Observations on Designers

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything for Johnny, which I apologize for. I’ll keep this as a short observation piece on what I’ve seen in the last several years and what I’d like to see moving forward. I’m Interested in any comments others might have.


Sometime ago, I watched a video of a Microsoft developer conference where one of the speakers was discussing the Expression Blend applications; tools to help the designer/developer workflow. When it was time, the presenter turned around, put on a beret, turned back around, and pretended to be a designer. Referencing arrive to work at 10am, doing 15 minutes of work before it was time for an espresso and a break before lunch. The talk and subsequent online video infuriated designers at Microsoft [and other companies], who accused Microsoft of not understanding design; what we did, how we worked, and ultimately our value to the company.

Three years later I saw a talk from a design group at a software company with several other people from Microsoft. The presentation discussed how the group worked separate from the rest of the team (Project Management, Development, QA). How they had a cool office with coffee makers, Eames chairs, and different spacious layouts with designer desks. They talked of taking funny pictures of themselves with mustaches and goofing around with each other at work. They noted it was a “designer” culture.

The irony of the two talks seemed to escape most people…

All the designers at the second talk were enamored and wanted to be part of that team… except me. Perhaps I was the odd man out. It’s not that deep down I wasn’t slightly jealous of the cool space and fancy presentation, but I’ve found that creating a separate culture in a team can create animosity between internal teams and can separate the desired outcome (what design wants) from the real outcome (what the team can build).

All-inclusive teams

The best teams I’ve worked with have been inclusive of all disciplines. In the case of my company, we’re all here to raise the price of our stock and we do that by making great products that sell. In that way, I look at myself as a designer who ships things, not just creates them. Steve Jobs once said “real artists ship.” I’m not surrounded by Eames chairs and typographic magazines. It’s not that I don’t want those things, but I don’t require them to be creative. Great creativity comes from a great team, not great things. It comes from great partnerships, and with those, it determines the quality of the product and experience. It’d be great to have a creative area for my team, but it’s also be great to have a creative building for the entire product team. Why limit it to just a few people?

Great creativity comes from a great team, not great things.

My ask to fellow designers is simple. For those of you who work in software companies, or any large corporation where there is more than a design team. Think of your success measured for what you do with the entire team. Don’t state success as the coolest concept you can make, how much design furniture your office has, or how the design team in particular has a great culture. Don’t segment yourself or think you somehow deserve something special because you’re creative. Create a culture that focuses on the creative and experience. Create that atmosphere, that feeling, for the entire team. Measure your success on bringing great products to market and creating amazing experience. Get creativity from great partnerships. Give other people a chance to be creative, give other people a chance to share ideas and inspiration. Let in the ideas from the developers, from the marketing team… don’t worry that you’re not creating it all. Yes, we are unique, but so is everyone else, and we need to leverage that. A lot of people have really good ideas, and sometimes we miss them because we get so wrapped up in where the idea comes from. Use everyone around you to be more creative. Form those great partnerships, and change the culture.

Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher is currently an associate creative director at frog, and previously a design lead at Microsoft. After graduating college in 2001 with a degree in Communication Design, he taught school before moving back into the design field.

13 comments on this article

  1. Auke van scheltinga on

    Joe! Thanks, good short article. I totally agree and have experienced the same. I also like the fact that it saves you a lot of time communicating design plans because developers are generally aware of what they will see in the specs. This way you can write effective specs which focusses on what is still unclear instead of a long time consuming document stating every single detail that usually gets outdated when you start development anyway.

  2. Leigh on

    I agree with you and in particular really like the quote

    “Great creativity comes from a great team, not great things.”

    I would say this (being from the marketing side) – To be part of a creative team i don’t have to come up with the idea. There seems to be this great need to have a philosophy of “great ideas can come from anywhere” – while i don’t disagree with this, I also think it’s the exception.

    My job isn’t to come up with the ideas. My job is to come up with a brilliant strategy that feeds the creative and user experience teams so that they can be even more brilliant. It doesn’t devalue my contribution and doesn’t make me less part of the team.

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  4. Jeffie on

    Joe, if I EVER catch you bad mouthing having a great coffee machine in the office again, there will be trouble…

  5. @Auke – good point. I’m torn on specs. On one hand they get out of date, but on the opposite side, when you work at Microsoft, you have a lot of testers/QA that need to know what to test. You can’t loop in everyone all the time, so at points documentation is not only good, but essential.

    @Leigh – I know what you’re saying on the philosophy aspect. I’d say great ideas are often like coal in a way. Everyone can have them, but they’re probably unrefined and a mess. That’s where design & marketing can come in to help to a story. Being in marketing you should know there are tons of great ideas, but telling the story is what sells it. I also have a feeling that other disciplines can’t communicate as well. So when they have a good idea, it’s hard to explain. The other thing I’ve seen is someone will have a good idea that doesn’t relate to anything you’re doing.
    “Ok, how’s the campaign on shirts coming”
    “What if you froze orange juice into a popsicle”
    …wrong timing… which again, being in marketing, timing has a lot to do with success 🙂

    @Jeffie – calm down and have an ambien 😀

  6. Stinermas on

    There’s nothing new about this. The mediocre idea with great execution wins over the great idea with mediocre execution. 1% inspiration, blah blah blah.

  7. @Stinermas – you own a Starck juicer don’t you? 😀
    Actually one of the key points was the irony in the way designers can complain. Not about mediocre ideas. I forget who the quote was from, but I remember someone mentioning how most of the time we don’t create anything new, we just slightly change things. So of course it’s nothing new.

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  9. I couldn’t agree more with the need for teams to be more inclusive and not designers-only. Where I work, the majority of our projects have what we call “hybrid” teams. That means the design team is comprised of 2 designers from our company and 2-3 people from the client company. In my experience, you always get a much wider range of creativity when you include people with different roles and experiences.

    I’ve also been humbled many a time by a client team member who has no “design” experience, yet comes up with such a great idea that I can only say, “I wish I had thought of that.”

    So naturally,I also disagree with the opinion that “finding great ideas anywhere” is the exception. I believe that if you give the people on your design team the right data to design from and a clear process for designing—that you will always find great ideas.

    One last thought: you should also consider the composition of your all-inclusive team. Be careful that you don’t fill it with experts only; try to also include people who are cross-functional with broader backgrounds and experiences. They make excellent cross-pollinators and will enhance innovation, in contrast to a team of all “experts”, each with their own narrow experience. You can read more about this idea at http://incontextdesign.com/blog/t-shaped-teams/

  10. Designers are no more creative than anyone else in a team — they just might spend more time creating than others. Programmers, project managers, team leaders, copywriters, system admins … they all have to be creative to do their job so putting designers up on this “creative” pedestal and catering to designer divas with fancy office furniture is ridiculous!

    Disclaimer: I’ve only ever worked in a grey box cubicle so I *may* be slightly jealous of those who get to work somewhere cool.

    While working with peers is very important you’re not going to be able to develop a fully-considered design without including others and everyone, *everyone* has something to contribute. So get out and see the world – as it were.

    Good article.

    UX designer

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