Design Leadership

The Kickoff Before the Kickoff by David Sherwin

It’s time to start that new project at work. You know, the project the CEO is talking about. The project that your future business is riding on. The project that you want to succeed, beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. The project that you’re responsible for leading. 

What’s your first impulse? If you have a “big hairy audacious goal” (BHAG) to go after, then of course you have to start planning the big hairy audacious kickoff meeting (BHAKM). 

You’ve been to one of these. The hand-picked team gets locked away in a big comfy room, preferably out of the office. The meeting starts with your boss’s boss’s boss explaining the extreme urgency of the project… for hours. By the end of the marathon day, everyone’s figured out what they need to get done—but deep inside, they’re freaking out because the finish line feels it’s a thousand kilometers away. They look around the room, at their new team members: Unknown quantities. No amount of craft kombucha or beer will wash away the anxiety.

You may need to facilitate one of these BHAKM’s for your team. In fact, your company’s culture may require it. But I’d like to ask that you try something a little different this time.

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Introducing Teamwords: The Working Deck by David Sherwin

We get asked a lot about problem solving. Not about business problems, per se, but people problems.

People seem to understand OKRs, Agile, and MVPs. Acronyms and abbreviations have specific and fixed definitions you can find on Google — and though you can get into long arguments about whether something is a tool or a process or a disruption at work, people are still, well, people. They change and then they don’t change. They’re heroic and then they’re petty. Confusing and clear, sometimes in the same meeting.

Yes, the pesky things are problems with people. No matter how sleek and refined our company needs to be, how much faster we have to get to market, or how many more hours we must be available night and day to meet the demands of customers, we’re still talking about people at work. They’re the one thing that hasn’t 100% changed about how business gets done.

So companies ask how to create better “cultures of collaboration.” Make teamwork a working norm. Rethink how cross-disciplinary talent can be best configured, how to optimize their working spaces for breakthrough innovation blah blah blah… Again, the same problem of applying jargony buzzwords to people and how they work together. Then upper management wonders why they weren’t very successful in making things better.

Words are powerful. So powerful that most of the problems we encounter are failures of vocabulary. We assume that everyone uses the same words and that they mean the same things to everyone. JIRA means JIRA, right? We see it and recognize it. But, think about the word supportive. How do you see that word in how your team works? How do your coworkers see it in your work? Have you ever sat around with your team and talked about that?

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The Designer's Bias by David Sherwin

A few years ago, I saw a presentation from a creative director about how he helped brand an experimental elementary school. Before he shared his work, he said: “We promoted the school through videos on YouTube. My first job was as a filmmaker, so every time I see a problem, I want to solve it with a film.”

Since then, I’ve heard hundreds of people make the same kind of statement in everyday conversation: “I’m an engineer, so every problem can be solved with software… I’m an architect, so every problem can be solved with a building… I’m a carpenter, so every problem can be solved with a table.”

There’s a bias operating here. Let’s sum it up as: Every problem I encounter can be solved with things I have the training and skills to make.

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What Aspiring Designers Need to Know About Strategy by David Sherwin

As I read through his resume, the designer stared at me expectantly. He had a wealth of great design projects under his belt. He had been seeking out personal projects to build out his portfolio. He had internships with sterling businesses and studios.

But there was one thing that leapt out at me from the list of core skills he’d listed at the top of his resume: strategy. Not brand strategy, content strategy, interactive strategy, media strategy or the M.B.A.-land of business strategy. Just plain ’ol strategy.

This has been happening more and more frequently, and for good reason. In the process of providing strong service to our clients, we increase the likelihood of becoming a strategic partner. We finally have a seat at the table when the client is talking strategy—and we can offer a range of strategic services that verge outside what may be considered a designer’s core area of expertise. This is a good thing. With the ongoing expansion of design’s role in business, today’s designers are helping to solve problems that transcend mere decoration and instead impact the core functions of a client’s business.

But in our haste to be strategic partners, I’ve discovered that many designers don’t fully grasp how strategic services fit into their client offerings. And when I ask designers out of sheer curiosity how they’re functioning as strategists—what experiences they directly bring to bear on being strategists rather than having a strategic orientation—they can’t easily answer the question.

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The 10 Building Blocks of Design Studio Culture by David Sherwin

Culture is everything people in a design business do that supports the process of making work happen. Culture can create joy for designers, while improvements in process can facilitate profit. A common misperception is that culture emerges organically based on the decisions of a business owner or CEO. But a design studio’s culture is not created solely by those at the top. For a design-led business, culture is generated from ongoing contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees.

In researching my book on how design businesses can be more successful, I began to see important building blocks that were present in the most successful studios. These building blocks are divided into two groups: hard building blocks and soft building blocks. Hard building blocks are realized through a budget, meaning that you can allocate money and time for them as part of business overhead. The soft building blocks can be created through the decisions employees make over the course of their daily work, life and play (with less material investment by the owners).

A healthy studio culture draws equally from both types of building blocks. They provide emotional and material stability to employees in the face of ongoing work challenges, and often clients, family and the general public perceive them as ingredients of the company’s brand. These building blocks are equally present within design firms and in-house design teams—though for the latter, the composition of some building blocks may be heavily influenced by the company's overall behavior and needs.

Let’s take a deep dive into these building blocks, with important questions to ask yourself (and your team) in order to create a strong studio culture. 

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Becoming a Design Leader by David Sherwin

What does it mean to lead a design team? Design leaders guide organizations in planning and fulfilling desired outcomes for their clients—and they grow their designers in the process. The real definition of design leadership, however, is quite blunt: 

Design leaders make awesome shit happen.

Design leaders at a design business may not be the ones in charge of the day-to-day client management, project management, accounting, bookkeeping and other activities that require deep focus on operational management, but they will always touch those facets of the business, ensuring they support the quality of the creative product. 

Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog, put it best: “When we have a ‘concept’ and people smile, we take the next step. When there are questions, we go back and try harder.”

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