Design Team Structures: Centralized, Embedded and Flexible

Team Superside
An extension of your in-house team
Published4 Mar, 2020
Design Team Structures: Centralized, Embedded & Flexible

Design isn’t a nice-to-have — for companies all over the world, design is driving up the bottom line. As consulting giant McKinsey reported in 2018, companies that invested in good design had 32% more revenue and 56% more total returns to shareholders. But, investing in design goes beyond logos and brand colors. Great design comes from great design teams. Ensuring your design team members are set up for success just may be the first step on the road to making your company more successful.

So, how do you set your design team up for success? Whether your design team focuses on graphic design, motion graphics, product design, or the likes; this post will break down which design team structure to choose for which occasion and their benefits. It also covers how to improve your design team, how DesignOps can help and how to foster a culture of design strategy.

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Design Team Structures

A design team can be a singular individual working on design projects across an organization, up to a team of 50+ designers who have their own department.

As a design leader, there’s a lot that goes into effectively leading a design team, but let’s start with how you’d like to structure yours. There are three common design team structures you can follow: Centralized, cross-functional (also known as embedded) and flexible. Think of it like a design team organization chart that helps to map out where designers sit within a given team and what the design team responsibilities are..

Centralized Design Team

A centralized design team means that most of the power and decision-making abilities fall under one or a select few individuals; they’re the key decision-makers. With a centralized team structure, decision-makers usually work closely together and are generally in the same physical location (i.e. an office). Some benefits of a centralized team include:

  • Focused vision across all projects
  • Well-defined roles on the team
  • Reduced internal conflict

However, it’s not a perfect system. Some disadvantages include:

  • Bureaucracy
  • Creative impediments (a major red flag for a creative design team)
  • Creation of silos

Cross-Functional (Embedded) Design Team

A great example of how to embed your designers cross-functionally is Spotify’s Tribe model. Although the design team still holds their functional team meetings, they are embedded with other teams in the organization, including engineering and product teams.

Your design team organization chart will still look the same, where all designers report to your creative director, VP, etc., but it’s their day-to-day working life that changes. Instead of only working with other designers to complete a project, they will work alongside other major business functions to get the job done. The embedded model helps foster trust and collaboration across departments and can lead to increased velocity on the business side and, just as importantly, increased morale on the personal side.

Flexible Design Teams

When working under a flexible structure, it’s important that you take note of the current design team skills that you have. If you have great UX designers but are lacking on the graphic designer front, a flexible structure will give you the, well, flexibility to bring on external resources to fill in the gaps.

For example, some design projects are likely to be larger than average and require more time and resources to complete (especially when your team has other ongoing work to focus on). Those kinds of surges in production can be difficult to manage with a fixed team. Companies like Superside offer design services with dedicated project managers, or even creative directors to fill in the gaps of your design team organizational structure when you need them filled, helping your team stay on track to complete ongoing and major projects as they come in.

How to Optimize Your Design Team

What works for one team may not work for another. It’s important that you continue to test different strategies for your team in an effort to optimize your processes, communication and overall work. To help get you started, here are a few strategies you can try implementing:

  1. Give your team the right design and collaboration tools
  2. Use the 10/50/99 Approach
  3. Hire the right people
  4. Focus on your teams growth

1. Give Them the Best Tools

Does your design team have everything they need to do their jobs successfully? This can be bringing on tools like:

  • Adobe Creative Cloud - Everything from photo editing to building eBooks. Adobe’s creative suite has been around forever and has created all the tools that designers need to do their jobs well.
  • Sketch - A newcomer in the space, which is great for creating designs, prototypes,  and collaborating on ideas and projects with other members of your team.
  • Abstract - Integrating with both Sketch and Adobe, Abstract allows you to store and organize files, collaborate on projects and share your work with other teams.

2. Introduce the 10/50/99 Approach

Nothing is worse than being ready to ship a design, only to have someone scrap the entire project because the “strategy changed.” Not only is this a waste of your team’s time, it’s also extremely frustrating for them. If you haven’t already, consider using the 10/50/99 approach across all of your design team’s projects.

The 10/50/99 approach breaks projects down into three phases:

  • 10% done — This is your creative brief
  • 50% done — Core components are coming together, think a skeleton of the final design
  • 99% done — Making minor design and copy tweaks

This is especially great if you’re working with external designers, because you’re able to minimize a lot of the back and forth, while scaling creative production.

3. Hire the Right People

The New Design Frontier report by Invision found that organizations who have invested and mastered design have experienced outcomes like:

However, before you start hiring, decide on how to structure your design team. Take the time to understand where the gaps are in your team, and what are most important for you to fill.

When building and optimizing your design team, start by hiring experienced design leaders who can:

  • Create and share a vision
  • Inspire the design team and the organization
  • Advocate the importance of design to those in executive roles

And yes, a designer leader can vary from a "Design Lead" who may just be a more senior designer. Seniority and experience only bring so much, it's skilled mentorship and advocacy that make a great leader.

When design teams are led by true leaders, there will be a greater impact on your organization’s bottom line. They will have the best understanding of where the gaps fall and how to fill them; whether it’s with freelancers or full-time staff.

Some common design team roles that you might encounter are:

  • Art Director
  • Brand Manager
  • UX Designer
  • UI Designer
  • Product Designer
  • Interaction Designer
  • Marketing Designer
  • Creative Director
  • Illustrator
  • Animator
  • Design Director
  • DesignOps / Design Operations
  • Content Creator
  • Or simply Designer or Design Lead

And the list goes on. Depending on the company, design roles can be as broad as a singular designer on a team, to very specific design roles that focus in on particular types of design tasks (like animation or branding).

4. Focus on Their Growth

According to Soapbox’s 2019 State of One-on-ones report, 25% of managers don’t discuss growth and development in one-on-ones. Furthermore, Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce found that when you give employees consistent performance feedback, they become emotionally and psychologically attached to their work and workplace. When your team feels like they’re growing and that you are invested in their growth, it makes the difference between an engaged design team and one that’s not. Make your team’s growth and development a regular and ongoing conversation.

If you’re not sure where to start, try adding any of these one-on-one questions to your next meeting agenda:

  • Who’s someone in the company that you’d like to learn more from?
  • What professional goals would you like to accomplish in the next 6 to 12 months, and what makes you say that?
  • What else can I be doing to help progress your career?

Understand the Role DesignOps Plays

As Collin Whitehead, Dropbox’s Head of Brand Studio, described it in The DesignOps Handbook:

In a nutshell, DesignOps is focused around improving the design function of an organization, including:

  • Implementing the right tech stack
  • Hiring the right team
  • Managing design teams
  • Streamlining processes
  • Building design systems
  • Setting up the right communication channels
  • Building a recognitions and reward program within the team
  • Collaborating cross-functionally with other teams like product and marketing

Regardless of your team’s size, there is always a case to be made for DesignOps. Meredith Black, Former Head of DesignOps at Pinterest puts it best:

If you’d like to learn more about how Amazon, Pinterest and other major organizations use DesignOps to streamline their processes, check out our free DesignOps eBook, The Future of Design Operations, to learn more.

Foster a Culture of Design Strategy

A design culture doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it can take a lot of time and effort. But, if you’re someone who wants to see your entire organization level up with design, not just your own team, then laying this foundation is critical.

A Design Culture is Focused on Strategy

Without understanding who the team is designing for, whether it’s marketing or UX design, your team will be wasting their time designing things that likely won’t move the needle. Be strategic with what the team is designing.

A Design Culture is Focused on Feedback

Remember that 10/50/99 feedback process that we mentioned earlier? Use it to continuously evolve your design process and design strategy. When it comes to the 10%, 50% and 99% stages bring in different stakeholders from other business functions to see who is the most relevant to involve in the design process and when.

Feedback is not only critical to improving your process, it also helps to break down silos within your organization. If you’re designing for a big marketing campaign, consider including stakeholders from design, marketing and also sales. They’ll all come with different perspectives of who the intended audience is and what will resonate best with them.

Design has a massive impact on any organization’s bottom line. If you’re not investing in design, optimizing your current team or making the effort to fill in the gaps, it’s time to start. Set your team up for success with Superside, your extended design team, to help with the ebbs and flows of projects, timelines and so much more.

Team Superside
Team SupersideAn extension of your in-house team

Built to be an extension of in-house teams, we deliver fast, scalable, world-class design and creative solutions to over 450 globally renowned companies such as Amazon, Meta, Salesforce and Google. Connect with us on LinkedIn.

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