tolerated.

Earning one another’s respect is necessary in order for the team to “get real”, because frank and candid critique and feedback are essential for upholding the high quality standards. Greatness comes from the tension and collision of different perspectives, addressed openly and honestly. Design teams that favor politeness over respectful candor will rarely produce great work.

Organizational hierarchy can stifle the free flow of ideas within a design organization – when senior people speak, it often stops the conversation. It’s now become cliche, but it’s worth repeating – great ideas can come from anywhere. Great design leaders encourage everyone to speak up, and, for themselves, wait to speak last. These leaders must also place their work alongside others, and accept others’ critique with grace and humility.

The collaborative environment referred to so far has been figurative, but it also should be made literal. Great design work takes space – places to collaborate, whiteboards for sketching and ideation, walls to show work. And those spaces should be permanent, places where the team works and sees their work all around them. Not only does this encourage continual engagement from the team itself, such spaces enable people outside the team to quickly connect with the work. It literally demonstrates openness and transparency. And instead of having occasional big share-outs (that require preparation that takes time away from productivity), these spaces support frequent lightweight check-ins that ensure the work is on track, because if it’s beginning to veer off-course, it is quickly corrected.

Design Team Leads

I’m re-posting items originally written for peterme.com. This is from January 11, 2016.


My friend Dane Petersen asked on Twitter: “Honest, unsnarky question: If design is thinking by doing and leadership means someone else does the doing, how does a design leader think?”

I’ve written a bunch about this in the book I’m writing. Here is what I wrote about the “team lead”, the person responsible for a 3-7 person design team tackling a problem.

Team Lead

Regardless of size, each design team benefits from a single point of authority and leadership, an individual with vision and high standards who can get the most out of their team. This is the most important role on the team, and the hardest job to do well.

Team leads must be able to:
Manage down. Leads are responsible for overall team performance. They need to create a space (whether physical or conceptual) where great design work can happen. They must coach, guide, mentor, and prod. They address collaboration challenges, personality conflicts, unclear mandates, and people’s emotions.

Manage across. Design leads coordinate with product leads, business leads, technology leads, and people in other functions in order to make sure their teams’ work is appropriately integrated with the larger whole. They must also be able to credibly push back on unreasonable requirements, and goad when others claim that the design team’s work is too difficult to be delivered.

Manage up. It’s crucial that these leads are comfortable talking to executives, whether it’s to explain the rationale behind design decisions or to make the case for spending money, whether on people or facilities. Design leads must present clear arguments, delivered without anger or frustration, that demonstrate how their work ties into the larger goals and objectives of the business.

In short, the best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman. And they are folks who, through, experience, find they can span the conceptual scale from 1,000 feet all the way down to 1 foot. They oversee the end-to-end experience, ensuring that user needs are understood, business objectives are clear, design solutions are appropriate, and the final quality is high. To achieve coherence, they must integrate efforts across product design, communication design, user experience research, and content strategy. They are responsible for articulating a design vision shared not just by their immediate team, but their cross-functional partners as well. No wonder it’s so hard to find such people!

Are your team members respected as individuals?

I’m reposting items originally written for peterme.com. This post is from January 6, 2016.


I’m co-writing a book on building in-house design teams. Occasionally I’ll write a passage that stands on its own and feels worth sharing. 

A byproduct of bureaucratic work environments is that they encourage treating employees as cogs in a machine, not as the idiosyncratic people that they really are. Job titles suggest equivalence and interchangeability for anyone with the same title. Discrete numbered levels are used to assess seniority and salary ranges. Org charts delimit access and authority.

Actualized design teams overcome such practices by treating team members as individuals, with all the messiness implied. They recognize job titles are imperfect, and two people with the same title may have different skills. That’s okay, though, because everyone knows those people’s strengths and weaknesses, and makes sure that they’re set up to succeed. Seniority levels are seen as guidelines, not strict containers. Reporting structures are there for communication and mentorship, and do not limit anyone’s ability to share ideas and have an impact.

The reason companies adopt bureaucratic methods in the first place is to manage people at scale. While maintaining this individualistic perspective is challenging as the design organization grows, it’s worth the effort. Designers, perhaps more than other professionals, are a sensitive, empathetic, expressive, and quirky bunch. Reducing them to labels and levels removes their individuality, blunting their engagement and, in turn, their work. Instead, celebrate their individuality. Let their freak flags fly.

Facilitation is a necessary design skill

I’m reposting items originally written for peterme.com. This is from November 19, 2015.


(I’m writing a book on building in-house design teams. This brief passage struck me as worth sharing.)

In a networked-software-services world, to render an entire customer journey is a matter of managing overwhelming complexity. No team of designers, no matter how talented and capable, can acquire the necessary deep knowledge across so many domains to deliver robust work. This means that the design team can no longer rely solely on the hard skills of their practice and craft to succeed. In order to arrive at the most suitable solution regardless of context, the design team needs to practice the soft skill of facilitation. This is because designers are not the sole creators – there are too many moving parts, too much specialized knowledge necessary to fully appreciate a situation. Designers need to facilitate the creative output of others throughout the organization, tapping into a resource often left dormant. If working in a hospital setting, get nurses, technicians, and doctors to ideate around their specific problems. In a call center, have the customer service representatives pitch how they think things should be. The point isn’t to be slavish to the input from other functions – the design team still has the crucial responsibility of refining, honing, and executing these ideas. But it’s a recognition that the problems we’re solving are too big for any one team to have a complete handle on.