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Designing Design Culture

04-18-17 Jeremy Loyd

We believe the next step in our pursuit to make better websites is to figure out how to scale design efforts within Sparkbox and continue to explore how design intersects with development.

At Sparkbox, we believe design is a huge part of building a better web. As a strong development group, we had to understand how to keep development solid across a team of coders from the start—and we’ve made adjustments to continually scale that over the past several years. However, we’re now in a phase where our growing team needs to tackle the scaling question within our design team.

We’re asking ourselves questions like, How do we scale design and keep the same level of quality? How do we push our creative concepts further and add more value for our clients? So in the past year or two we’ve taken on the challenge of being more intentional about what we’re doing on the design side of things: learning and getting more people involved in the process. We hope that sharing this process may help other creative directors, designers, and frontend developers who are in similar situations.

Where We’ve Been

For several years, I was the only dedicated designer at Sparkbox. We definitely had others who could design, but they were always seen as Frontend Developers first—and that’s what we called them. My job was to keep the developers busy, so I’d create design, show it to the client, and then have the frontend developers build it. I’d pair with them along the way to be sure the vision for the design translated to a completed website. There’s nothing really wrong with that workflow, but working this way meant a few things:

There was a single point of failure

One person doing design means as workload increases, he/she becomes the bottleneck for the rest of the team. Having only one designer means if that person moves on or gets hit by a bus, as the old adage goes, the company is at risk to not be able to complete its commitments.

There was only one design “voice”

Without other designers involved, contributing and giving feedback, it’s hard to branch out and do new things, especially as deadlines loom. You tend to do what you know works and move on. Having multiple voices and views allows a collaborative design culture to start.

There weren’t a lot of people advocating for how best to achieve design

Even though others cared about design, there was previously only one voice to communicate concerns about improving the design process.

What We’ve Been Doing

Over the past year, we’ve taken action on our commitment to growing design at Sparkbox. And we’ve noticed some good things happening already. Here are a few things we’ve done:

Making title changes

For Sparkboxers who are trained in or have design skills, but were previously solely working on development, we approached them with an offer to change their titles. All their titles had been “developer,” and when asked about changing to “frontend designer,” all of them responded favorably. We liked the term frontend designer because as a practice, we’re pretty adamant about keeping design and development integrated. Our frontend designers are expected to write code as well as develop a top-notch design concept. Of course, there’s nothing magical about a title change, but it signified a shift in mentality for us.

Getting others more involved in design

Not only did titles change, but so did the actual roles. Pretty simple, but it’s been really interesting to see others start to regularly contribute to designing projects. We now have several people working on initial design and presenting concepts to clients. This has produced several side effects. First, it brings a fresh perspective to the visual design we’re doing and keeps us from getting stagnant. Second, having others go through the design process has given team members context for suggesting ways to improve our design and development process. And finally, there are more people talking about design, and improving the relationship of designers and developers helps us create better products and in turn more value to our clients.

Holding our first Frontend Design Apprenticeship

We’ve always believed that those who teach strengthen what they do. It’s part of why we value having Sparkboxers create and share our processes, tips, and tricks with the world. Apprenticeships are an elevated way that we’ve strengthened our processes by pouring into eager learners. We’ve done this for a few years with a full-stack apprenticeship, and we last year, we worked with two great people, Andrew and Rachel, who were our first frontend design apprentices. We spent a few months with these folks, running through several projects where they created both the visual design and then developed the frontend code. It was interesting to see how Andrew and Rachel really bought into our philosophy that design and development stay closely related. Andrew stayed on with us as a frontend designer.

Having regular design meetings

These have been great. Held bi-weekly for an hour, these meetings allow the design team to chat about what we’re working on—at work and/or side projects. The act of talking through personal endeavors, project challenges, and considerations brings up interesting questions and ideas about how we can adapt our process. One example is discussing how we can explore more design concepts and whether we should do design comps at mobile sizes. We also started a monthly talk on a design topic, open to the entire company, called “Discussions on Design.” We delve into a topic on design, such as color contrast, or we have a hands-on activity.

Refining Design Concepts

While we’ve informally had our project teams critique design work in the past, we want to allow time in a project’s schedule to have a more formal internal critique before we show clients design work. The value here is the designer learns to verbalize and defend his or her design, which is practice for when it is presented to the client. In turn, project managers, UX designers, content strategists, and visual designers get to weigh in on their unique vantage point on the project, serving to make a better, more refined concept. In addition, we want to push the concepts we create further or create multiple internal concepts to get to the right solution. We know that doing this will only help to create more developed design concepts and more value for our clients.

Where We’re Going

Of course, the end goal of this effort is to make better websites and create more value for our clients. We believe the best way to do that is to figure out how to scale design effort within Sparkbox and continue to explore how design intersects with development. We’ve already seen improvements in pushing our design concepts further and inviting more people to give feedback. There’s much to do, and we plan to document our progress with a series of articles with the hopes of possibly helping others who are facing the same challenges.

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