Rebranding Snag, Part 2: Brand Identity

In Part 1, I explained key aspects of developing Snag’s new brand strategy. Elements like our brand personality characteristics (Optimistic, Energetic, Determined, Sincere) and brand positioning (that we lean towards human, not technology, or towards the worker, not the employer), proved foundational for creating a new brand identity.

Choosing a partner

As we did with Great Monday for our brand strategy, I knew we would want an external partner to develop our visual brand identity. Early in my career, I worked at Studio Archetype, and realized that designing brand identities isn’t just a subset of communication or graphic design, but a black art whose top practitioners seem to be wired differently, and so great identity design is much more reliant on talent than it is on process.

To narrow our field of consideration to a manageable set, we focused on boutique firms located in the same cities as our offices (Richmond, VA, Washington, DC, Charleston, SC, and Oakland, CA.) And with this filter, we met with a few firms, including Fuzzco, based in Charleston, lead by the delightful partnership of Josh Nissenboim and Helen Rice.

joshandhelend

Looking over their site, you’ll see a range of beautiful work, from graphic design for Charleston restaurants to identities for tech firm Puppet Labs, and a remarkable collection of all kinds of stuff for Mailchimp.

We used our brand personality to help us make a decision, and chose Fuzzco because we felt they embodied the energy, optimism, and sincerity that we were striving for.

We worked with Fuzzco for about 8 weeks. I won’t rehash the entire process–in the big picture, it was a typical approach of starting very broad, and then week-by-week getting more specific and more polished until we were done. I will highlight key decision points along the way that drove us to the final result.

We Fall in Love with A Concept

One thing Fuzzco does a little differently than many firms is that instead of having an initial round of 3 or 4 moderately polished concepts to choose from, they bring the client into the pencil-sketching part of the process, presenting literally dozens of concepts, and from there, a single concept is chosen to develop.

Here is a selection of 5-10% of the concepts they shared:

concepts

While we were intrigued by using the “g” to snag something, we found ourselves captivated by the hand grabbing the period. It wasn’t because of the obviousness of the hand ‘snagging.’ As my boss, Jocelyn, stated, the hand connected us to our workers, their work, and our company’s humanism.

So, we knew we wanted the hand. But we also know getting it right was going to be a lot of work. There’s a reason there aren’t many logos with hands in them (Allstate is the only one that usually comes to people’s minds). Hands are tricky. They’re complex and busy. They “say” a lot depending on their orientation, placement of fingers, implied movement. They risk being in the “uncanny valley”–if they’re not rendered exactly right, they can feel distressingly unnatural and weird.

I have much more to say about the hand, so much in fact, that it warrants it’s own post. (So stay tuned for part 3!)

Meanwhile, we considered logo typography

Early in our work with them, Fuzzco showed the following screen, and it became the jumping off point for our typography exploration.

fontsDesigners can obsess about type all day long. And we did. With only four letters in the name, each letter takes on remarkable importance. Much of the team leaned towards Avant Garde and its cousins – Brown, Walsheim, Value Sans. The reason was obvious — they were most similar to the existing Snagajob logo.

I got very worked up about the letter g. As the last letter, and one with a descender, I knew it was going to do a lot of work for us. And I found myself leaning towards the “double-story” or “looptail” g, particularly in Dala Floda. It’s just so expressive, and with such great energy and flow.

I wasn’t as excited about the Avant Garde crew – their geometric precision felt contrary to the humanism we were striving for. Perusing the other choices, apart from Dala Floda, I was drawn to Duplicate Sans – it had a funky squashed aspect reminiscent of Cooper Black, but didn’t feel nostalgic or outdated. We showed these typefaces to our CEO, and, to my happy surprise, he also gravitated toward Duplicate. And, as it turned out, Fuzzco were big on Duplicate for us, and that pretty much settled it. In the next round, they shared a bunch of variants, oh, and made official a particular element.

duplicatesThey explored not only type variants, but double-story “a” and “g” versus single. We all stared long and hard at this, and though we dug the slab serifs, the Duplicate Soft Black (lower right hand corner) felt more approachable and on-brand, and within there, we appreciated the tension of the double-story “a” and the single story “g.”

The period looked so natural, that it was never up for debate. It also helped reinforce snag-as-a-verb.

The emotions around color

Early in our brand strategy process, we polled employees about our brand’s characteristics, and along with the expected responses around “passionate,” “friendly,” “fun,” a top response was “orange.”

Orange had been the key brand color from the beginning. And even though the current logo’s orange was only in the ball above the “j”, people held it dear.

As part of any visual identity project, a color palette is developed. Very quickly, Fuzzco settled on a deep navy blue for our base color (it just felt right, and we agreed), and paired it with orange as our primary palette, and then provided a host of bright fluorescent colors as an energetic secondary palette.

earlycolorpalette

The core team found we were gravitating more towards the secondary palette than the primary one. We just liked its energy.

Also, members of my product design team raised accessibility concerns about the colors chosen. This is where I’m grateful for the brilliant people I worked with, because it would have never occurred to me to raise such issues. Contrast is a significant factor in readability for the sight-impaired, and the colors we had didn’t have high enough contrast (Learn more about such matters here.). Our feedback to Fuzzco was to heighten the contrast, lose all those blue variants, and not to worry about “primary” and “secondary”–just give us a palette that worked. After some tinkering, they delivered:

refinedpallete

Orange still has a prominent place, and you’ll see an iteration of the energetic colors, the “Fluo”s.

Fuzzco’s work was done at the end of 2017, and starting at the beginning of this year, we took on an internal program of applying this color palette to all of our interfaces, and some marketing material, to see how it worked. I can’t show those explorations (as I don’t have access to that any more), but what quickly became clear is: orange is a bitch to work with. It simply didn’t play nice with our other colors, except occasionally when there was a single call-to-action, or a subtle highlight. So, even though it had been so core to our visual identity for so long, orange was demoted to the most secondary of colors in the final palette we arrived at, replaced by what became our favorite new color:

final peltte

Our designers absolutely fell for periwinkle. It had just the right context for our deep navy (now renamed Blurple), and became the workhorse color for buttons, links, and other common actions.

Quick thoughts on typography

Along with the typography in the logo, Fuzzco gave us styles for type throughout our marketing and product experience. There’s not much to say, except that though we really liked the initial typography they suggested for us (Duplicate Slab as a display face, Graphik Regular for body), we quickly realized that the web licensing fees for these fonts were prohibitively expensive (an issue I’ve had at every company I’ve worked). We asked them to explore Google fonts as an alternate, and they hit upon Nunito, which isn’t all that common (unlike Open Sans), has a remarkable variety of weights, and echoes the friendly roundness of Duplicate Soft in our logo.

nunito

Hey, what about the logo? And imagery, photography, illustrations, etc.

Getting the logo right is an epic in and of itself, and I realize it warrants its own post, as this one has already gotten too long. So, stay tuned for Part 3!

And there’s more to a visual brand identity than just a logo, type, and colors. We also worked with Fuzzco on developing illustration and photography styles. What I learned in this process is that we needed waaaaay more time and budget than we could afford in our relationship with Fuzzco to get imagery right. In fact, while you’ll see a distinct photo style on Snag’s homepage and Employer Landing Page (we quickly grew to love that pink-to-purple gradient overlay), at the time of our public brand launch on April 4th, we still had a lot of work to do to define our imagery style. I look forward to seeing what the team creates in the coming months!

Rebranding Snag – Part 1, Brand Strategy

The Backstory

Among the strangest aspects of my sudden departure from Snag is that, just a week before, we launched one of the greatest endeavors of my professional life–a top-to-bottom rebrand of the company.

Even before joining Snagajob in January 2017, the possibility of a rebrand was discussed with me. The company had acquired PeopleMatter, an enterprise software company, and had launched a pilot on-demand service, HUSL, and all these brands lead to confusion both in the market and internally. The name “Snagajob” was much too specific to the company’s job board past, had no relevance to employers, and, frankly, was a bit sophomoric and could be hard to take seriously.

So, from the day I started, January 2, 2017, I was the lead executive on rectifying this brand challenge, partnered with Bridget Walsh, our director of communication design. There is some irony to me leading brand, as I’m not really a brand guy. I’m a research-strategy-information architecture-interaction design guy. I am skeptical, even dismissive, of much of the discussion around brand1Never forget, branding is the application of a red hot iron to the hide of livestock..

That said, my first design industry job (1996-1998) was at Studio Archetype, a design firm that grew out of a specialization in identity and communication design to become a pioneer in CD-ROM and web design. And so while skeptical, I appreciate the wizardry of truly gifted brand professionals.

Thankfully, I inherited a big-enough budget to bring on external help to guide us through this. An early realization was that there were two projects here–clarify our brand strategy, and then, based on that, develop a new visual identity.

Choosing a strategy partner

We interviewed a few potential partners for the strategy work, and quickly settled on Great Monday, whose principle, Josh Levine, is an old friend of mine. We chose them because they were clearly smart and capable, pleasingly small (I think there’s only 3 full time staff), located in Oakland (as am I), and, importantly, Josh understood what we needed from him – not just a clever brand strategist, but a charismatic presence who could rally a room of people from across the company, who could speak with authority to our CEO and other executive team members, and who would do all the little things that it takes to see something through that is as fraught and anxiety-inducing as a total reconsideration of company’s brand.

Given that potential for anxiety, and given Snagajob’s size (mid-400s), age (17 years at this point), geographies (4 cities), and company philosophy (heavily mission-driven), Great Monday proposed a measured, thoughtful approach, designed to hand-hold us through every stage and maintain our confidence that we were on the right path. It also meant that it would take 4-5 months. Our executives wanted it sooner and pleaded with me to move faster, but I felt that in order for this to succeed, we needed to do it right – a rebrand isn’t something you get to iterate on in the market.

I won’t delve into every project detail. Suffice to say it included discovery, stakeholder and customer interviews, internal questionnaires, workshops, positioning and story development, brand architecture, and brand personality.

Oh and naming. That I do want to talk about. Before I do, it helps to set up a couple of things.

Brand Workshop Reveals Key Strategic Foundations

About a month and a half into the work, Great Monday hosted a workshop with 20 people pulled from all departments, and from all levels of seniority (though it was admittedly top-heavy).

(obligatory workshop photo of people collaborating)

They lead us through a series of activities, two of which proved crucial in defining our brand. In their discussions with internal stakeholders, the identified a few areas of tension. They placed opposing concepts on a simple single-line spectrum, and had us dot-vote where we thought we currently were, and where we should be. Two of these dominated our discussion:

  1. Were we a ‘tech’ company or a ‘people’ company?
  2. Do we lean more towards the worker or the employer?

The placement of the dots wasn’t nearly as important as the discussion it catalyzed. For the first, the passionate discussion made it clear that we were, and wanted to be perceived as, a ‘people’ company. In fact, we considered it ironic that in a jobs/work space that is so much about people, pretty much no competitor authentically embraced their humanism. The discussion around the second grew quite heated, as employers pay our bills, and many were adamant our brand should preference them. However, Great Monday had spoken to many employers, who expressed general apathy about our brand, saying that our value to them was our ability to appeal to workers. So we decided our brand would be ‘worker first.’

Brand Architecture Forces Focus

After the workshop, the next key decision we made was to settle on a brand architecture. At the time, Snagajob was a somewhat clumsy “house of brands.” The company was named Snagajob, and that name was used in our services that faced our jobseekers and workers. They had acquired PeopleMatter, an applicant-tracking SaaS offering, and kept that name as the brand facing employers. And then there was an innovation team that was developing an on-demand offering, which they branded as HUSL.

We had an opportunity to approach this thoughtfully. Should we keep this individual architecture where you have different brands under a corporate brand (think GM and Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac); a monolithic architecture where there’s one brand to rule them all, with sub brands underneath (FedEx, and FedEx Ground, FedEx Express, FedEx Office), or a hybrid architecture that features a strong corporate brand, but gives room for subbrands that stand on their own (Marriott with Courtyard by Marriott, Residence Inn, J.W. Marriott, etc.). At our size (450 employees), and in our market (job marketplace, similar to Indeed and LinkedIn), it became quickly clear that monolithic was the way to go. No one else in our space had different names for the worker and employer facing services, and pretty much no marketplace business does. The strength of a marketplace is signaled by having one brand that hosts everybody.

If we’re going to have one name…

With the decision to be a monolithic brand, we then had to come to terms with the matter of the name. The easiest solution would be to call everything Snagajob. It’s how we’d been known for 17 years. The problem was that the name is distinctly worker-facing. Employers might not care, but it felt inappropriate to actively exclude them. But also, the company had evolved beyond jobs, with the most exciting opportunity being in on-demand, helping employers and workers make it easier to offer and pickup shifts. And while “Snagajob” may have felt dot-com appropriate when coined in 2000, by 2017 it came across as clunky and unprofessional.

I found out that, even before I joined the company, the idea of renaming it “Snag” had been floated. It mimicked Snapchat renaming themselves “Snap,” was brief and catchy, and maintained some brand equity while allowing for offerings beyond jobs. However, the word “snag” has primarily negative connotations (hitting a snag, a snag in sweater). Unsure quite how to proceed, we engaged in a naming exercise with Great Monday.

Naming is a bit of a black art. We fed them a bunch of brand names we liked and didn’t like, and the reasons why. We also had our brand positioning and personality characteristics (more on those later). After many days of what I assume was playing with morphemes, paging through dictionaries and thesauruses, and long soaks in the bathtub, they presented us about 20 names to consider, and another 100-plus that had also come up. We went through a few rounds of throwing things away, coming up with new stuff, and eventually had a selection of 3 names that we liked.

(No, I’m not going to share them with you. Maybe over beers.)

The problem is, we couldn’t agree on them. Of the 5 or 6 people on the ‘core team’ for the brand, there was no consensus. And our executive sponsors also didn’t align.  Our CEO pointed out that what we think doesn’t matter nearly as much as what our jobseekers and workers thought, so why don’t we ask them? So we set up one of the quickest bits of research I’ve overseen in my career, talking individually to 12 jobseekers (NO FOCUS GROUPS. EVER.) across the United States about the three names we were considering. Oh, and we threw “Snag” in there as well to see how it compared. We asked them their impressions of the different names, and then we had them rate the names against each of our brand personality traits, as we wanted to make sure that the name spoke to how we wanted to be perceived.

Coming out of the research, jobseekers exhibited a variety of preferences, with no one clear “winner.” But, to our surprise, the name that scored strongest was…Snag. After all that work, it turned out the right name was there the whole time. There were no regrets about the process – we needed to go through that rigamarole to have confidence that Snag could, in fact, work for us.

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Going all the way back to the brand workshop, there was another activity that proved key to our brand strategy. And that was having each of us propose a spokesperson for the brand, someone, out in the world, who represents what we felt our brand stood for. People came up with all kinds of answers. I don’t remember them all, but some were America Ferrara, Zendaya, Barack Obama.

For each spokesperson we listed 3 to 4 personality traits that explained why they were a good representative. Across the 20 or so spokespeople, we had 70-some adjectives emerge. After some sorting and categorizing, we arrived at the following groups:

We knew this was too many. And some, like “Human” and “Genuine” have become cliches; even if they are true for you, they’re no longer interesting as brand characteristics, as too many companies claim them. Key to successful brand traits is that they’re a) authentic and b) ownable. To be ownable, it means that no other competitor could claim them. (You also want to avoid traits that are really just table stakes for being in business, like “trustworthy.”) With that mindset, we got it down to:
However, we felt 5 was more than could be readily remembered, so we got out our scalpel, and trimmed it to:

I love these traits. They strongly resonate with Snag’s internal culture. They’re humanistic. They’re candid — “determined” recognizes the toil it takes to succeed. They’re unexpected – “sincere” is surprisingly sentimental for a company (we almost went with “heartfelt” but thought that was a bit too much.)

With the brand strategy, architecture, new name, and new characteristics, we had a strong definition of our new brand. The next step was to figure out how to express that personality, which I will describe when I get around to writing part 2.

(For the sake of verbal expedience, I’m probably not spending enough time highlighting the individuals at Snag who made this all go. Along with Bridget, our core team featured Dane Schwartz, and then in the next concentric circle out was Jason Conrad and Megan Overton. None of this would have happened without the support of my boss, Jocelyn Mangan, or the encouragement of our CEO, Peter Harrison.)

Leaving Snag, figuring out my professional next

My previous post, from the beginning of last year, announced me joining Snagajob as the VP of Design. This post announces my departure, as Snag (as the rebranded company is now known, more on that in a moment) has closed their Oakland office to apply sharper focus on their teams in Richmond, VA, Washington, D.C., and Charleston, SC.

There are quite a few stories to tell, particularly around the rebrand, which launched to the public last week. Those will be coming soon!

After having written Org Design for Design Orgs, many folks asked if I could consult, advise, or teach them about design organization development, design leadership, DesignOps (as it’s now called), and other related matters. With my full-time job, I couldn’t, but now I can, and would love to help design teams be the best and most effective that they can be. (Email me at peterme AT this site’s domain name).

I’m also in the market for a great design and product management executive role. One thing in particular that was gratifying was being able to use the book as playbook for my time at Snag, and seeing how well it worked. I’d love to apply it to larger scale organizations (over 50, over 100, even over 200!).

My time at Snag was too brief, but will always be special to me. Not only did I get to lead a company-wide rebrand (with a new name and everything), I got to work with talented people in an environment with less drama than any other I’ve encountered. I’m proud of what we achieved, and I look forward to cheering them on from the sidelines.

 

I’ve got a new job: VP of Design at Snagajob (and we’re hiring in Oakland, CA and Richmond, VA)

The new year brings some career news from me: I’m joined Snagajob, the leading marketplace for lightly skilled hourly work (think restaurant, retail, hotels), as their VP of Design.

This role strongly appealed to me for many reasons:

Orchestrating product and marketing into a single service experience. Most companies see marketing and product as distinct areas, which is a retrograde perspective beholden to a 20th century mindset. 21st century connected services should orient by customer journey, and that approach renders “marketing” and “product” as simply aspects of the broader service experience. My boss, Jocelyn Mangan, oversees both marketing and product, and my team delivers across both.

Building a marketplace. I love marketplace dynamics. Our marketplace has employers looking to hire and workers looking for work, and we’re looking at how we can do more to support their interactions.

The worker comes first. Talking to leadership at Snagajob before I joined, I found it reaffirming how clearly they stated that the company is “worker first.” Given our marketplace, it makes business sense: we need the job seekers to fill the roles that our employers pay us to staff. But I also believe it makes ethical sense, particularly in an economy where these lightly skilled workers are increasingly subject to inequality.

Building a presence in Oakland. I live in Oakland, and have wondered for years why more companies were establishing a presence here, instead opting to compete for the outrageous real estate prices and other costs of San Francisco. That is changing (thanks to companies like Pandora, VSCO, and 99 Designs), and I’m eager to help build a professional community in Oakland that reflects the residential community as well.

Speaking of building a presence, we are hiring in Oakland, two roles in particular – Senior/Lead Product Designer (for mobile) and Lead UX Researcher (this role could also be based in Richmond, VA). Reach out to me at Peter DOT Merholz AT Snagajob if you’re interested.

Holy shit! I co-wrote a book. You can read it right now!

book_cover_50percent

Org Design for Design Orgs, the book I co-wrote with Kristin Skinner, is now available as an ebook. You can order it from Amazon or O’Reilly.

We’ve also launched a website which we hope will over time become a growing source of ideas and materials for people building in-house design teams.

Now that there is a dedicated website, I’m going to be placing my org design thinking over there (and believe me, I have a lot of it!).

I’m so excited, and eager to hear what people think of the book!

You probably don’t have enough designers

On Twitter, Sally Carson asked me the question, “…how to best ‘resource’ design & plan projects when you have designers embedded on cross-functional teams?”

I gave a 140-character answer, “The simple answer is: hire more designers. Or, only do so many projects where you can deliver quality. This means saying no to some.” As I frequently am asked some variation of this question, it warrants a deeper response.  

First, I’ll start with a glib statement: You probably don’t have enough designers. When I talk to folks who are feeling some sort of pain around their design team, more often than not the problem is that they are trying to do too many things with too few people. Design teams are typically understaffed, because it’s not understood just how many people it takes to deliver on quality, and it’s more prudent to under-hire (and save money!) than over-hire.

So, what happens when there aren’t really enough designers to go around? Relevant to this discussion are a capable of paragraphs from my forthcoming Org Design for Design Orgs book:

Designers often express a couple of traits that can get them into trouble. One is a desire to please. Designers want to make others (clients, colleagues, users) happy. And so, when asked to do a thing, the default is often, “Yes.” The other is a revulsion at seeing work go out without designer involvement. So, even when not asked to do a thing, if they see that something might be shipped that wasn’t intentionally designed, they’ll try to find a way to contribute, so that what is released isn’t terrible.

While these intentions are good, the results are self-defeating. Teams get spread too thin, delivering across too many programs, work overlong hours, and ultimately deliver subpar work. A design organization is only as good as what it delivers, and if it is producing crap because it’s trying to do too many things, than the rest of the organization will associate design with crap. Design leaders need to wield the power of “No.” Design work should only be done when adequately prioritized and staffed, and when there is time to develop quality solutions. This doesn’t have to mean excessively long schedules for endless rumination and exploration. Any good design leader knows that there is a point where a design team realizes diminishing returns. What it does mean is empowering the design organization to uphold what it takes to deliver quality, and decline work that doesn’t fit.

Companies are always trying to do more than they have people to deliver on. And many are terrible at prioritization. A key means for prioritization is contained in Sally’s initial question: the ability to appropriately staff a cross-functional team should be a forcing function for just what gets done. You shouldn’t have to ‘resource’ embedded designers — by nature of their embedded-ness, they are automatically resourced. If you have to ‘resource’ designers,’ that is a symptom of too few designers trying to do too many things. If a cross-functional team cannot be created without resourcing, and sustained for the long haul (i.e., not dissolved and reformed to do a totally different thing), then that’s a bright sign that you shouldn’t try to do that thing.

Now, it’s hard for design leaders, especially those trying to earn credibility, to say, “No” to their colleagues. But it’s imperative. Stick to your guns. Show just how good the work is when the team is appropriately staffed. When people see that, they will clamor to get more folks on the design team.

That leads to a whole other problem–recruiting and hiring. But it’s a good problem to have!

“Should Designers Code?” fetishizes tech over other crucial design skills

I’m writing a book on building effective in-house design teams. I recently completed a draft of the chapter on professional development for designers. The following is inspired by that.

Design is so much more than what most people think it is. Even than what most designers think it is. As someone who has worked in design for 20 years, perhaps the most frustrating industry conversation revolves around “should designers code?”The idea that a designer who codes is a “full-stack designer” demonstrates the shallowness of most thinking about design as a practice, and a skill set. It speaks to a technical fetish that undercuts the full potential of design.

There is opportunity for design to be woven through every aspect of a customer’s interaction with an organization. In order to do that, a variety of skills need to be brought to bear, many of which are typically neglected in discussions about what designers should learn to do:

  • User research. Conducting user research sessions (in-home, in-office, user testing, diary studies), and deriving meaningful insights through analysis.
  • Information architecture. Structuring content, developing taxonomies, crafting navigation, and other activities that make information accessible, usable, and understandable.  
  • Interaction design. The structural design of a software interface, supporting a user’s flow through a system, and ability to successfully interact.
  • Visual design. Color, composition, typography, visual hierarchy, and brand expression that present the product or service in a way that is not only clear and approachable, but appropriately exhibits personality.
  • Writing. Clear written communication that, like good design, guides the user through an experience. Much of the time, written content is the experience, and far more valuable than the design dress around it.
  • Service design. Systems-level understanding of all the piece parts (technical systems, front-line employees, touchpoints, etc.) that go into delivering a service, coordinated to support customer journeys.
  • Prototyping. Quickly simulating proposed designs in order to better judge their user experience. Could be deeply technical (writing code) or a more patchwork use of tools like AfterEffects, Keynote, and Quartz Composer.  
  • Front-end development. Delivery of production-ready front-end code. Valuable in ensuring that designs are implemented as proposed.  

It’s easy to argue that user research, information architecture, and writing are design skills every bit as important as coding. In fact, those practices better support strategic efforts, and so may have greater impact than the execution orientation of coding.

The range of skills demonstrates the foolishness of the idea of a “full-stack designer.” No one person can practice all these skills with any real mastery. In my experience, folks become expert at one, maybe two, strong in a couple others, and competent in a couple more (and this is after 10-15 years of work).

Given this variety, how a team member grows their skills is variable, depending on the designer’s desires, mindset, and inclination. There’s no set path for designer growth. Some will learn to code. Others will learn to research. Others will map systems (of information, of relationships between people). All are necessary, and no particular path should be encouraged over others. 

This range also points out the folly of having a single designer embedded on product teams. As no one designer can deliver across this set of skills, no one designer should be expected to act alone. Designers work best, and deliver best, in teams, where their skills are complementary, allowing the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.

The variety of skills also changes who is typically thought of as part of “the design team.” Too often we get caught up in roles and titles, when what matters are the skills that are being brought to bear, regardless of who is doing them. Content strategists (who excel at writing, are strong in information architecture and user research, and can do competent interaction design and service design) or UX Researchers (who may excel at user research, be strong in writing and service design, and competent in interaction design and information architecture) could (should?) be considered part of the design team.

I guess what frustrates me most about “designers should code” is that it demonstrates how designers can get in their own way. Fetishizing code is fetishizing production, at the expense of strategy. It keeps designers in a subservient mode, receiving requirements from others, happy just to execute. There is a broader and deeper opportunity for designers and design practice to drive the definition of those requirements and weave through an entirety of a customer’s experience. Yes, code is part of that, but only one part.

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

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 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).

Principles for Recruiting and Hiring Designers [FEEDBACK DESIRED]

[The following is a passage from my book-in-progress on in-house design teams. It’s a (very) rough draft on the principles that should undergird the recruiting and hiring process for designers. I think I believe everything here, and I think it’s pretty complete, but I’d appreciate feedback, commentary, calling of bullshit…]

Recruiting

The recruiting and hiring process warrants the same design attention and intention of any other experience. Do not succumb to your company’s standard operating procedure.

Recruiting designers is different from other recruiting other roles. Recruiters, even those who work with other craftspeople such as engineers, are often surprised to find that what works for other disciplines falls flat with designers. What follows are generalizations, so will not be true in all cases, but have borne out over our careers in hiring. Generally, what we have learned is that designers want to do great work, work with interesting people, and get paid fairly for it, pretty much in that order.

Make the approach humanistic. While no one wants to feel like a cog in a machine, designers are more sensitive than most to feeling subjected to bureaucracy, and some recruiting processes feel like filing taxes or hospital visits–filling out forms, submitting material into a faceless system, uncertainty as to when to expect a response, shuttling from handler to handler. Make sure to provide a human touch at every step in the process. Beware of adopting approaches that make it easier for you, but less personable. Given the competitive talent market, it’s worth feeling some friction and taking on extra work if it makes the experience more pleasant for the candidate.

Money is table stakes, but not a strong motivator. This one is a little tricky, because it can be interpreted that “designers don’t care about money.” While that might be true for a few, most designers want good compensation for their work, particularly where the cost of living is high. That said, throwing money at designers does not guarantee they’ll accept an offer. In fact, many will find it suspicious, wondering what such largesse is masking. (Many designers have an uneasy relationship with money.) Don’t try to exploit designers’ antipathy towards money–they’ll ask around, and if they feel like they’re being taken advantage of, the deal is off. Commit to making offers that are fair for the market, and then spend time and effort on the other factors that will guide their final decision.

Emphasize the work to be done. For most designers, the primary motivation is the nature of what they will work on. Such inclinations vary widely–some designers love hairy content problems, others want to build complex enterprise software, others crave sexy consumer experiences. Recruiting efforts should stress what makes the work compelling from a designer’s standpoint. When Peter was at Groupon, the stock was in a bad place and the company had become a media whipping boy. However, he was able to direct attention to the interesting design probem, which was to figure out how to leverage Groupon’s success with daily deals and create other ways to connect shoppers and local businesses. Designers were attracted by the opportunity to to deliver new features and functionality that created a marketplace, and the meaningful challenge of working with small local businesses at scale.

Explain the context in which that work is done. While some designers are dedicated to solving problems in specific industries, such as healthcare or education, many designers can root out what is interesting in any sufficiently complex problem. So when they’re choosing between job options, they seek to better understand the context in which they will work. Will they be expected to work on their own, or will they be part of a team? Are there opportunities to mentor or be mentored? What kind of authority and ownership will they have over their work? Is design respected within the organization? How does the company treat its employees? No one context works for all designers, so be clear about the characteristics of yours.

Be honest, even frank. Don’t just tell them what they want to hear. Engaging with candidates reveals their preferences and desires. For design leaders hungry for talent, it can be tempting to tell candidates what they want to hear, to get them through the door and at a desk. However, if it contradicts what they then experience, the working relationship starts off on the wrong foot. That person is now less likely to suggest others to join, may themselves be looking for exits, and the effort invested in bringing them proves for nought.

If a candidate makes clear they want to manage others, but there’s no opportunity for that in the foreseeable future, don’t tell them, “Oh sure, let’s discuss that in 6 months and see where we’re at.” Whatever the pain in losing a great prospect, say, “I don’t think we have a fit at this time,” and move on. Bring that person on, even if they have been told there are not management opportunities, and every discussion is clouded by that management desire.  

Be direct and honest about what it is like to work there. Don’t sugarcoat troubles. Don’t dwell on them, but acknowledge them and make clear the steps being taken to address them. The design community can prove surprisingly small and tight-knit, and word gets around. Bullshit is found out.

[There you go. Thanks for reading.]