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Stuff Isn't Culture

Shawna wrote this on February 20, 2015 in . It has 110 reactions

perks

Perks don't create loyalty and those things don't get people invested. When we talk about perks, we're talking about stuff. You know: the pool tables, the cell phone, the fridge full of beer. But those are "benefits," not culture.

And that's exactly what dozens of articles focus on when it comes to culture — the stuff, the nice-to-haves, such as an inspired workspace and healthy food options. But focusing on perks might not keep your workers from fleeing for greener pastures. Take a look at Google. The search engine giant has one of the best perks in the Valley hands-down but one of the highest turnover rates with the average employing sticking around for a little over a year, even with pay in the six figures. Google isn't the only one. The average stay at any job is nine months, according to a Payscale survey. Even Amazon employees bolt after a year. Although a few have called shenanigans on Payscale's methodologies, saying it's focused more on tenure than actual turnover. But whatever it is, folks are leaving the building.

Is it just a symptom of the current generation of workers? Where people don't necessarily commit, where a date (or new job) is a swipe away? Possibly. Another study shows that the current Silicon Valley workforce is committed, working long hours. But they remain independent, and the name of the company isn't all that important. And 57% of those surveyed say they constantly receive offers to work elsewhere.

So perks may not be what keep someone around. Even if those jobs perpetuate a culture of distractions, where it attracts talent solely by showering things upon them. Yet then why aren't those people staying long? And are those cultures really creating value when the next big thing is a recruitment call or LinkedIn mail away?

Values is Culture, Not Things

Building core values and core purpose can have lasting effects. Let's take a step back. What are values? Values are company expectations of how you want the company to be, or better yet how your team interacts with customers and each other, which then need to become socialized within your culture. They set the bar as a baseline that spells out everyone's roles within the organization.

We're not talking about motivational poster stuff here. We're talking about things that matter to an organization. Twilio avoids putting its values — the Nine Things — on the wall because it needs to be articulated. As Jeff Lawson told us at his Soapbox:

You don't create them, you articulate them because they have to be something that's already there. If you create them, then they're just nonsense on the wall. If you articulate them, they're real and all you're doing is stating what's there. Because if you don't put a spotlight on them, you're at risk of losing them.

A value that works for Twilio is "Draw the Owl." It breaks down to this:

  • Step one: draw some circles.
  • Step two: draw the rest of the f'ing owl.

The value creates a culture of doers, not sayers, where everyday an employee has to figure it out because there's no instruction book. And it's something that's engrained and discussed at Twilio. That's what we define as a value here.

Values become the building block of your culture, as our friend Moz's Rand Fishkin told us by email. Moz's values informs who they fire and who they hire, and how they go about their day-to-day business. At Moz, they have what they call TAGFEE:

  • Transparency: Moz shares what they do and learn in the open, even when it's not great news.
  • Authenticity: They stay true to who they are and don't pretend to be other people.
  • Generosity: Moz tries to give more than they receive, spreading goodwill in all their interactions.
  • Fun: Rand says work shouldn't just be work — it should be enjoyable. And if it isn't, then something's wrong.
  • Empathy: Moz's most important value. They place themselves in their customer's shoes so they can understand and solve their problems.
  • The Exception: If someone else is doing it, then Moz works to find their own path.

So how does Moz get their values to stick? Rand says:

Thankfully, at this point, they've become part of how everyone at the company communicates, though building that up was no small challenge. We want TAGFEE to infuse our decision making around everything, so it's the (often spoken, but sometimes unspoken) criteria in any meeting or discussion. Over time, we've had to prove this again and again by doing TAGFEE things when they're hardest and when sliding on them would be the easy or more profitable thing to do.

Which goes to show that values have to apply to everyone in an organization, no matter their role. No matter the type of business your company's values need to apply to the whole team. You help create accountability and people feel more connected when the company is inclusive. You don't want to create a "that doesn't apply to me" situation. Those values are there to help you be successful at your job. Or how you'll be successful at your jobs. Your company values literally could be your company's "commandments" — thou shalt be open-minded. And like the commandments, these give you a pretty good idea of how to be at your new company.

They have to be specific so they can be applied, like "Be a Coach" or "Build on Opportunity" or "Draw the Owl." They have to be specific enough to get the point across and vague enough to apply them to any situation. If not specific enough, it may be hard for someone to enact. If they lack in clarity your team won't be able to apply them you their work. They'll do it 'their way' which may or may not align with the company, and even the best intentions can have negative effects to the team.

Leaders Are Needed to Make Values Stick

leaders carry the weight

Both values and leadership are very much tied together. Values only work if there's leadership to support it and carry the weight. As Rand puts it in a previous article he wrote on this very subject:

If you're trying to figure out what a company's values really are, look at the decisions management makes when lots of money, risk, or loss of face for executives is at odds with the stated values.

In other words, Rand is saying that actions speak louder than words. That is why leadership must agree to the values then apply them daily. There has to be 100% investment by the leadership team. They have to be on the same page. But it's an ongoing dialogue. You have to have a back-and-forth on these values. Not saying that the values should be constantly changing, they shouldn't. If revisions need to be made have the conversation and everyone needs to agree.

Build Trust Through Values

Building off what Rand said about actions speaking louder than words, leaders have to build trust through practicing and living a company's values. Living the values instead of paying lip service will help build trust because you'll make a connection with the team. And leaders need to get involved with the team on a "professionally personal" level. They need to be empathic in terms of understanding how a team makes decisions. That means talking problems out, asking questions and when possible using real stories from your past that were similar and what you did to overcome those problems.

If there's no trust, you can't share values. If your leaders are unable to show their vulnerability to the team, then they won't have the team's trust. If employees are unable to connect with their leaders, it's likely they'll leave soon after.

A leader's past behaviors, along with capabilities, goes a long way to building trust. If past behavior goes against the grain of a company's values, trust won't be built. If a leader can't practice or live the values, they don't fit in the organization. Plain and simple. Eventually it will become a bad fit. You can only fake it so long with core values. And depending on your teams size the wake left from poor leadership could really negatively effect your team.

This is even more magnified when you have a culture based only on things. You can't cover up poor leadership with stuff. Bad leadership IS bad leadership, just with a pool table.

The Contrarian of Values

contrarian of values

The worst thing a company can have is a leader "contrarian of values." That poisons the well, and the team doesn't know who to follow. A contrarian works against the organization, either knowingly or unknowingly. Depending how much influence this person has in a team, the contrarian can quickly undo a team dynamic. This person is an opportunistic predator who will pray on the benign frustrations of your team. They want to feel "right" in their thinking and will want to attract people to their way of thinking.

A contrarian can create a toxic environment. It can damage your team depending on how strong your culture is and the overall long-term satisfaction of your employees. Weaker team dynamics will fall victim to these ideas. Even if the toxicity is removed, those seeds are planted. This is another reason strong culture and leadership is really vital to a healthy team.

An organization has to compensate before the negativity happens. Setting company expectations early and having leadership accountability is a great start. Ideally your team is healthy and is able to see that the contrarian is not contributing to their growth/experience and is, in fact, taking away from it.

Values You Can Build On

values you can build on

The company culture should be built from the values. They are the foundation. It would be challenging to "roll out" values like an afterthought because that's how the leadership and then the team would view them. And if they aren't working, look to your leadership. Are they "living" your company values and spreading them throughout your teams? How important is it to you? If there is a breakdown in leadership, then look to yourself too. And if the values don't work, it's either training opportunity or it isn't a good fit. You have to be prepared to handle both. In the end, your culture is what you make of it and your values are the first step in defining it.

We want to thank Rand Fishkin for his insights on this post!


Lead by Design

Bryan wrote this on January 20, 2015 in . It has 300 reactions

Last week we wrote about the design leadership gap and the need support emerging designers with career paths. It's an assessment of where we are as an industry that highlights gaps we'll need to close to fill our design leadership roles. And while the blog post creates an impression that leading design requires a design management title in an organization, this couldn't be further from the truth.

Designers don't need a defined role to lead. In fact, designers should look at this opportunity to lead through influence. Progressive design has taught us that design leadership doesn't require a title or even heavy management experience, only a strong desire to learn people skills and shape outcomes in an organization with design. After leading design for a decade and a half, I still believe that being a designer doesn't automatically entitle you to the collective benefits of any industry. You have to sell yourself and your talents every time you walk into a room.

If you have the skills to drive ideas, those skills allow you to set the rules and process; if being the person who pushes ideas forward just isn't your thing, you might find yourself becoming the disgruntled designer. So whether you aspire to a management title, or just want to get your ideas driving your company forward, learning design leadership skills are important for all designers.

Developing Design Leadership Skills

Eight years ago, I sat down in the maternity ward waiting for my second child to be born. My wife still reminds me today that I was also giving a brown bag lunch talk to Yahoo! employees on the topic of design strategy. Luke Wroblewski was kind enough to ask me to speak weeks earlier, and I agreed with the caveat that I might make adjustments given that my wife could go into labor. So on the big day, it went from a talk to a round table via a conference line, and what came out of it was a three-part series that he published on his blog and a healthy baby boy.

The post I wrote for Luke is still incredibly relevant today. It highlights areas an aspiring design leader should learn. The post was focused on becoming a design strategist, but quite frankly, most of these skills fall into a leadership skills bucket. Design leadership is about managing influence through inspiration, action and getting stuff done. This post has been updated and improved with a list of skills I've learned since 1998:

Read the room to influence people

What's the most important skill of business decision making? Knowing what drives people to make decisions. Getting groups of people excited about an idea requires you to understand what motivates them. You might have the best ideas in the world, but if you fail to understand the dynamics of the room, you may never get past your first idea.

In my first consulting gig, I was invited to present a proposal at a board meeting, unaware that this public company's entire executive team would be in attendance. There were two billionaires sitting at the table. Really. I was wholeheartedly unprepared to sell a single idea to this crowd. I tried getting the group to brainstorm, using some techniques that had been successful for me in past situations. But in less than five minutes I was told, "I think we're done here."

Ouch. It's a lesson that still rings in my head today and creates an anxiety of not being prepared. The lesson taught me that being a designer puts you in no special category to have better ideas. You have to be prepared for every meeting and interaction to justify and sell your vision. You need to know who will be in the room and know the ideas that are trapped in those attending. The experience was humbling and shaped much of my understanding of how to build a service company.

Reading people is a skill that can be learned, and doing it well comes as the result of years of practice. It takes time, as intuition is built on experience. Emotional intelligence is also a big component of design leadership. Every meeting, every conversation is an opportunity to hone your skills. Learn to to sit and observe people in open areas — it's a great way become present and watch how people react to situations. Read body language and learn from people who do this effectively. The Definitive Book of Body Language is a great read if you're looking for an introduction into learning to observe people.

Don't over research the design problem

By its very nature, a designer's job requires using both left and right brain functions. In fact, one of my most recent blog posts highlights that you will be required to use your entire brain. Sometimes over-thinking a solution makes it hard to get people excited about the emotional content of our work. You do need to present research that helps your point, but don't make the mistake of devaluing your gut instincts or hunches.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they've had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Steve Jobs

Designers have an innate ability to sense and feel out a problem based on experience. This is a characteristic that many people wish they had. Sometimes, you're just going to know something is 'right' and you won't have the luxury of time to do the research to back you up. Train other non-designers in your company or your clients to be willing to take a chance on your hunches.

Build in the metrics to support your work

No matter how right-brained and creative we think we might be, in the business world, clients want quantifiable results. Building benchmarks and metrics into your projects will ensure that you get the chance to really show them what you've got, by giving them enough numbers during the process that they feel comfortable.

Remember, lots of people think that Excel spreadsheets and pie charts are the best way to justify budgets and map out next phases. Don't send your team or clients into metrics withdrawal — with a little work on your part, you can devise a numerical report card that helps the analytical team members to feel more in control of and informed about the whole process, meaning that there's a better chance they'll sit back and let you work your magic uninterrupted. This is an important concept of progressive design.

Design leads must find basic measurements that will inspire their team to stretch the goals and justify their decisions. At a tactical level, we've explored Design Quips to justify our work, and also figured out ways to align the product work with business and user goals through a design strategy framework.This is a difficult process and often requires continual conversations with stakeholders.

Design is a real-time performance

The best business people are ones who can adjust their thinking quickly. Pressed with tough decisions, they must be able to rally a team around business and financial goals and plans. If a big deal is on the line, tough decisions have to be made quickly ' and once decided, they're done. You can't hit CTRL-Z to 'undo' a business deal.

Design should be no different. As a designer, you must be able to use your unique skills of visual thinking to rally people in a room. While this may come more naturally to some over others, it is a skill that will improve with practice. You need to be comfortable presenting whiteboard sketches in front of a group — no matter how much you wish you could call a timeout to whip up something on your laptop, you'll lose momentum. If you can't think and draw at the same time you're going to limit your ability to listen to other ideas in the room — so practice at your own internal meetings until you're ready for your public debut.

It's been said that Steve jobs would put an hour of practice for every minute of his presentations. Using progressive design would make that prohibitive (and unnecessary in most cases), but the more you utilize these techniques, the easier it becomes to influence a room. We look for lower fidelity tools and encourage everyone at ZURB to use sketching to present their ideas because it brings people together. With the right practice, interface sketching can be learned to bridge the communication gap between different groups in an organization.

Balance prep with with design implementation

Everyone likes to see that you've done your homework — lists, research, interviews, overviews and competitive reviews. It's an important part of the process of designing 'stuff'. It validates that there is thinking involved.

Sometimes, however, it makes sense to just jump into a problem based on your hunch and your experience, and then go back and think through all the homework parts. There are times when simply taking action, creating movement and momentum are preferable to investing loads of time up front —in other words, sometimes any action, even a potentially 'wrong' one, is better than no action at all. It's the blue-collar part of design that the rest of the business world lacks'that good ole roll up your sleeves and just get it done. John Quincy Adams summed this up nicely, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."

As designers we spend so much time trying to drive actions with users that we don't think about how to drive decisions within our own teams. I've learned through my years of leading that it's often better to teach designers how to ship than what to ship.

Justify design decisions with the right kind (and amount) of research

Contrary to point my point earlier, there comes a time when the emotional side of design needs a good helping of "reality." Designers need to drive research —otherwise we're stuck with the research of others (and some of those 'findings' may include an ever-unhelpful 50-page document of how many people liked the color blue.) Large focus groups and studies are nice, but they rarely help you create a marketable product. Why? Two reasons: One, they're really expensive —that money could be better spent in the actual production. Two, they're prohibitively time-consuming: By the time all the data is gathered, your competitors are already building the product.

Designers have the unique ability to notice trends'and the 'way things are'. Heuristic evaluation and small tests are often all that's needed to keep a product team focused on the 'wow'.

Years ago we had a client that called up frantically saying that they had lost 90% of their monthly revenue after switching to a new photo printing platform. A lot of money was invested in this new branded solution and the future earnings at stake was huge. We could have spent weeks trying to diagnose the problem by thoroughly researching the problem, but within a few hours we were able to determine from using a bottom up strategy that the main issue was an incorrect use of form elements. That's powerful.

Design is no longer the domain of designers

Everyone has their own favorite color or font. They can move elements on a whiteboard, write content to describe actions, screenshot a competitor's website or talk about their great experience. Use this to your benefit and coach people through your decision making. Everyone wants to be an armchair design 'quarterback' so let them play fantasy football by helping them make better decisions.

Progressive design is a great way to involve team members in design decisions to help you gain more control of the final product. Design leaders shouldn't shy away from this exposure as it's a way to build trust with a team. Utilize techniques that give you more influence over the design process and meetings, and feel good about shaping outcomes based on the input from other disciplines. Many stakeholders have progressed far enough in their understanding of design brainstorming, but lack the depth and knowledge to drive design work through the finish line. Designers can drive this process and shouldn't have to know everything!

The design feedback loop is great way to create consistent, recurring patterns that build trust with non-designers. Being open to ideas that impact your original vision shows that you're willing to hear others' input. Design is a team sport —be the best coach you can be, remembering that you're ultimately responsible for the end product.

Utilize visuals for a bottom-up strategy

Designers are in a unique position to control a company's vision through visuals. They're probably the only people who are consistently expected to show up with colorful items at staff meetings. Take advantage of your visual aids — use a 'hands on approach' to get people rallying behind ideas. Designers tend to be 'doers' rather than 'dwellers', so use your vision to change the course of business planning by implementing ideas. Waiting on management to decide on a direction can have a negative impact on momentum of a project. Take some risks.

Now, if that doesn't sound good, you could always try to justify your ideas the same way the folks in accounting do — with reams of spreadsheets. But when is the last time you saw people get excited about a spreadsheet? For every 10 people, most organizations already have nine workers doing paper jobs. Break up status quo.

Design requires a healthy understanding of top-down and bottom-up strategies, and this isn't easily learned without first being a practitioner, especially one that creates imagery. In interface design, a picture really is worth a thousands words, or more importantly, a picture helps to influence how people feel about a design direction. A recent study showed that when asked,"What would you change about this image?" many people did not respond to this question, and if they did, they almost always said that they would change nothing. Wow!

Know that you will fail, and how to do it

Good design stimulates emotion, inspires participation and gets people engaged. But not every design that you create will succeed — sometimes a design will do none of the above and will fall absolutely, unequivocally flat on its face. And that's OK! Build failure into your design process — you shouldn't even try if you want to completely avoid failing, and nothing tried is always nothing gained. A great designer will push boundaries and learn from mistakes. Some of the stuff that you do will stink. Learn how to use that to your advantage to make your projects more successful.

As an industry, designers have sabotaged themselves in organizations by overvaluing the desire to perfect the work. If we compared success to other professions, we'd find that people celebrate being wrong two-thirds of the time. Babe Ruth, greatly considered one of the best hitters of all time, had a batting average of .342. Designers need to celebrate the path to success by making note of all the failures.

At a career level, politicians like Lincoln can teach us that failure is a necessary part of the job. Failure should be accepted in the work, but we're often afraid of the wrong answer and our own harshest critics. Designers need to practice asking the right questions and work through problems in the open so that we get better accepting failure.

Be a salesman with a design soul

Things happen for a reason. Oracle didn't become a powerhouse because they had "great design" —design just didn't get in the way. If you want to influence people in the room you need sales skills. Half of getting your idea implemented has nothing to do with a computer, wireframes, research or sketches. It's because people like you. And if they don't like you, then they've at least got to respect you've got to have some proven game.

People want to support other successful people and ideas. It's contagious. And while I'm not suggesting you throw yourself at business associates looking for a best friend, I am suggesting that you be confident in yourself and personality. There's no need to be fake. Just put genuine effort into solving problems for your customers, whether they're your internal customers or the ones who buy your products. Having the right presentation is a great place to start.

Design leadership requires fighting for ideas

Fight when you have to. Know when you shouldn't settle for a watered-down compromise. My final suggestion for the aspiring design leader is less about design or leadership — it's about winning. You've got to want to influence people, make a difference and convince people to believe in you. You've got to throw yourself into the ring.

Business is brutal. Capitalism drives us to be more successful — and that's a good thing. It pushes us to make decisions. Don't let a conference room intimidate your business sensibilities. Design requires putting on boxing gloves. The beauty of design is that you can always use the emotional side to calm and inspire after a difficult interaction with your "financial" nemesis.

And that's it. Being a design leader isn't the easiest role. When you're sitting in your third meeting of the day (you know, the one that begins at 4PM and promises to go right through dinner?) trying to 'enlighten' the client as to why they shouldn't use their favorite 'stacked rocks' image on the home page — those days of sitting in the cubicle, pushing pixels while your iTunes is blaring in your ears — may seem real attractive. But take heart in this — the world is a more attractive place because you marry business and design on a daily basis. And for that, we thank you.

(thanks to Thomas Vander Wal and Andy Van Solkema for their insights on the post)


chief instigator bryan z

Bryan Zmijewski

Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
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The Design Leadership Gap

Bryan wrote this on January 16, 2015 in . It has 458 reactions

We've recently written about progressive design and the role successful designers play in helping companies build great products. Design leadership is an important part of this conversation.

From designers using their thinking skills to the turbulence of the current design environment, it's clear that we view design as a significant business opportunity for companies to grow.

It's been shown that companies that embrace design driven principles produce better financial returns. Design-driven companies need leaders that can drive this value. But we don't see enough business structure in place to help companies and designers thrive together. Creating design value is more difficult than throwing designers at problems. We need leaders.

We need design leaders to increase the value of design in organizations and it's not going to happen without more methodologies to define problems and shape business outcomes. Lean and Agile methodologies, while customer-centric, focus more on business and technology problems, but don't help us utilize the power of design. Both have great ideas, yet neither help designers effectively find leadership tracks. Progressive design is not only a way to bring design into organizations, it's a way to train and foster design leaders.

You Manage Things, You Lead People

Grace Hopper, an American computer scientist, captured it nicely when she stated that we manage things, but we lead people. Design management shapes business processes and decisions to effectively create things, whether that thing is a product, service or environment. Design leadership has emerged more recently as an important progression in our design thinking to drive innovation, inspire teams and create growth opportunities within organizations. Both are important and create immense value in organizations.

Management in design circles isn't new. Design management started at the turn of the last century, with a goal of streamlining things. And for much of the next 70 years, design management stayed primarily in the production realm, focusing on making products more integrated. Design management is an important part of growing design in an organization, but design management alone won't facilitate the growth of design leaders.

Much has been written on the topic of leadership and management, so it's not necessarily worth dragging too much of this into the design discussion, but it's worth noting the differences between leadership and management. With the rise of the knowledge worker, "one does not 'manage' people," Peter Drucker wrote. "The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual."

In his 1989 book 'On Becoming a Leader,' Warren Bennis writes:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader's eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

Design management is a critical component of design leadership. Designers need to learn how to manage if organizations are to find and develop more design leaders. Progressive design is an opportunity to shrink the problem of managing design to the essentials so designers can learn to build trust with their coworkers. It's a way for designers to learn leadership.

Design Management is a Building Block

Companies desire design leaders, but they're going to need to provide more design management training before we see design leaders emerge in the corporate ranks. Design requires a healthy understanding of top-down and bottom-up strategies, and this isn't easily learned without first being a practitioner.

Why is design management so weak? Management, by nature, can put roadblocks in front of creative thinking and innovation. And designers have healthy doses of skepticism for management, spurned by a lack of trusted role models in corporate structures. Many designers dream of being respected by their peers and put many of their ideas on sites like Dribbble to capture that validation. It's more of an Oscar fantasy than a JD Power award. Aspiring to manage isn't high on the list of designers, and most design environments don't foster management thinking.

Designers want career paths and advancement, but don't know what that means in a business environment (nor are companies figuring out how to provide it). Companies are just starting to realize the benefits of being design-driven. There's a hunger, but not enough role models to create these opportunities. Many designers are not aware of what managers and leaders do on a daily basis. I don't hear many designers who want to scale a management ladder.

Design management requires some of the same training as a traditional business management tract, but there's one big difference. One of the most important aspects of design is having empathy for users, which means we learn to manage for emotions and varied results. It shares a similar goal of good customer service with corporate brethren, but goes much deeper into understanding the desires of people. This takes years of practice and development to fully understand how design affects the user experience.

Finding Design Leaders in Corporate Haystacks

It's easy to see why leadership gets lost when companies try to pull leaders from design circles, people who typically start their careers by creating things (often very early before they even know what design is). Most designers get excited about being a designer because they enjoy creating things and applying color theory, type, software, etc., not managing. Heck, peruse Dribbble and you'll realize most 'things' designers create don't even have to be real. Asking a designer to let go of these desires puts doubt into their mind. It becomes an 'either/or' discussion: be a designer or be a manager.

Companies who desire to be design-driven face leadership gaps. It's hard to foster design leadership without business structures that support design. And because of this, there's a dearth of design leaders in companies. The current industry talent model is more about finding leaders than developing them. Teaching designers management basics can improve the overall effectiveness of design-driven organizations. This type of management training needs to be specific to design management, which includes developing designers who can lead and think, not just manage a production line.

Design leadership isn't just the domain of designers with titles. It's designers taking initiative to drive better products and services in their companies. Product designers are faced with this effort daily. Progressive design empowers designers to drive design cross-functionally in organization. This has been the domain of a product manager, but we need to broaden responsibilities of designers if we truly want to create great products.

By utilizing the basic principles of progressive design, designers can begin to focus on higher-level thinking without having formal management training. Knowing how to manage design is the start of strong design leadership. Progressive design is an opportunity for designers to learn how to manage projects, and more importantly, a way for them to lead by design.

Who Will Fill These Design Lead Shoes?

Companies want to gain a business advantage with design. When IBM says that it's hiring thousands of designers, it's really building a management structure. It's got all the right buzzwords: 'IBM Interactive Experience is an industry first — a management consultancy and systems integration company combined with a digital agency powered by data and research.' But really, what does that mean?

Who are the leaders in organizations helping designers aspire not only to manage teams, but lead product visions? As highlighted earlier, product vision requires finding harmony in product management and leading people. Product design has a lot of crossover with product management. Good product managers are great designers. Yet many people in this role struggle to create real value because most organizations are not set up to influence without authority. That, and the risk to product managers, who typically don't 'own' resources, becomes a roadblock to driving innovation through design.

Many organizations have tried to close the design leadership gap by inserting UX groups into the mix to keep their eye on the user. It's a strategic effort to make experiences better for people, but most organizations have stuck to a production-line-oriented mindset, which prevents any real value generation for users. This approach also prevents design leaders from emerging to create value across the business and users interactions with an organization. The user benefits that companies really seek come more from a function of design leadership and management that this approach blocks.

Engineers suffer from similar issues, though design leadership requires more than managing product problems. Design leadership is based heavily on influence and fuzzy problem solving. The argument can be made that the people we seek to lead design are right in front of us, we just don't have enough methodologies to support their growth so they can influence through design. My own story is similar to most designers who have taken on the challenge of growing an organization around design.

You Can't Take Design Out of Design Leadership

As a Chief Instigator, I started my career as an independent contributor. I enjoyed the process of creating things. I did this for years and I'm probably similar to most design leaders. Managing was a natural progression, but I was unprepared for the demands of management earlier in my career. I'd been a leader and captain for many successful sports teams, but the commitment required to lead and manage designers is more encompassing.

Like many design leaders, my training has been vastly self-taught. Making the transition from creator to manager a was bumpy ride at times. My own lessons are the ones that have shaped my skills and provided direction. Here's a good lesson on reading the room from a post I wrote on Luke Wroblewski's blog in 2006:

What's the most important skill of business decision-making? Knowing what drives people to make decisions. Getting groups of people excited about an idea requires understanding what motivates them. You might have the best ideas in the world, but if you fail to understand the dynamics of the room, you may never get past your first idea.

In my first consulting gig I was invited to present a proposal at a board meeting, unaware that this public company's entire executive team would be in attendance. There were two billionaires sitting at the table. Really. I was wholeheartedly unprepared to sell a single idea to this crowd. I tried getting the group to brainstorm, using some techniques that had been successful for me in past situations. But in less than five minutes I was told, 'I think we're done here.' Ouch. It's a lesson that rings in my head all the time.

Reading people is a skill that can be learned, but getting really good at it comes as the result of years of practice. Every meeting, every conversation is an opportunity to hone your skills.

I still work on design projects because they keep me grounded and invested in the trends, and frankly I know how fast I can become obsolete. It's a hard tradeoff for any designer who seeks to disrupt trends and shape our industry. What makes many design leaders unique is that they can be managers and contributors.

It's that experience that shaped the way we think about design leadership. Early in ZURB's history, I saw an opportunity to develop designers who managed through spheres of influence. This has been an amazing opportunity for us to create real value in companies, but it's also created difficulty in helping designers learn basic management. Progressive design has been the way we help designers own the project management of a design project and push innovation forward.

Growing Design Leaders

How can companies utilize the power of design without leaders? Being sympathetic to design isn't enough —the entire organization needs to be inspired by this effort. Finding and growing design leaders is the next big challenge facing design organizations.

Design leaders don't have the collective influence an industry might provide. Design has changed greatly over the last decade, though designers have not fully embraced their potential as leaders in companies. Design leaders must design for continuous influence, as pixels no longer carry as much value.

A commitment to growing a design-centric organization requires design leaders. They need tools and methodologies the overlap with the entire organization. And they need a way to manage design. Learning to manage projects through progressive design is a great start. It provides a way to find cross pollination with different groups within.

(thanks to Irene Au and Brian Williams for their insights on the post)


chief instigator bryan z

Bryan Zmijewski

Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
Learn more →

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Ringing in the New Year with Three New ZURBians

Shawna wrote this on January 08, 2015 in . It has 44 reactions

three new ZURBians

We're starting the new year with some new hires — actually three plus one who just moved in. The coming year will give these new ZURBians plenty of challenges, but we know they're smart, capable, and willing to take on 2015. So without further ado, let's meet Mandi, Shaina and Tim, our awesome new designers!

Mandi Saeteun: Chasing Big Dreams, Craft Beer and Comic Books


Photo of Mandi Saeteun

Mandi spent most of her early career growing a company with her mother literally from the ground up in Sacramento. In school she discovered that aesthetics weren't as fun as problem-solving —so she jumped from an Art Studio major to Design. That led to a Bachelor's degree in Design from UC Davis. The next step was obvious: She joined ZURB as a design intern. But that didn't satisfy her desire for experience.

To pay the bills (and feed her comic book habit), Mandi worked at Excel Interpreting, a language interpreting and translation company, creating marketing collateral. She also worked with developers to build a proprietary scheduling database. Her work there fueled her desire to solve real problems.

Inspired by our manifesto, Mandi came to ZURB to find her path in an industry that keeps changing. She now is a full fledged Zurbian — after only three months as an intern!

Shaina Silver: My Name is Shaina, But My Friends Call me Shane

Shaina claims to be a new designer, but you could say Shane earned a lot of experience already.

Photo of Shaina 'Shane' Silver'

She studied communications in San Diego before traveling around the world to finish school in Singapore. Her time there exposed her to TV and media production as she worked on the school's weekly television news show. She then traveled to London to head up the Social Media Department for a fashion company at London Fashion Week.

Shane's background in journalism lead to a job writing obituaries — yes, obituaries — for the San Diego Union-Tribune. But it wasn't a long-term career move. "I quickly realized I was hungry" she said, not only for new opportunities, but because she was tired of being a starving journalist. So she decided to change to a more lucrative career.

During her job at Fandango/NBCUniversal as a front-end web developer, Shane strove for quality work on the company's website. They used Foundation, which is how she learned about ZURB.

She joined us as a Product Designer to make the internet a better place, and looks forward to collaborating with her fellow designers and learn from their experiences.

Tim Hartwick: Pug Enthusiast, Impeccable Bug Tester, Design Aficionado


Growing up in Cincinnati, Tim was fascinated with art and visual design. His interest grew when the web took off, and he went on to graduate from Ball State University with a B.S. in Advertising and a Master's in Information Communication Sciences.

Photo of Tim Hartwick

But before that, there was a pug. At least, there would have been, and it would have been awesome. Tim thought about driving across the nation with his (yet-to-be-bought) pug, taking photos of his "lovably awkward" pet they traveled, and having a great time taking a year off from college. His parents, however, said um … no.

As a graduate of Ball State, Tim's no stranger to ZURB. He was first introduced to our team through a fellow Ball State grad who was then a ZURB designer and, when he heard that a second friend had hired on as a ZURB designer, so he decided to pay us a visit. A free lunch didn't hurt either. Working here, he said he's finally found a place that encourages synthesis of the two into something that helps the world use and understand technology.

It's a craft-beer-loving, nicknamed, bug-hunting trio of talented designers. You can just feel the potential these three will bring in 2015. So let's give a warm welcome to our newest ZURBians!


Our New Angular Engineer Gives Us a Stronger Foundation

Shawna wrote this on December 03, 2014 in . It has 432 reactions

Often confused as a boy band runaway because of her gravity-defying hair and her tendency to belt out pop songs, our newest ZURBian's interests actually skew toward visiting aquariums and playing video games. So with that, please say hello to …

Jeanie Chung, Angular Engineer

Photo of Jeanie Chung, our newest Angular JS engineer

Jeanie hails from South Korea, but grew up in Chicago. She attended Washington University — the one in St. Louis, MO. After deciding that med school was not the life for her, Jeanie switched into engineering and earned a Bachelor's in Systems Engineering. Following her interest in the health sector's big picture, she became convinced that her goal was to save the world with engineering and public health.

Things took a turn when she applied her engineering smarts and took a job at Razorfish, her first foray into web design. But it was hard to ignore her passion for public health, so she took a position at Northwestern University in Chicago with the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies (CBITS). There she would build apps and websites for collaborators and researchers, who aimed to address health behavior issues through technology. Her supervisor at CBITS loved to experiment with new technologies and frameworks. Jeanie soon found herself hacking through Angular JS, and although it was tough to get started, she soon learned its many ins and outs.

When Jeanie rebuilt her personal website on Foundation and Angular, she began reverse-engineering our framework. That also prompted her to learn about ZURB. This led to a pretty great match where Jeanie can happily help us up our AngularJS game in Foundation for Apps alongside other ZURBians.

So everyone please welcome Jeanie, our newest engineer!


2014 Design Award

Bryan wrote this on November 30, 2014 in . It has 62 reactions

Last year we moved into a fantastic new space after spending a year renovating a worn down, multi-tenant space. Today we're happy to share that our building was honored with a 2014 Design Award by the American Architects Institute of Santa Clara County (home to some of the most recognized technology companies in Silicon Valley).

We'd like to thank our architect and congratulate David Fenster and Modulus for an amazing job. After working in the space for the past year, we can attest to David's work as it continues to surpass the test of time! It's an amazing space and we're thankful everyday for the opportunity to work in a building specifically designed around the needs of our business.

Interior Spaces Designed for Designers

After spending many afternoons learning and observing how we worked, Modulus was able to design different spaces for the needs of our team. They spent countless hours going back and forth with us discussing everything from lighting to acoustics. It was incredible. Designing for a bunch of designers isn't the easiest of jobs.

Each room has a specific purpose and it provides our employees opportunity to spread out. Below are a few interior photos.

One of our many brainstorm rooms- this one is called Dream is Collapsing.



A view of the kitchen and eating area, the hub of our workspace.



The Friday room is for meetings and guests.



A Multi-Purpose Space

The design, city approval process and construction took well over a year to finish. By the end of the process, it started to get hard making constant decisions, but the team stayed focused up until the end.

Here's the floorplan of the two story, 12,500 sq ft. building.

The space has been used in many different ways. In the past year we taught elementary students about design thinking, ran a healthcare hack-a-thon, finished our 7th ZURB Wired, and hosted numerous Soapbox speakers.

Before the Renovation

For those that are interested, we captured some pre-construction and building images in a previous blog post. As you can see, the team did an amazing job turning this old clunker into an amazing space!


chief instigator bryan z

Bryan Zmijewski

Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
Learn more →

Follow him at


The Right Brain Myth

Bryan wrote this on November 26, 2014 in . It has 259 reactions

Designers have been told that they have a gift, or are somehow different or more creative. They've been classified as right-brain thinkers. We know the brain is divided into two hemispheres — the common notion, psychologically, is that the left side of the brain holds language and is more logical, while the right brain is more creative. The problem is, it's not true.

Creatives are right brain dominant, or so the theory goes. Over time we've perpetuated a myth that designers have been given special creative talents. It's hurting our ability to create great products.

Moving Beyond Creative Stereotypes

Research has shown that it's not that simple. We use our whole brain. In our last article on gut-thinking, we discussed the problem with companies not trusting designers — part of this lack of trust is built on the myth that creatives might lack the sense of logic or reason that comes with left-brain thinking. Designers perpetuate this logic by suggesting they have 'taste' and are better at all the user stuff.

Taste is a component of design, for sure, but a more significant problem facing designers is that they're not learning to bring experiences together. There is research to perpetuate the idea that some are creatively gifted, but it's not because of their talents, but the socialization that happens in our education system:

Of 1,600 children aged three to five who were tested, 98% showed they could think in divergent ways. By the time they were aged eight to 10, 32% could think divergently. When the same test was applied to 13 to 15-year-olds, only 10% could think in this way. And when the test was used with 200,000 25-year-olds, only 2% could think divergently . . . Education is driven by the idea of one answer and this idea of divergent thinking becomes stifled.

Designers need to bring divergent thinking to organizations. They also need to find the overlap in critical thinking in different parts of an organization. To create real impact and success in companies, designers are going to have to work much harder at connecting their own experiences across disciplines to create value for users.

What We Know About the Brain

The right brain, according to the left-brain, right-brain dominance theory, is best at expressive and creative tasks. Abilities popularly associated with the right side of the brain include: recognizing faces; expressing emotions; music; reading emotions; color; images; intuition; and creativity. The left side of the brain is considered to be adept at tasks that involve logic, language and analytical thinking. The left-brain is described as being better at language, logic, critical thinking, numbers, and reasoning.

While many of these core functions have their roots in a specific portion of the brain, the science is actually much more complex. The connective tissues that bind the left and right brain play a large role in amplifying thoughts:

It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time. Let's put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body's weight and uses 20 percent of the body's energy. - Neurologist Barry Gordon of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Scientific American

The corpus callosum carries electrical signals between both sides of the brain. It stretches nearly the full length of the brain from behind the forehead to the back of the neck and is the dense network of neural fibers that make brain regions with very different functions work together. This part of the brain, however, is still a great mystery as scientists try to figure out how this complex network of neural fibers works.

The Einstein Genius

A recent study on Einstein's brain found that he had a larger corpus callosum than the average person. Interestingly, Einstein was an excellent musician and some studies have suggested that his interest in music may have contributed to this abnormality. Einstein stated, 'If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.'

What's interesting about one of the greatest thinkers of the last century is how he thought.

Einstein first described his intuitive thought processes at a physics conference in Kyoto in 1922, when he indicated that he used images to solve his problems and found words later (Pais, 1982). Einstein explicated this bold idea at length to one scholar of creativity in 1959, telling Max Wertheimer that he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but in images, feelings, and even musical architectures. -Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein, Psychology Today

One of the world's greatest thinkers thought in images. Amazing! But what is of more interest to designers is that he found words later. Today we might define this way of thinking as design thinking.

Another finding from the research on Einstein's brain suggested that his genius may not have been caused by the size of his brain. Rather his brain was larger in those connected areas between hemispheres because he exercised those areas more than the average person. Researchers have found that enriched learning environments can help contribute to the survival and integration of new brain cells. It seems that genius maybe rooted in working different parts of the brain with regularity.

Expanding our Design Literacy

Product designers must practice and expand the critical thinking parts of their brain to reach the rest of their organizations. Critical thinking becomes a bridge to connect with employees who might have been conditioned by society, traditional schooling and corporate structures to only think analytically. Designers can facilitate design thinking, but they need to overlap their experiences with the knowledge that organizations already hold, specifically critical thinking.

Designers have the ability to show the rest of the organization how to bring experiences to the forefront — they practice more than the average worker to bring creativity to their work.

Artists showed lower activity in part of their frontal lobes called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during improvisation, and increased activity in another area, called the medial prefrontal cortex. The areas that were found to be 'deactivated' are associated with regulating other brain functions.

Design literacy across a business is necessary if companies are to become more design centric. At ZURB, we've been using progressive design to bring the knowledge of a team into the design process. Making connections is key to making this happen, as Steve Jobs eloquently captured in this 1996 Wired article:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they've had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that's too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have. — Steve Jobs

While the vast majority of workers stay siloed in their organizations, most designers are guilty of failing to learn across the organization. The over productionalization of design forces most organizations into a factory line of critical thinking, which kills innovation.

So where do we start? Practice.

Designer Practice Makes Designer Perfect

In product design, you carry a lot of design decisions in your head. Learning to prioritize those ideas and get them written down allows our brains to focus on processing ideas — not carry the baggage of stress or product team problems. You can't make gut-thinking decisions with mental baggage. In a production line model, designers spend too much time using their brains as production tools — which is ultimately a Photoshop button replacement.

We've talked in the past about how design collaboration is lonely. And for designers to truly collaborate in a meaningful way, there needs to be more attention to practicing critical thinking as part of the design process. Designers can't make the necessary connections across an organization without first learning and practicing to articulate their ideas. This happens through writing and sketching.

For designers to be successful, getting ideas out of your head takes practice, but the effects of writing and sketching have immense implications on the satisfaction of one's work. People feel more engaged, more productive, and have a greater sense of meaning in their work when they record even the most minuscule of accomplishments. Design teams can capture this power if they learn to harness these skills in designers. Most designers stop at visual communication. Or don't have the skills to articulate their ideas.

Designers must learn to sell their ideas through writing them down. Persuasion happens with confidence, and learning to articulate ideas through words can help build confidence. Designers also need to ask more questions. While most professionally-trained designers have learned the art of the critique, most educational systems still lack the training necessary to drive the dialog through a complete design process with a cross disciplinary team. We started talking about progressive design recently and a clear benefit of learning to write in this model is that it encourages designers to sell and purge ideas to keep momentum in a project.

Exercising Our Brains

We've committed ourselves to writing and fostering ideas in Tavern to grow and shape product design. With the shutdown of Forrst, we asked ourselves how we could learn from inviting designers into discussions on a broad range of product design topics, all while keeping the format simple. We took the banana leaf parable to heart. What can we write in a day on a topic? How does the commitment to these ideas shape the way we solve problems everyday?

We're just over 100 days into Tavern. It's been an amazing opportunity to grow and learn with a group of designers. Learning to question and challenge ideas is a core part of what being a product designer is all about. Product design is a horizontal discipline that requires significant investments among team members. Tavern has become a structured environment to keep the learning extremely focused. One hundred days in, we've had nearly 5,000 contributions from some amazing and articulate designers like Ren Walker, Bryce Howiston, and Antonin Januska.

As we explore the broader goals of product design with designers through Tavern and the University, we're also working hard to release improved tools that help design teams facilitate better design communication through an improved Notable. We're all in on trying to figure out how to build strong design teams through progressive design. We even share our team building exercises in our Friday15 site.

Progressive Design [Thinking]

Twitter quips, weather apps and Dribbble shots are part of the design lexicon. They've engrained simplicity in designers' heads and helped people find creative outlets. But there's a difference between creating a simple result and oversimplifying the problem. Being 'creative' or a' right brain thinker' isn't going to solve our problems without more attention to actual thinking. We solve this at ZURB through progressive design by taking a practical approach to design thinking.

A designer's job is to help companies figure out how to make the complex, simple. This requires a commitment to selling ideas internally and moving their team through a creative process. It requires gut-thinking — thinking that's evolved by overlapping convergent and divergent thinking, synthesizing company knowledge together with customer feedback and using experience to drive decisions. Effective designers must continually practice these skills in their work and find connections across organizations. It's not just a right brain activity. And companies shouldn't make it that.

Companies need designers to make decisions from the gut to move quickly through a design process. But it's not going to happen without regular training and practice. Designers need to commit to ideas and sell visions that can be understood by a wide range of people across a business. When designers figure out how to do this, companies will in turn trust designers to think from their gut.


chief instigator bryan z

Bryan Zmijewski

Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
Learn more →

Follow him at


We're Jazzed to Introduce Our Newest Marketer

Shawna wrote this on November 25, 2014 in . It has 38 reactions

Our newest marketer hit the right note when we first met him. Not only did he impress us with his marketing skills, but his musical talents were off the charts. So without further ado, let's introduce you to ...

Daniel Codella, Marketer

Daniel spent his high school years traversing the globe, learning about different cultures. Most of all, he learned about his passion — music. You see, Daniel is the son of two musicians, so you could say music is in his blood. He's released several indie albums and singles, and had a chance to work with Jason Slater, a former member of Third Eye Blind.

Daniel was also a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition. Career wise, he thought he become a writer, but music kept calling his name so he pursued that instead.

However, the music industry changed with the arrival of MP3s and streaming services. So instead of the sitting on the sidelines, he put on an event — "Sound Advice: Making a Living in the Music Industry" — to help him and his friends find a place in a changing musical landscape. At that event, Daniel met his future boss, president of Sonoma Wire Works, an audio software/hardware company. Soon after that, Daniel joined Sonoma's marketing team. As he says:

Connecting with people, and more specifically, connecting different groups of people, is something I really enjoyed and seemed to have a talent for.

Marketing seemed like a perfect fit for Daniel because he was able to combine a love of music and technology, as well as connecting different groups of people at the same time. Now he's pushing his love of technology and connecting with people even further as ZURB's marketer! And he's looking forward to learning more in the days to come:

Even though I have only been around the ZURBians a short time. I am already in awe of how dedicated the team is to being efficient. Everyone seems to be in love with learning, sharing and discovering new information.

We've Lost the Guts to Think

Bryan wrote this on November 12, 2014 in . It has 272 reactions

brain and lightbulb

Last week, we wrote about the the conundrum design agencies and in-house design teams face in growing successful design teams. While it paints a rather doom-and-gloom picture, the reality is that these are company problems. The role of being a designer is flush with opportunity. The challenge for designers, however, is picking a direction that provides the most professional growth and fulfillment. But there's a catch.

While design opportunities are plentiful, most jobs don't provide designers with a way to shape design problems and create enough value in an organization. Companies are struggling to utilize the talents of designers in a meaningful way. But it's not every company's fault. Companies need to trust their designers to make decisions. Designers, for their part, will have to think. Gut-think.

The Stupidfication of Design

Solving 'user experience' problems won't be solved by narrowly focusing designers around production work. There's only so much companies can do to productionalize a design process without causing huge problems to the overall quality and delight of a product. The trend of educational bootcamps and online learning has become a way to close a talent gap by thousands, but it's exposing a need for design leaders who can inject thinking and emotion into design work.

As an industry, we've been told people don't read. That people don't have time to do X. To make it simple. And designers have bought into this logic, which does not help them learn to synthesize ideas that actually make it easier and more enjoyable for people to use products. Simple is actually very complex to design when it comes to interactions. We're stuck designing around press releases, despite the goal of two pizza teams creating more value. When you couple this with "always on" internet products, designers are asked to work in an industrial revolution-like production line to quickly solve problems. It's not the future, though. It's making us stupid.

Although we've moved past the idea of magic Photoshop buttons that solve design problems, we've also introduced new problems of putting bodies on design work that requires nuanced thought and presentation. Corporate hierarchies, agile pressures and MVP products all but rob us of a chance to create real impact.

We Need a Better Approach

We're about two decades into this whole commercial internet thing. Design as a profession has progressed significantly, but we're going to have to change our tactics if we want to break free from the unnecessary burdens of company structures. Evolution is inevitable. Let's not get overly frustrated though — we get to shape that evolution in a way that creates momentum and satisfaction, especially if we invest our efforts right. It takes time for industries to find clarity and it will require different approaches than the ones we use today.

Today's digital knowledge workers are no longer efficient or effective when working in a production-line model, which takes the emotion out of producing design work. The future depends on a practical approach to design thinking that enables designers to make decisions based on synthesizing rational thinking with emotions. Product designers need to work through the entire product lifecycle, shaping decisions that have big implications on the technology, business goals and customer needs.

Product Design Requires Gut-Thinking

brain and guts

If we're to succeed in dismantling production lines then we need to prepare designers to think through user and business decisions. We've talked in the past about the dribbblefication of design and the need to work through feedback. Making this problem more complicated is that online products don't shut off and the process of producing product updates is a race against time. Designers must learn to fail fast and make adjustments. Whipping out Photoshop or pushing code to Github is a great start to get the muscles working, but ultimately we need to make adjustments with our whole mind and body.

Product design requires making a ton of decisions and often works best with a bottom-up strategy. It's not a production role; however, the greatest design leaders stay close to the medium. Our history is full of designers who have used the hero design method — Eames, Loewy and Starck have shown great design work happens when emotion and thinking become part of the equation. They worked from the gut. Today's product designers should embrace this approach and use their techniques for inspiration, as the results are undeniable. Companies will need methods and processes for incorporating these ideas.

Designers need to get better at articulating their ideas through direct business communication so they can think from the gut. Producing beautiful imagery and soft emotional rationale isn't going to cut it — thinking from the gut requires quick decision making to persuade teams to move forward through rational decision making. Gut-thinking is the same fight or fleet thinking that happens when a speeding car is heading in your direction. Your body takes over and quickly reacts by moving out of the way.

Designers need to perform under similar duress in businesses where executives can often feel like speeding cars. Learning to quickly absorb and synthesize harsh feedback starts in the gut. It should push designers to take action. This effort requires significant and purposeful practice because businesses and organizational structures aren't constructed with empathy in mind. Designers and companies need to find common ground to move forward as an industry. Businesses must acknowledge that this type of thinking is good for product design. Designers, for their part, need to show that gut-thinking is grounded in logic and produces results. Thinking from the gut can be systematized and learned.

What Happens in Vagus, Shouldn't Stay in Vagus

vagus nerve

Here's where science comes in — it just so happens that there's a nerve that connects the brain to your guts. It's called the vagus nerve, it's over 9 meters long and there are over 100 million neurons that act as a second brain. As a designer, there's a real and tangible connection to our guts that helps us react to situations and come up with quick design solutions. This shouldn't be overlooked in the design process.

Designers must learn to sell complex ideas to marketers, customer service people, engineers and the suit-and-ties, all while shipping code. Being data focused can be helpful, but it's got its limitations to help push through big ideas as Doug Bowman steadfastly declared (companies have since wised up ' even Google has a mandate to make things beautiful). Communicating product ideas must come from confident decision making and solid emotional grounding. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and head of the Brain and Creativity Institute, makes the case:

Rather than being opposed, emotion and reason are deeply interrelated: if you're going to make sound and rational decisions, [Damasio] contends, you need to have first done prior accurate emotional processing. If you have done such processing, then your emotions accelerate your decision-making — in the form of intuitions, hunches, and gut feelings.

If gut-thinking is so important to design, where are designers learning to work through their ideas and emotions? Companies aren't opening themselves up and designers are not practicing enough. So which is it? Are companies too stuck in their ways or are designers too scared to think from the gut? We need a process to support design thinking and decision making.

Gut-Thinking in Progressive Design

Designers need simple tools for organizing their thoughts to drive design problems within a team. Gut-thinking produces positive feelings. With a positive attitude, designers can create momentum for the team. At the heart of this problem is learning to communicate and facilitate decisions on behalf of product teams. Progressive Design is an effective way to build momentum and harness the power of gut-thinking while providing a structure for teams to feel confident.

We've worked for the past decade and applied these learnings to our design work across startups and large companies. Using a progressive design process has enabled us to reduce the design synthesizing and processing time, and enabled our designers to help companies make solid design decisions from the gut. Gut-thinking has been shown to create better results, is faster for us and has more momentum and satisfaction for our designers.

We'll continue to share our ideas and get more into how designers can learn to get better at gut-thinking through specific techniques and progressive design.


chief instigator bryan z

Bryan Zmijewski

Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
Learn more →

Follow him at


Silicon Valley Killed the Design Agency

Bryan wrote this on October 31, 2014 in . It has 1091 reactions

Illustration depicting how the valley killed the design agency

The design agency world has turned upside down with the recent news of Adaptive Path finding synergy with a bank, Smart Design calling it quits in Silicon Valley, and [insert design shop here] getting scooped up by the Faceoogleboxes. Silicon Valley, which is known for putting whole industries on notice, has quietly killed the design agency. Or have they? While Silicon Valley isn't afraid to eat its children, it's also thinking an internet generation ahead as it produces hit after hit. So with chaos comes clarity, then chaos. It's a cycle. Until the next innovation.

The Design Industry is not immune to this fact. Silicon Valley wants to scoop up all the star design talent. But it's not as easy as hiring design talent in-house. You need a way to scale and bring purpose to the work at hand.

The Traditional Agency Model for Product Design Won't Survive

ZURB is a product design company. We've learned quite a bit over the years providing services by avoiding the traditional model of handing stuff over the "agency wall." Product design doesn't work well in a typical agency model because creating great products is more than 50% operational. Great products require investment across many different parts of a business, so we put a bigger effort on collaborating with our customers.

Will "web" agencies exist? Sure, but if they want to create a high-margin business, they won't be able to provide services in the same way. However, chop shops will continue to exist. There will be plenty of work out there, just not the type of low-margin business most agencies desire. IDEO went through this transition 15 years ago with physical products. I briefly worked there when they acquired the startup I worked for. The writing was on the wall — that they couldn't sustain their business with only huge amounts of engineering work.

The traditional agency model is a transfer of bloat and processes into what is perceived to be a short-term consulting cost for the business instead of hiring. And because this model is flawed from the outset, it doesn't change the organizational dynamics or shift the way people think about building great products. It's a costly "butts on seats" strategy, where projects with more people convey importance to the larger organization.

Getting Their Design House in Order

Illustrating of getting one's house in order

Facebook and Google went on a design/product buying spree specifically because they needed to figure out how to own design thinking on their team. It's too important to their businesses, as Eric Schmidt recently shared in a presentation titled, "How Google Works." Other tech companies have followed. Traditional firms will follow as well, though this will take awhile. Companies WILL figure this out. Great companies WILL create environments that creative people want to work in. If design is a strategic part of their business, they're going to work really hard to figure it out.

Does this mean agencies won't exist? No, but the nature of the services provided will change. When most of the design work has been commoditized, why would a company want to pay three times more for a specialist? That's where differentiation comes into play. It's also a wake up call for agencies that think their commodity services, void of training and education, will be enough to keep them going.

When will companies get a clue? Well, it's already happening, though it's going to take some time to get right. Companies are recruiting highly-specialized talent to do a waterfall process, passing work from one person to another, leaving the designers to work in silos and create relatively low value for their cost. Meanwhile, startups are building very small teams of product designers who do the whole stack. These startup designers get domain expertise, which agencies can't quite match, but they tend to focus designers on feature sets rather than bigger vision goals.

Companies seek us out to understand it through more collaborative engagements where knowledge sharing happens at a high level. It might take a long time for this to completely shift an industry, but it's going to happen. We saw what was happening in the mid-2000s and I committed ZURB in a blog post, titled "The Dreadful Mission Statement," to what I believed would be the next generation of design companies. As a learning organization, we've always prioritized learning as a key part of our customer interactions and it made complete sense.

20 Years in the Valley Will Harden Your Soul

I can distinctly remember sitting in my one-bedroom apartment in the early days of the the first Dot Com Boom turning down work as a consultant. The person on the the phone was desperate to get me onboard for her consulting project at a large agency. It was a name-your-price opportunity that had to start in a day, but also had vague goals that needed to get done ASAP — all the red flags of a consulting gig trap. I was so busy at the time, I had to turn the opportunity down, but I remember the 10,000-person company closing its doors soon after.

Then BAM! 2001 was an amazing swing of events and suddenly the internet world was not flying so high anymore. The internet now had a bad sting to it and Silicon Valley suddenly shed everyone who couldn't find an opportunity to learn how to web. The 101 became a string of ghost towns connected by a freeway. I focused on my craft by finding ways to create real value in the web product cycle. This meant taking more time to educate, explain tactics and train companies. It was energizing and it had me reinvested back into why I loved the web in the first place.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Illustration of diversity among companies

Companies in the Valley were pretty quick to rebound, but what became clear is that they needed something more to sustain growth than just being an "internet" company. Over the last decade and a half, Apple created a new design awakening with their cool iPods and iMacs. One out of every two clients I worked with wanted to be like Apple. 'Make it like Apple,' they said. Most of this thinking was surface level, but over the last decade companies started to grasp that there was more to the problem than just glossing things up at the end of a product cycle.

As an industry, we've slowly moved past digital brochures. The Apple fetish has turned to interactive discussions about what people actually want. Companies flashed "UX" in their organizations to say, 'We get it.' In our ZURB work, we started to overlap with internal design teams. While there was harmony in the need for design thinking, there was something also horribly wrong with the approach companies were taking. UX design is completely misguided.

UX Design Isn't a Department

Illustration of one company standing out with a UX dept

UX Design dept/agency as a concept isn't a model that will last. UX design was an opportunity to change design management — something that has existed for many decades, but rarely executed in way that shapes organizations around the user problem. Most designers, however, don't have the management skills to do this kind of work. Wireframing and dreaming new flows are great, but that's not a department. It's a skill.

Google tried this model, but disbanded the notion of a centralized group. This might have changed, but I don't believe setting up a UX group is the way of the future. It's certainly not a way to drive design innovation in an organization. And the problem with UX teams is about the lack of need for "UX design" not about companies setting them up right or using agencies to outsource this effort. It's a siloed activity on its own that doesn't create momentum across the product life cycle.

Agencies, Design Thinking and the Need for Progressive Design

Just last week we were writing about design thinking and the immense pressure companies are facing to make design a focus of their business. Ten years ago, this was the bread-and-butter of agency life, but companies aren't really sure if they want an agency experience. Agencies have been promising the fruits of design thinking for years now and companies are trying to figure it out, but it's still a mess. Many companies have decided to take on the burden of just dealing with the mess rather than spend money on outside help.

At ZURB, we were well aware of what was happening, and committed to an approach we've been using for 15 years that provides huge value to our clients by keeping the bloat of a traditional agency out of our engagements. Typical agencies have project managers, account managers, and specialized front-end people to provide services with segmented, specialized skills sets. Our approach is more nimble — we remove project managers, invest clients into the work and focus on smaller deliverables to create momentum. We invest a small group across the entire product development cycle, thus providing value beyond just wireframe flows.

Progressive Design is a collaborative approach that works for companies that need the expertise of a design specialist, and provides a structured approach so that they too can drive design in their organization. We even augmented our business strategy by releasing tools, open source software and training to help shape this new reality for companies trying to harness design capabilities. And it's working. Foundation is an example of how our own learnings have been packaged into an open-source responsive front-end framework.

All Hail Progressive Design, Death to the Agency

Illustration of an environment reinvigorated by progressive design

I won't lie to you that it's a rewarding feeling to have seen ahead, past the initial UX trend a decade ago. We've found harmony in a sustainable, actionable way to create design momentum in a company.

"Innovate or die" goes the saying here in Silicon Valley. Typical agencies need to heed the calling and differentiate. There's too much noise in the market now for companies to simply slide in under the guise of bringing design thinking to a company. Companies in turn will need to adopt an operational approach that focuses their money and approach not just on 'UX' wireframes, but the entire product life cycle. This requires spending on higher-value work and a knowledge transfer across their organization.

I'm just guessing that companies' need for design help won't disappear, but their expectations will be bigger and their eyes wide open instead of just throwing bodies at problems. We've been successful building a design company since 1998 and we're excited to share our knowledge, culture and design approach with the world. Progressive design is amazing and we're pumped to help companies figure it out.

Update: We recently continued this conversation in the post Fat Cows, Disillusioned Scarecrows and Greener Design Pastures.


chief instigator bryan z

Bryan Zmijewski

Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
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