Many Designers Working as One

One of the best byproducts of a design team working in Abstract is that it allows the team to melt into one.

I’m a huge advocate for design pairing–all of our designers pair for the duration of every project, no matter how small. But as we’ve been working through larger projects with the luxury of Abstract, there’s a new phenomenon evolving that I think is going to be essential over the next few years: Open Design.

Because Abstract allows us to work collaboratively within the same files, the idea of ownership has started to disappear. Actually, that’s not exactly true: the idea that a single designer should be celebrated has gone away in favor of celebrating the team’s accomplishments. By the time a feature ships, nobody really knows (or cares) who designed any one part.

In Abstract’s excellent article, Embracing Open Design, there’s a single paragraph at the end that hints at this culture shift.

“Until very recently, design happened locally and individually. We’re becoming much more collaborative with other business stakeholders. And as we tackle more complex problems, we’re boldly attempting to reconcile our different ideas and approaches to design.”

Its effect is going to start coming into play when we look at hiring and culture fit. It takes a certain personality to work this way. Honestly, I don’t care how good a designer is on their own. Their ability to integrate with the rest of the team is the single most important design skill on my teams now. A designer’s value has to be based on their contribution to the whole, not some amazing work they did by themselves.

In the real world

My favorite aspect of open design is it allows us to split work up in ways that make our team more efficient. Recently, we started a large-ish project that would overhaul major functionality in our native apps. After the research stage, we felt that we had four distinct options for proceeding.

Each designer left the whiteboard session to go explore rough wireframes of how each direction could work. We huddled briefly the next day; just long enough for each designer to show their direction. This gives an opportunity for feedback, but more importantly, it shows everyone what’s available to be borrowed. We always encourage designers to “steal” from each other if someone else’s solution could help solve their problem.

When we regrouped the next day, each designer presented the concept they had worked on. Not because it was the version they were championing, but because they had the best understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. In fact, most sounded like this: “we’re going to run into issues if we do this…”, or “this could work but it will affect how we handle (something else)…”. We were evaluating based on the concept itself, not on how great of a design someone had come up with. It puts us in a very different place than having a designer doing their best to “sell” their solution to the rest of the team.

We picked the version that worked best. From there, everyone merged their work and started working from the solution we had chosen. We just repeat as we work our way closer to a solution. The process itself isn’t really new. It’s still the double-diamond process that we’ve always used. The difference is that now no one’s concerned with getting credit for any one part, so we’re able to divide the work more efficiently than ever.

More communication, not less

A misconception about Open Design is that it will solve communication issues within a team. For us, it’s actually encouraged us to work together in person more often. We’re always exploring multiple ways of solving something, picking the right solution, then merging so everyone can work off of that. It means that things move really fast, and for that we need to make sure information flows.

The hard part

I’m incredibly excited by what an Open Design process implies. But the hardest part is getting someone through their first experience with the process.

Nobody starts out being ok with it. Nobody. Everyone comes to a new role wanting to show what they can do. Working in an open environment cuts that off right away. By the time they finish that first project, everyone is on board and more excited than ever to be a part of their design team.