First up, disclaimer: I had no experience in building a design team from scratch, although I had managerial experience very briefly, and not in a very large team. That said, this idea is something that needs more experimentation and validation. However, I am pretty comfortable at sharing this to you.
I always found that companies everywhere are struggling with the idea of design. They are confused as how design should be positioned and treated. Mostly, they are part of the “production” process in which it is perceived to be a very mechanical mean to achieve something, and certainly, more often than not, they were not part of the stage where a business or product gets formulated. Most of the briefs we have as designers always come from such people called “stakeholders”. They probably had meetings in the ivory tower or somewhere in the mountains and only after they have a pretty solid idea of what they want, they begin to hire designers (and engineers, project managers, product managers, and the whole team saga).
This presents us designers a very nerving situation where our problem-solving skills are limited to answering the client’s predefined needs. We don’t have the opportunity to challenge the needs, the wants and the vision of the “clients”, because, well, uh, they paid us to do this job?
In the end, people always think designers are just the same as mechanics, and even worse, drivers on a car who don’t get to decide where to go. After all, that’s how business works, right? I pay you and you do work for me as I wish!
As a designer myself, I face constant challenge everyday where most of my design work is mostly client-driven, and this thing, although fun in some regards, is highly dependent on the quality of the client and the product. Once you lose passion or face a problem in that particular environment, you are tempted to move on. Thus, many designers I know are constantly job-hopping or going freelancing. They’re on the constant search for that “perfect environment.”
Thus, I am offering a little bit of solution here, both for companies or clients and the designers themselves.
For companies or clients, I think you should provide designers a room for mistakes. Even if you have a solid product idea, expect to get challenged. Challenge is good for your product to be improved. It also shows that your designers get excited and want to contribute more than just answering briefs. Even better: present your design team with a set of problems than a set of solutions. For example:
We need to find a safe & feel-good way to pay online.
That’s completely a different perspective than if we present the designers this brief:
We believe prepaid cards are the best way to pay online. Data X shows this is how it’s done in the US. We want to try here. Can you design an app for that?
The key difference is that one is an open-ended question, and needs research and validations, the latter one is already a conclusive statement (if not to say assumption).
It’s certainly easier to make-pretty a shitty idea, and if the product fails, blame it all to the designers & engineers who “didn’t do a great job”, and continue moving on to the “team search”, than if you engage your team to continually challenge your ideas and assumptions. You’re paying them to make your product better and loved, not to do what you say.
“But, I don’t have time for a trial and error. I have investment money pouring in with a strict schedule.”
Let’s think about this for a moment. This is actually where we all fail. The whole ecosystem is broken. We need to fix it. How do we fix it? By having a decency to convince our investors to have a bit of a breathing space to formulate the best product experience. It’s your job as a stakeholder.
Better yet, a fundamentally good business is always about bootstrapping. Start small. Nobody can build PayPal overnight.
As for designers, it’s our job to continually fight and make things better in every endeavour we take. Sometimes we have to lose it out, but don’t forget that we need to think beyond mechanical work. It is about building our confidence in defining and pushing for the product design process that works and benefits the users at first.
The idea is: A well-designed product is potentially a well-destined business.