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Attention Nonprofits: We're Now Taking Applications for ZURB Wired

Daniel wrote this on May 28, 2015 in . 68 reactions

Over the last few months, we've talked a lot about the power designers have to influence change in organizations. But we're looking beyond impacting mere business outcomes. It's our sincere belief that design can cause real, positive change in the world. ZURB Wired is proof.

Each year we volunteer our time and resources to help one special nonprofit craft a complete marketing campaign in 24 coffee-fueled hours. ZURB HQ becomes a hive of activity as our entire team, along with volunteers, work all through the night to create a website, print material, engineering support, written content and even videos. To accomplish this, we use the same process and methods we use in our Studios business to help companies do incredible things in short amounts of time. The event itself is timeboxed to 24 hours, but the results of our work are felt long after.

Now in its eighth year, ZURB Wired is testament to the power of both design and community, accomplishing months worth of work in mere hours. We're extremely proud of what we've achieved so far, and we're setting the bar even higher this year!

A Look Back: Sacred Heart Community Services

Last year, Sacred Heart Community Services was our chosen nonprofit organization. Sacred Heart's mission is to build a community free from poverty by creating hope, opportunity, and action ' goals that resonated with our team. Sacred Heart provides food, clothing, and housing assistance to those in need, as well as offering services like employment assistance, family mentoring, along with adult and youth education programs.

Our team created a marketing campaign to help them procure the resources they needed, raise the necessary funds, increase the number of new donors and re-engage with past donors. The campaign included a redesigned website, print collateral, digital assets, a video and marketing content.

The fruits of our labor continued after the 24-hour Wired rush. Jay Pecot, Director of Development and Communications shared this with us:

Even with an improved economy, more people than ever before are seeking Sacred Heart's help. That is why Wired was such a tremendous experience for us. This year, because of ZURB's help, we are ready for our holiday fundraising campaign celebrating our 50th birthday with a comprehensive set of paper and electronic communications. During Wired, we watched carefully how ZURB's staff took us through the design process. We are going to do the same for our next big campaign. And most importantly, we will set aside time to build the campaign together, rather than fitting it in between other tasks. Thank you, ZURB.

Become This Year's Nonprofit

Do you have an inspiring cause and a passionate team? If so, you may be the nonprofit we're looking for! We are now accepting applications for this year's Wired. The deadline is July 17, 2015. We have two requirements:

  1. Your nonprofit must be a registered and IRS compliant 501(c)(3)
  2. Your nonprofit must focus on providing services to the Bay Area community

In addition these requirements, we'll need you to submit a proposal. Here's what your proposal needs to include:

  1. Inspire us with your organization's mission.
  2. Name three teamwork tactics that will make your organization a perfect fit for ZURB Wired.
  3. Describe a clear goal that your entire organization wants to accomplish.
  4. Say which team members will commit to participating all day and night.
  5. Name one or two people from the team who are capable of making executive decisions on the organization's behalf ' there's no time to consult with the board at two in the morning!

We'll review submissions over the next couple of weeks to pick one nonprofit. We can't wait to put our experience and resources to work for positive cause. Apply today!

Submit Your Nonprofit's Proposal!

An Entrepreneur With a Passion for People, Meet Our New Business Designer

Daniel wrote this on May 27, 2015 in . 28 reactions

Our newest Business Designer is ready to make a difference in the world through design thinking! With his business savvy and incredible teaching skills, we're confident he will! Without further ado, meet …

Photo of our new Business Designer Dave Zinsman

Dave Zinsman, Business Designer

Dave is a California native, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In true Silicon Valley fashion, he was bit by the entrepreneurial bug at the tender age of seven, establishing a 'Garbage Pail Kids' trading card exchange. Throughout his teens and young adulthood he continued to develop his business savvy, eventually starting a few businesses centered around marketing, design and training.

In addition to his killer business chops, Dave is a passionate teacher. After high school, Dave joined the Marines where he served as a training instructor at Camp Pendleton. Serving in the Marines gave him a chance to see the world and interact with a wide variety of people. During his time in the Marines, Dave called Kenya, Japan and even the high seas his home! After his tour of duty, Dave went on to receive his MBA with a goal of helping companies make stronger and more relevant connections with people. He describes it this way:

The world is ready for the next renaissance. The world is ready for something better. We're ready to produce and consume smarter. Organizations that help companies make stronger and more relevant connections with people are crucial to bringing about the next renaissance.

That passion for people is what struck us most about him, and it can be seen in everything he does. For Dave, the future is full of possibilities and opportunities are everywhere. We're excited to bring Dave on as a Business Designer. In this role he'll help ZURB accomplish our mission of world domination by forging connections with new partners and helping our team work with companies to design for people.

At the center of helping companies make stronger connections with people is product design leadership. I came here because ZURB has consistently demonstrated world-class product design leadership.

Resist the Redesign

Alina wrote this on April 07, 2015 in . 607 reactions

In our industry of constantly pushing code and ever-changing websites and applications, "redesign" is a relatively common notion. There's always a way to improve the design somehow. So as we consider design and redesign opportunities, it's sometimes hard to resist the lure of a clean slate. And many designers don't. They fall into the vanity of putting their mark on the design.

inconsistent buttons

That's where we often jump in for our Studios projects — and frankly, where we had found ourselves a couple years back. We start every project with an honest audit of the existing work. As we don our objective glasses, we look at the grand scheme of the user experience and the small details that make it up. It's a safe bet that we'll come across work clearly done by different hands while completing the product audit. Buttons are somehow the epitome of this problem. It's so common that "button consistency" has almost become a design joke.

Why is Button Consistency That Important?

The button in itself is means to an action. Its precise specs may not be that important to the success of the product, which presents designers with literally unlimited design possibilities. That's something designers, unfortunately, embrace.

Button consistency, or more accurately the lack of it, is really a symptom of a bigger organizational problem. It's usually an outcome of designers working on isolated projects, making isolated design decisions without truly considering how their choices affect the whole user experience, and most importantly not being held accountable for these siloed choices. It exposes overall lack of design leadership, influence and communication, which drive a team toward a common goal — great, reliable, and branded products.

Isolated design decisions create a fragmented experience for the customer. Trying something new may be a fun experiment for the designer — and it very well might be a very nice design choice in the situation. But, little by little, these small inconsistencies chip away at the customers' experience with your product or brand. If customers can't trust to find consistency in something as small as a button across your product, how can they trust its underlying technology or service?

button coming off

As our Chief Instigator recently discussed, the button in itself holds little value — it's an artifact that can be easily changed. The real value is in the thinking that goes into a design decision and how an organization is able to uphold that decision.

Does It Actually Need a Redesign?

Consistency and interface patterns give users certainty and allow them to focus on task completion instead of hunting for the call-to-action. Imagine the sales dip Amazon could be risking by moving their "Add to Cart" button from its usual position on the right. This button's utility combined with customers' familiarity trump it's appearance. Sure, it's not the most innovative-looking button on the web, but redesigning it could really hurt the business.

Yet, designers are quick to jump on redesign opportunities — after all, it's exciting to start anew. In reality, however, a redesign isn't always the right solution to the problem. The roadblock for users may lie in the pricing of your product, which could be discovered through customer development. Or your messaging isn't compelling and could be saved by some clever copywriting. Or maybe customers feel compelled to convert, but the checkout process is too long and needs to be streamlined. Any number of changes could generate dramatic value for the business, and though they likely involve some design decisions, they rarely require a clean slate.

Brand new product designs take a long time to develop. It's a costly proposition, one that has to eventually recover its investment. So instead of jumping on the redesign train, we must first consider the smallest efforts that could produce the biggest payoff. For example, if conversion is suffering, consider the dozen small tweaks before getting into sweeping changes:

  • Maybe it's just not prominent enough. What if you make the button bigger?
  • Maybe contrast is the problem. We know that contrast in a call-to-action is more important than its color, so changing the button's color could do the trick.
  • Maybe you're trying to be too clever in the button language, sacrificing clarity. Sometimes having a clear, simple message is more beneficial than showing personality.
  • Maybe your layout is too cluttered and the button gets lost. Removing extraneous content or adding an arrow pointing to the CTA could be the answer!

There's an endless matrix of decisions that go into a successful design. And when trying to gain design influence within an organization, each decision has to be sober and measured. Starting fresh and making many changes in one sweep doesn't highlight what the problem actually was in retrospect. So the next time someone on the team questions these previous decisions and wants to take their own crack at it, there's not a single definitive point to stop them.

So the button inconsistency lives on.

What If the Redesign is Warranted?

We're not anti-redesign. We advocate for understanding if the redesign is the right approach. And sometimes it is. But we can't just jump into a redesign project without fully understanding where it's been, how it became what it is, and how our changes may affect other teams or facets of the business.

button consistency

A great place to start — in almost anything that we do, actually — is asking a lot of questions. Having a solid grasp on how the previous decision was made gives you power and ammunition to fight for the design you'll propose in the future. Even small design decisions can leave a long trail of hurt feelings, resentment and resistance. It can be quite simply prevented by getting team's input and openly discussing solutions, creating a sense of collaboration and goodwill along the way.

When it's time to pull the trigger, having a plan helps. What or whom does the change affect? Who needs to know about it? How will you rally the troops to get it done?

Once the decision is made, tell the world! Being your team, of course. Announce your decision to the group, talk to people individually (again), write an email about the decision and how it gets rolled out, document it in a style guide. Make it known and explain how it creates value for the organization. Finally, every decision has an owner, or it should. Without an owner, someone to fight for it and protect it, there's nothing stopping another team member from unraveling it.

Our recent redesign on the ZURB Library — a redesign in its truest sense — had us surveying seven independent properties for interface and workflow patterns. Over several years, we've curated a great amount of content that holds a ton of value for practicing and aspiring product designers, but maintaining them had become a giant pain. Each one was developed at a different time by a different team, long before we had a vision for a unified Library. So they all had a unique look, feel and, worst of all, a separate admin tool for us to manage.

It took us many-a-spreadsheet and many months to design and develop an interface that lets us maintain and support unique content for these properties in a unified way. During this process, we also took stock of our own button consistency problem and made the decision to commit to one button style "to rule them all." We've since been rolling it out across all ZURB products. Now, it's every designer's responsibility to uphold and respect the guideline.

So, Is That New Button Really Worth It?

There is no perfect button. Let's start there. So what's a new one worth to you? How many conversations and how much time would it take to replicate that given design choice across the entire product? Does it create tangible value for the business when all said and done?

out of place button

Sometimes working within fixed design constraints is a blessing. If the button decision was already made for you — great, run with it. Always assume that decisions made before you had a reason behind them, and challenging them may not be worth the effort. Solving new design problems is way more fulfilling than tweaking existing designs. At the end of the day, it's more rewarding to change the course of a product than to change a button.

Catch Up on 'The Z-Files' Before the New Season Premier

Ryan wrote this on April 01, 2015 in . 21 reactions

The Z-Files

More than 20 years ago we were introduced to a pair of FBI agents unraveling the unexplained in a groundbreaking science-fiction drama. Now after a prolonged absence, the show that starts with a letter of alphabet returns.

No it's not that other show with the letter. It's one of the two letters after that — "The Z-Files." We've managed to get the original cast to reprise their roles for the first time and the last time. To commemorate this occasion, ZVC — the off-cable network that brought you "LOL and Order" — will air the original "Z-Files" episodes starting from the first episode.

Daniel is Fox Mulder

Alina is Dana Scully

The original cast returns in the new season of "The Z-Files."

Relive all the episodes of "The Z-Files" and catch up before the new season begins, exclusively on ZVC, "We're a'right at drama."

Watch the "Z-Files"

Design for Influence

Bryan wrote this on March 12, 2015 in . 252 reactions

It's an amazing time of change for design organizations, whether you work in a design agency or in-house team. Design is hot. But design organizations are not without their problems. In my previous post on agencies, we addressed the challenges and the upside design service firms face. Companies are repeating the same bad habits that they've learned from their design agency counterparts.

As an industry we're leaving a lot on the table as our collective stock rises in organizations. Companies' knee-jerk reaction to become design centric have left many design organizations scrambling to figure out how to put the pieces together. Designers are still mopping up implementation problems — still shaking the label of window dressers. Quite frankly, we've gotten really good at these problems and service firms have perfected the art of making money on this effort. We're designing for deliverables, not necessarily better business or customer results.

The current approach is short sighted, especially in a connected world where design work is so temporary. Companies need to re-think how they approach design when most of the work quickly becomes obsolete. If we're only left with design artifacts, most of the design thinking becomes lost. Pixels or artifacts don't effectively influence future decisions for users or organizations. Design organizations must stop designing for artifacts, as this produces only temporary results. We must instead shape the entire organization's collective understanding of the design problem to improve the next result for the people we serve.

We need to rethink the role and purpose of the design organization. We must move from creating artifacts to designing for influence.

The Design Organization Re-Envisioned

Design has changed greatly over the last decade, and in that time, companies have started to set high expectations for designers. Since our beginnings in 1998, we haven't had the collective influence another industry might provide — we've had to continuously work hard to earn respect. The direct benefit of this struggle is that we've learned, through trial and error, how to create more impact with our design work. At ZURB, we use progressive design in our design work to shape organizations and the way they think about design.

In our learning, we've come to the conclusion that companies have over-productionalized the entire design process. A lot of what is valuable in design is discovery of the problem, which allows designers to move through solutions. Along a design process, there are inflection points that shift the path or force another approach to be taken. It isn't clear until working through a design solution that something that seemed viable may not work well enough.

As designers and knowledge workers, we need to embrace a hybrid approach that creates consistent results, but enables us to think through design problems. Our design work should produce results that are consistent and repeatable, and not limited by a design-production process driven entirely by the constraints of an organization. Financial planning, office politics or organizational structures shouldn't drive the design process. We must design for continuous influence, as pixels no longer carry as much value. The pixels are only tools for influencing future outcomes as they will be replaced very quickly — the real value gets carried in the collective thinking of the organization.

To overcome these organizational hurdles, as an industry we've inserted concepts like UX to focus on users, but these efforts aren't usually in harmony with dealing with technological feasibilities and business goals, or least how most businesses try to integrate this thinking into their organization. Only when we have balanced these, can there be a sustainable focus on the people who use our products and services. We should focus on the people who use our products and services as a guiding light. As we've written before, design-centric companies outperform the market.

Facilitators of Change Through Education and Repetition

At ZURB, we design to influence users, our teams and companies. Collectively this influence drives new ideas forward. Big reveals no longer provide the influence necessary to carry stories through an organization. The artifacts of our design work don't produce lessons or help us synthesize new directions and possibilities. People do. We must recognize that people help us drive our work forward through design collaboration.

Now this is hard because people don't easily accept change, but we must aspire to shape design solutions for people. The job of designers is to shepherd a better and different future by making change palatable. The way people adapt to that future happens through our influence. We must acknowledge that people are part of this process, even though they may not fully embrace the idea of change. We must be compassionate and help guide people through our progressive design process.

If people are the core, then education is what pulls them into a design process. At ZURB, we use progressive design to create momentum and educate teams as we work through a design process. It requires that the entire team play a role in driving design decisions, as design is no longer the domain of just designers. Everyone is a designer. We must embrace and invite people into our process, whether it's our team, customers or organization. We must lead them by design.

Companies need designers to think more holistically about how their ideas affect the organizations they work in and invite teams into the process. Providing know-how helps get everyone on the same page — it's the reason we've focused on creating a learning organization at ZURB. When we inspire teams and create consistent results, we're fostering system thinking in the organization. This is a good thing and helps people in the organization use design patterns to solve problems.

Influence Outcomes Through Design Leadership

In order to continually push companies to be more design centric, we need design leaders. There's a gap though. Companies need designers to lead by design, which will help support design organizations. If we are to do that, we must understand how to manage design. To influence people in a design process, we must tell people what we are going to do, show them how it benefits people and organizations, and reiterate those benefits so that we can create momentum.

It may be obvious without stating, but sitting in front of a computer tweaking objects in photoshop makes it extremely difficult to shape outcomes through design. Goal-oriented design requires that you put people and outcomes first — it's an approach that requires giving guidance to people while iterating on design work. By continually delivering iterations that drive the organization toward a goal, designers remove uncertainty and build trust.

As designers, it is our responsibility to understand the effect of the work we put into the world. We must strive to help create a better result for the people we serve. We must capture and learn from this design thinking and understand that it is up to us to follow through on our goals. In this regard, designers are leading through influence and don't have to be limited by a position in a company.

Our influence is felt through the consistency of good work and the compassion we have for the people who interact with our work. If we embrace our organizational goals and commit ourselves to a thorough understanding of technology, we stand to help shape and lead people to amazing results.

Top-Down, Bottom-Up Strategies Create More Impact

Influencing outcomes from a design perspective doesn't necessarily mean that a top-down approach is needed. Yes, pushing a strategic agenda probably requires a management role, but the tactics used to get people on board with design decisions doesn't change. Designers still need to influence people to get ideas to stick.

Designers need to embrace a hybrid approach that utilizes the benefits of top-down and bottom-up strategies to deliver their work. Designers need more cross-functional skills to facilitate the movement of ideas across an organization — even if that means abandoning the focus on one layer of the problem, like the interface of a product. That interface will never shine without a bottom-up approach that balances a solid understanding of implementation principles with persuasion to move the product design decisions forward through an organization.

UX departments have tried to insert their design influence in organizations. But after a decade of experimentation, these groups typically fail to capture all the value for a user and the organization. That's because they're tactically positioned. This value needs to be captured at the organizational level. This is where most design agencies fall down as the work they produce might be finished at a high level, but they're not going to influence the final outcomes without shifting the thinking within an organization.

Designers Must Step Up

The role of a design organization will continue to shift over the next decade. It's going to happen out of necessity because companies have to solve ever more complex problems. Focusing only on button consistency and the output of a design process will surely stunt the growth of any design organization. And, more importantly, prevent the power of design from truly helping the entire organization. Designers must influence organizations through sound decision making and accept not only the successes, but the failures that come along with driving an organization.

Designers must step up and place these burdens on themselves to transform organizations for the benefit of people they serve. They must lead by design and take on more ownership of the business outcomes. At ZURB we've used progressive design as an opportunity for designers to drive this change — something we'll continue to share with the design community to harness all the trapped value we could produce in an organization. Designers need to influence through design and let go of our obsession with pixels.

(Thanks to Thomas Vander Wal for his 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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Stop Designing So Much

Alina wrote this on March 03, 2015 in . 354 reactions

Designers have an urge, an aching, for creating something unique. Whether we're following current trends or bringing back the well-forgotten past, we're trying to outdo ourselves or each other, to combine elements just so, hoping to make our peers [secretly] wish they'd thought of that design solution. And sometimes, our search for that design epiphany can send us on a goose chase for frivolous, unnecessary visual elements and interactions, which leave our work muddled and confused.

Busy, complex design can be quite brilliant too. Being able to balance a ton of seemingly unrelated elements is an art in itself. And it's really hard to pull off! Although, is it harder to conduct an entire string orchestra or produce a violin solo that breaks someone's heart?

It's the question that designers must have been contemplating since — well ' always. And it appears that in any design medium, the design often starts out quite simple, goes rather overboard, and is then streamlined over time. You can witness this evolution in almost any longstanding brand's logo design, in our favorite devices, even our home furnishings.

When is It Overdesigned?

busy interior design

The mark of a great designer is restraint. It's working within the constraints of goals, technology and time. It's knowing when to stop ''tweaking" that layout or workflow, to have the guts to let work out into the world, to observe and gather ammunition for the next iteration.

Frankly, it often comes from practice. It's the experience of taking design work to the brink of being overwrought a few times, learning to recognize it, and learning to edit away. And it's realizing that by constraining the problem to just a few variables, you're able to create magic — something timeless, so simply obvious.

Early web products were quite busy, compared to the streamlined web of today. And it makes sense — those early web designers were trying to move people from their physical environments to digital ones. The easiest way to do something like that is to give people a sense of familiarity. And it worked. The scrapbook-look got a whole lot of people reading blogs. A bookcase inspired the early iBooks design. And can we forget the countless incarnations of the coffee-cup stain?

It's safe to say that we got past the overly-skeuomorphic design. The design community has been editing. Overdesigning is now considered one of the cardinal sins of design, the top one. And looking at other industries, many beautiful products today are quite minimal — just a handful of design threads that hold an interface, a brand, together.

A Case Study in Editing

cluttered design

Since joining ZURB three years ago, it's been my personal mission to identify unifying branding patterns in our growing business. In 2012 we made our first push at unifying our email newsletters. At the time we didn't have a lot of unity between our various properties, so we weren't sure we could even pull off a unified look for our emails.

It wasn't just a design exercise — it rarely is, nor should it be. We realized that creating unity in our communications, we would give our customers a greater sense of stability and confidence in ZURB. Show them that no matter which property they visit, or whom in the company they talk to, they can expect an equally high regard for their needs and a high level of execution.

That first batch of emails went through many iterations. As we worked through the purpose of each email, we were also looking for repeatable patterns and similarities between them. And we found them. After a few weeks of shuffling, defining, and refining, we ended up with a solid set of templates, email rules to live by:

  1. Consistent messaging structure
  2. One core color, tied to its parent site
  3. Unified typography styles
  4. Unified image sizes

We weren't able to reconcile differentiating or unifying our corporate communications versus our in-app messages. Our product emails had a slightly different layout, though the above "rules" were still in effect.

ZURB News (right) was the base for our newsletters, with card-like content blocks, while our product notifications (left) were more utilitarian.

We lived with these templates for about two years. Meanwhile, we continued growing our business and refining our brand. During that time we expanded Foundation, launched University and its Library, and refreshed our corporate site a few times.

We have been editing along the way, too. Instead of taking each property into its own design direction, we keep reeling them back to the core of our brand guidelines — the top three that had survived all the elimination rounds in color, typography and faces. We also used words that echo through our design approach and our work environment: open, positive, candid.

We kicked off 2015 with a new pass at the emails. This time we've reduced them again. The fewer patterns, the fewer variables, the better. We're focusing more on the purpose and the content, aiming to create impact through utility.

Our new templates are very open and simple.

In reality, we actually stuck to our original set of rules. We just edited. A lot.

Are You Ready to Edit?

edited design

Thinking back to where we were three years ago, I don't believe we could have designed our templates any simpler than we did. We just weren't ready. Our business was still evolving, with four distinct business units emerging and gaining their own footing over time. They didn't have enough definition for us to decipher which brand elements were key.

We were still exploring and finding the confidence to put design guardrails in place. We had combined photography with illustrations with sketches with drop shadows with overlays with whatever else we could think of. We were looking for that unique combination of elements, making decisions that weren't sustainable across all of our sites long term.

Today we have much more clarity in our brand voice and style. It's been carefully edited over time. As we explored new design choices, something really different, we'd step back and realize that it just wasn't us. Every single time. We kept pulling back until we were left with a handful of simple rules — color, typography, faces, graphic illustrations — again. We aim to delight our customers with smart design, to know their intent in their interactions with us and our products, instead of overwhelming their retinas. It's a good foundation to build on, to see how we can continue evolving our design aesthetic without going over the rail.

So What Now?

clean design

To find balance in something, you can't be timid. You have to go all the way, then pull back. How can you know what's just right without experiencing what's too much? So next time you're laboring over design, ask yourself "Is it overdesigned?" If every element has a purpose and a future, it's a good sign. Then, step back and take one thing away.

Stuff Isn't Culture

Shawna wrote this on February 20, 2015 in . 199 reactions


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!

Fat Cows, Disillusioned Scarecrows and Greener Design Pastures

Bryan wrote this on February 09, 2015 in . 139 reactions

In my past post, our assertion that Silicon Valley killed the design agency agitated quite a few industry design leaders. The post was a wake up call, not a proclamation of the end of design services. Status quo is a sure death and others seem to agree. The argument isn't whether agencies will win or lose, it's which organizations will win the design talent battle to remain relevant.

The debate is nuanced and based on more than just business cycles. Agencies do themselves no good holding on to assumptions that all things will be fine in services moving forward or that there will be a nice living doing design. Change is all but certain. Yes, service firms will exist, just not yours. The problem of building a great design organization is challenging as many evolve to polishing shiny buttons over and over. Which gets us to fat cows, disillusioned scarecrows and greener design pastures.

Plucking, Not Growing Design Talent

Whether it's an agency or in-house design department, organizations grow and contract based on the demand of their talent. It just so happens that we're in a cycle where product teams want to grow their influence. The internet has fattened quite a few agencies, turning them into fat cows. Product organizations now want all the designers for themselves. As one agency owner proclaimed in a conversation, "I only lose my best designers to product companies, not other agencies."

Disillusioned designers no longer care to scare clients into believing their buttons need to be polished again. They're tired of having their know-how insulted by less experienced clients. When agency designers are propped up to protect the farmers field with little to no mobility, the green pastures they stare at all day next door can seem more desirable to sow. And for those designers who play the role of the scarecrow, there's nothing more appealing than being asked to use their brain in greener pastures.

But here's the rub — like any dysfunctional relationship, product companies are sowing their fields the same way agencies planted theirs half-a-century ago. And why shouldn't they? When they see fat cows grazing on their fields, why not copy that model? This model, however, is no better for the designer who has the guts to think. And while product companies give designers the hoes to work, the field has rows that must be adhered too. It's not quite as lush as it seemed after all. But alas, trends happen on momentum, not completely based on fundamentals.

The Design Agency of Old

The maturation of any industry creates a consolidation of power until the cycle takes over and the next wave of innovation disrupts the status quo. The design industry is no different. While we may want to hold onto a model that has worked for decades, it's time to re-envision the design organization.

We're over a century into the formalization of the design industry. It started with a goal of streamlining things through design management and for much of the next 70 years, it stayed in the production realm, focusing primarily on making products more integrated. It's been a glorious ride, from Mad Men ad agency flare to Lowey's mid-century streamlining. The mystery and intrigue of design is captivating, even its warts. When the cows are left to roam the fields, they fatten up. And agencies have been enjoying business as usual for some time, especially with the growth of the internet.

Despite the economy downturns in 2001 and 2008, the internet has exploded and created all kinds of new and interesting problems to solve. The design industry too has expanded in all facets of design, from advertising to product design. We have no reason to doubt this trend will continue for some time. In recent years, we've seen agency consolidation, with small agencies opting to be acquired by product companies. Even more stunning is the hiring of design leaders at the expense of the agency. Companies are hungry to become design-centric, no matter how painful the process of integrating design is into their organization.

Yet service companies are not going to go away. They're too important in the balance of innovation and will continue to push new and innovative ideas. ZURB is proof. But they need to evolve.

Fields Turn Yellow After Harvest

Agencies created environments that have attracted designers with the allure of solving big problems. Over time, many designers evolve to the job of polishing shiny buttons while trying to create wireframes that solve the user experience problem. Agencies have gotten fat doing this. When agencies do this well, and perfect the art of presenting them, it's a pretty good deal for producing mediocre work.

As agencies evolve, it forces many of them to lose the ability to share real insights. Their value continues to shrink as they become sluggish in their thinking. Designers become scarecrows warding off all those who attempt to steal these opportunities, protecting even the smallest kernels of business. It's a systemic problem that comes from agency leaders fighting for growth at the cost of the design problems they face. Their success becomes their Achilles' heel.

Design-centric organizations have wised up — it's no surprise that these disillusioned scarecrows want the greener pastures in the next field over. The allure of more control, focus and influence of a product seems too good to be true. What's an agency to do?

All Fields Must Lay Fallow

In thinking about our own progression as a product design company (that helps companies create growth opportunities with design services, tools and training), we identified a number of areas that cause talent problems. You might say we needed to look at our own approach. Competing for design talent isn't just about money or sexy projects. Fundamentally, it goes much deeper. Learning how to lead and manage isn't easy in a design organization, but here are a number of factors that agencies face:

  1. Lack of a strong purpose. It wasn't until I worked on product that I realized we needed a strong purpose to run a service business. Doing great work isn't enough. Employees need to see how they are contributing to something more than making a website. We learned a lot from defining and completing our first mission.
  2. Lack of design leadership. Most of us start creating things and evolve. Then we add management. But management and leadership are two different things. We don't invest enough in supporting leaders who will shape the work experience around them. Employees can feel like they're wandering without design leadership.
  3. Short-sighted business planning. Most of us have short horizons based on the nature of securing project work, which can create cycles of thrash for the organization. I was able to show through numbers that when the thrash factor was high that we created employee problems. Most employees can live in thrash for awhile, but don't see it as a way to prosper over time.
  4. Lack of trust. Building trust can take time, but the benefits can help create a strong culture. If your employees are spending the vast majority of their time with clients, then they're in a perpetual cycle of always having to build trust (product is the green pasture). This is really hard to overcome. Simple things like trusting your employees to think can have a big impact.
  5. Not enough time spent with designers. I rarely bug people at night or on weekends by calling them up. I thought leaving my best employees alone was what they wanted. Wrong. Employee development takes a lot of effort to understand the motivations of each person on your team. This isn't a quarterly conversation.
  6. Insufficient pathways for your people. Knowledge work is messy and tiring. You can get burnt out quickly. In absence of a pathway, employees do life resets. Most people don't have a plan (it takes a lot of focused time) and if you don't provide one, they will create their own. It's a symbiotic plan that serves both the employee and the business. In absence of one, your best workers will leave the business.

Fields Still Need Good Weather

Despite the recent trends, service firms can still keep solace in the fact that the challenges organizations face in growing design teams isn't easy. Organizations that try to create structures similar to agencies will most definitely be disappointed. Designers that jump into these opportunities will see the growth they seek is still limited by a function of the organizational structure. It's not an easy problem.

What advantages do service firms have fostering design talent? When done right, service firms can:

  1. Keep the designer brain evolving through a variety of projects and new challenges.
  2. Bring unique perspective to designers across industries and experiences that can't easily be provided to a designer who works in a product organization.
  3. Help designers make leaps, see patterns and understand how to tweak their methods through new client engagements. Fresh projects allow designers to do regular resets.

Design service firms have a unique place in the progression of design thinking. There's a huge opportunity to push organizations to be more design centric and challenge the approach of product companies. It won't be easy as service firms need to shift from implementation thinking to creating unique opportunities for designers to truly influence the world. Trust is paramount as service firm untangle the problems related to creating purpose in the design work, building strong design leadership and putting business plans together that create momentum in their organization.

It's a great time for design organizations to work with designers to build amazing products and services. Design organizations have the potential to make amazing things happen online as the craft, thinking and execution of designers continues to grow. It's exciting to see where this next phase of the design organization takes our industry. In my next post, I'll talk about how the design organization might be reimagined.

Update: We recently continued this conversation in the post Design for Influence.

(Thanks to Carl Smith and Peter Corbett 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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Lead by Design

Bryan wrote this on January 20, 2015 in . 314 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.
Learn more →

Follow him at

The Design Leadership Gap

Bryan wrote this on January 16, 2015 in . 492 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.
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