Design Team of One

(Originally posted on Medium on April 28, 2014 and on Stemmings in January 2014)

For the last year and a half I’ve been the only designer at a startup. Super fun, right?! Well, yeah, actually. But it’s not without it’s challenges, too. When I accepted the job, I had a lot of excitement about the opportunity to build out the design from the ground up, but also a lot of anxiety about being responsibly for so much on my own. There were challenges that I knew were coming, as well as a few that took me by surprise.

I’ve compiled a list of the biggest lessons I’ve learned (or have been reinforced from being a design team of one.

Prioritization is key

In order to move things forward, I have to be ruthless in my prioritization.What MUST be done? What needs to be done first? Is it more important that this urgent thing gets done or that this important thing gets worked on? You can design and redesign for weeks, or months, before you’re pressed to ship. You have to learn when to push for time and when to ship. You have to learn that maybe these ads don’t have to be beautiful because you need to spend time designing the information architecture for the dashboard. You need to develop a keen sense for what your most important tasks are so that when everyone is asking for your time, you have a way to prioritize your day. And if you don’t know what’s most important? Ask! Which leads me to…

Ask questions

No one expects you to know it all. If you don’t understand the product expectations or the technical limitations, don’t be afraid to ask. You won’t look stupid if you ask for clarification or explanation. And sometimes, you’re not the only one who doesn’t know the answers, you’re just the only one who spoke up or the only one who thought of the question. It saves everyone time in the long run if everyone is on the same page.

Say “no”

As the only designer, I have a lot of agency. I also have a lot of people asking for my time. Although I’d love to do everything for everyone, it’s become very clear that that just isn’t possible. I’m a people pleaser so saying no to someone’s request is very difficult but very necessary. Getting things done often means not getting other things done. Often times the people making the requests don’t know what else is on your plate, and, of course, everyone thinks their own requests are the most crucial/urgent/important. You are the one who knows how much time you have and how long things take. Be firm. Your time is valuable, and everyone benefits when you’re spending it wisely.

Learn to let go

You don’t have time to nitpick over every detail. With responsive and mobile and devices of every shape and size, there’s just no way to design for every possibility. You spend your day in the weeds instead of on the more high level, more important stuff. You need to be able to let little things slide. I’m not saying to produce sloppy work. Of course not. I’m saying evaluate your priorities. Is getting every single state pixel perfect worth another week of your time? Or is shipping a new product more important?

A lot of designers (myself, sometimes, included) can feel protective of their work. We don’t like to show things unfinished or in the early stages because we’ve been taught that pixel perfection is the expectation. However, it’s so important to get feedback early and often, not just from other designers, but from everyone who has a stake in the product. Working with developers, product managers, marketers, and everything in between is actually one of my favorite things. The team is always greater than the sum of it’s parts because domain knowledge and different ways of thinking can combine in such unexpected and delightful ways.

Trust your developers
You probably haven’t thought of everything, every state, every possible error. You can either train your developers to come running to you whenever this comes up, or you can trust them to make some decisions on their own. This, obviously, needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis — not every developer can make those decisions well. I am fortunate to work with 2 front end devs that have a pretty good visual and ux sense. They are able to make small decisions and I sign off on them. If it’s something a little bigger, they ask first, often including their idea for a solution. Many times, I decide that their solution works, sometimes with a few tweaks, and I always explain my reasoning. Over time, their ideas get better and I trust them to make bigger and bigger decisions.

Pick your battles

As a designer, you have your own area of expertise, so don’t be afraid to make some executive decisions when they’re very important. Just be sure to pick your battles wisely. You might have designed a beautiful new interaction that would be perfect and lovely but it will take an extra week to implement. Is it worth it? Remember that you’re the only designer, which means you might be the only one going to bat for design decisions. If you waste your influence on this decision, that might be that you have to concede the next one. Be sure that what you’re fighting for matters be flexible with the rest. Being kind and understanding of your developer’s time will do a lot with building trust and allies for the things you decide to fight for.

Find designers outside

One of the most surprising challenges I found to being a solo designer was the lack of … well, designers. It’s easy to take the feedback from designer colleagues for granted. Asking someone for quick feedback or getting a small suggestion as someone walks by your desk might not seem like much until it’s suddenly gone. Don’t get me wrong, my non-designer coworkers give great feedback and collaborating with them is immensely helpful and rewarding, but there’s something to be said for design critiques and nitpicking about typefaces (and if you knew me 2 years ago you might believe that a pod person has taken over my body to type this, but no! It’s me, I promise!). If you don’t get “expert” design advice inside your office, make a point of meeting other designers, reading creative blogs and articles, and finding inspiration online and in the world.

So that’s it. Those are the most important lessons I’ve learned being a design team of one. I think a lot of these lessons are applicable to non-solo designers, and, heck, even to non-designers! I’m still learning new things, and I don’t always follow my own advice, but the journey has been rewarding and enlightening so far. I’d love to hear more about your own tips for working alone. And to everyone, good luck out there and keep being awesome.