Being the First Designer in your Organization
5 min read

Being the First Designer in your Organization

Being the First Designer in your Organization

With more and more businesses realizing the importance of design, you might be in a position where you are the first or only designer in an organization. Though businesses know they need designers, some have no idea what you do or the exact value you provide beyond “making things look nice.” If you ever find yourself in this situation, here’s what you can do based on my own experience.

Generate Excitement

The first thing you should do is establish the importance and impact of your role. The way I like to do this is look for quick wins with large impact to generate excitement. Excitement is often used in marketing to get people to act or create strong emotion. You can use this to get management and stakeholders to be more eager about what you can offer.

When I started at my current org, there was no design guidelines or standards (even for marketing/branding), and their app experience was not serving well. I actually wondered if I had made the wrong move, but later came to realize it was a treasure trove of opportunity.

The first thing I did was show them the possibility of where we could go. I created a deck showing changes to their app with benefits and easy fixes. I even threw in some marketing mockups (this isn’t part of my job, but I did it anyway).

Some storyboarding sketches.

Doing this gave me a few things:

A platform to educate: In the case that others don't actually understand what you do, this is an excellent time to show them.

Generates excitement around the design role: Like I said above, you want this to get people eager to explore what you can offer.

Idea generation / inspiration: The other people know the business better than you do at the beginning. Sparking ideas outside of your team can lead to some great and fantastic things or insights.

Gets me noticed outside of my direct team: People will talk, and when they do, you want them to be saying good things about what you can do. For example, following this presentation, I got an invite to a leadership meeting about new ideas and direction for the business. A few weeks later, I got a request to run a workshop for the Customer Management team to explore new ideas for engagement. Personal reputation aside, it also helps propagate design thinking throughout the organization.

Educate

The more your organization becomes comfortable with design thinking and your process, the easier your life will be. But you have to be patient. The way you work and how you solve problems is likely pretty different from what others are used to. You will get pushback; people have been doing things the same way for a very long time. The best way I’ve found is getting people more experienced in your process by including them often.

Run Workshops

Workshops help get others involved in your process and design thinking. Make sure you run plenty of workshops and include a very diverse group of people. I’ve been using workshops for about 5 years now and can't imagine trying to do a project without them. I’ve run design sprints, the Apple Enterprise Design Lab process, and exercises in Shape Up.

If you’re new to workshopping, I recommend you check out these:

GV Design Sprints
Sprint by Jake Knapp
Shape Up by Ryan Singer
Workshopper by AJ&Smart

What I’ve found is that one size does not fit all when you're working within workshop frameworks. At one place, we couldn't dedicate enough time to design sprints because the stakeholders I needed were never available (or wouldn't agree to try). On top of that, most are going to be wary of trying something new. You can take apart these frameworks, find what exercises work for you and your organization, and go from there.

Start a Book Club

To get people more willing to try something new, a book club is a great way to open up discussion. At a few past positions, I’ve run a book club as a way to help get the ball rolling on new ways to workshop or change team culture. My current team most recently finished a few books on process and product together. It gives people a chance to dig into these things you want to do and feel like they’re involved. At a previous job, I put together a book club about women at work. This was after a designer on my team noted that the developers often listen to me, but not to her, when presenting. It can be a very versatile tool, and help you build bonds with your team.

Gather Support

Being the only designer doesn’t mean you have to do your job alone.

Developers, your BFFs

When bringing design to a new organization, gather support among your non-designer colleagues. One of the most obvious options is the developers you work with. A good chunk of my best ideas and projects have been born out of heavy developer collaboration. I’ve been places where the developer and designer relationship is almost “us vs. them". This makes everything much harder and less fun. If you have a team behind you, it is much easier to push design ideas or agenda.

My first week I invited all the developers to a workshop to figure out what we wanted to do together. Remember, they want to build awesome experiences too; use that to your advantage. I found there were many things that we both wanted to do: testing, analytics, user data, standardization, and improve the UX. A discussion like this will give you a good sense of what personalities vibe with you. It also helps them feel more included and valued rather than code monkeys.

Your boss or team lead

Boss support is super important. In my current position, I report to the VP of Technology. There is no design or creative director to help push design thinking in the higher levels of business. Having his support and understanding has been valuable, not only for pushing ideas up, but for my own morale! It’s lonely being the only designer, but great when you have people who understand where you’re coming from.

Ideally, you will already have the support of whoever you report to. In the case that you don’t, you may want to try a few things first:

Gather support from colleagues: Having a good reputation among your team will boost your boss’ image of you.

Make things easier for him/her: At any point you can, make things easier for them. Do it without asking, so it is a pleasant surprise. If you have to ask what you can do for them, you’re putting more work onto their plate.

Increasing your influence

Reaching out to other departments

If increasing the role of design thinking in your org is your goal, this is going to be key. Anywhere you see that your skills can help, reach out. For example, I offer to run workshops for any teams that need to hash and explore ideas or make decisions. It may not be UI related, but it’s still problem solving and collaboration, which is at the core of everything we do. They don’t need to be other technical or product teams either. I’ve helped out marketing teams, customer teams, HR, developers, and project management.

When you start to do this, you help increase the perceived value of design thinking. Other teams may start to run your exercises on their own, and before you know it, design thinking is a part of many teams' cultures.

Conclusion

I hope some of this can be useful to a few of you. These are just my own experiences, and you may be in a completely different situation or environment where none of it works. If you have any different experiences or insights, let us know @frontndblog on Twitter!

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