Design is a team sport. A designer is powerless if they can’t communicate what they’ve done and if they can’t work well with others. Strong collaboration and communication skills are key throughout one’s journey as a designer.
Initially, entry-level designers focus on smaller features and work primarily with oversight from a senior designer. As one’s career progresses, the scope and complexity increase. While strong craft skills are still a prerequisite, one’s focus shifts toward influencing others and working with other cross-functional senior leaders on ambiguous, long-term projects.
There are various models of how a designer fits into a company’s org chart. One of the more popular models these days is the squad model, where a designer, product manager, and a technical lead all work together to establish the team’s day-to-day and overall long-term vision. However, sometimes you’ll also frequently work with other specialists, such as researchers and data scientists. If this is a multi-team project, you’ll probably have regular syncs with the other teams and it’s not uncommon to interface with non-technical counterparts such as folks in sales, legal, operations and so on. You’ll be working closely with the team to get your work shipped. Unless you’re also an engineer, most likely you’ll need developer support to get the thing you’ve designed built.
Assessing yourself on your cross-functional skills is not easy. The best way to get a true assessment is to ask peers who have worked with you, but short of that, you can also reflect on how you perceive your current skills:
How do you work with others now?
Do you build on the ideas of others? Do you make them feel included?
How have you elevated other designers?
How have you improved how the team has worked in the past?
What cross-functional stakeholder do you work best with (for example, engineers, data scientists, product managers, and executives)?
What cross-functional stakeholder is your weak point?
This is also a testament of your leadership and influence skills:
How quickly can you build your influence on a new team?
Can you establish yourself well in an environment that might not be as design focused?
Are you able to influence your peers, manage up, and potentially change the course of executive decisions for the better?
While these types of skills may not necessarily first come to mind when we think of a product design role, the more senior you are as a designer, the more important these “soft” skills become. If you’re an entry level designer—these skills will help you stand out.
At its core, design is about communication. In addition to communicating to customers, designers also need to be masters at relaying information to stakeholders. These skills are critical in an interview setting, especially when you’re presenting your portfolio. When it comes to day-to-day work, we can view communication through these lenses: public speaking, facilitation, and documentation.
Whether it’s presenting to a small audience of designers at a design critique or presenting to the whole company at all hands, strong communication and presentation skills are critical. These are a couple of ways you can look into assessing your skills:
How well can you present and explain your work?
Do other designers understand your work? How about engineers, product managers, and executive stakeholders?
Of course practicing at work helps, but you don’t necessarily have to improve these skills at work as there are many public speaking clubs or coaches that can help you practice. That said, the best way to improve is to continuously seek out opportunities to speak and to get feedback.
Public speaking and facilitation skills go hand in hand. As a designer you’ll sometimes have to step in and lead a meeting or organize and run a workshop. Back to point number one—design is a team sport, but as a designer, you can take a leadership role in getting everyone organized and excited about the work at hand and thus contribute to the vision.
How well can you lead meetings? Do they all have a clear agenda? Are you able to come to the right answer quickly with a list of next actions?
Have you run workshops with large multi-disciplinary teams before? How did you get alignment on your work from stakeholders?
Communication is not limited to speaking; writing is just as important, especially more so when working remotely. By creating mockups and prototypes, and telling a story and documenting the nuances of interaction, a designer can ensure the vision goes smoothly from concept to implementation.
Does your documentation account for edge cases in your work? Do you strike the right balance of documentation that’s accessible to other parties without it being so comprehensive that nobody reads it?
Are you able to document and communicate effectively to different audiences, such as engineers, product managers, researchers, and other designers?
Strong designers have a healthy level of self-awareness about them. They can also feel the sentiment in the room and take appropriate measures, diffusing a tense situation or rallying the group to persevere when things don’t go to plan.
Design itself is a discipline that’s based on persuasion, negotiation, and often getting other team members to buy into a specific world view. Of course those views are substantiated with evidence, such as research or data, but not always. Sometimes designers must rely on industry standards or heuristics when there are no resources to run a study, for example.
Here is how you can touch on some of the important aspects of emotional intelligence at work:
Emotional regulation. How well can you control your emotions? Can you harness your emotion to lead and inspire others? Or do you often find yourself unable to control what you say?
Negotiation. How can you effectively push back on requirements or demands without coming off as confrontational?
Conflict. What’s your perception of conflict? Are you conflict averse? Do you try to hide or mitigate it? Do you use it as a force for growth? Do you see it as positive? How do you navigate conflict to maximize it’s positive attributes while minimizing the negative?
Just like with the rest of design, the best way to improve your collaboration skills is to do so in practice. Dedicating time to assess and check in with your stakeholders regularly, not just about the work but also about the process of getting the work done, will help you be a stronger leader and contributor to the organization.
Here are a few helpful guides and resources that can help you along the way:
Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, by Kevin Hoffman. A book specifically about meetings. I know what you’re thinking: what could be more boring than attending a meeting—reading a book about it. But it’s a solid read that helps you reframe how you facilitate and conduct meetings, helping you ultimately save more time.
Designing Together, by Dan Brown. All about how to collaborate as a designer, working with different styles, and how to take work together to achieve a better outcome.
User Experience Management, by Arnie Lund. More applicable for managers, it’s also a good read when it comes to understanding how individual designers fit into a larger company’s ecosystem.
Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman. A definitive book on the topic of emotional intelligence, awareness of self, and how to use emotional intelligence to connect with others (it’s not just about being “nice”).
Should designers have a seat at the table? It depends on the organization and design maturity—some already do, while in companies with low design maturity, designers are merely decorators late in the process. But what does it mean to have a seat, and what’s expected of designers who create value beyond producing deliverables?
At its core, strategy is choosing what to do and what to leave out. It’s about deliberately prioritizing limited resources (time, money, people) to create value.
Not all designers will engage in strategy. Typically this is the domain of product managers or senior-level designers. Some designers might even eschew strategy altogether in favor of being a master at craft. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if you do want to grow your influence in a company, then understanding the business, how it makes money and how design can help, will help you advance rapidly in the organization.
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