Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to be tasked with leading a design team, which has been an absolute dream job. One of my biggest responsibilities as a leader of a design team is investing in my team’s growth. Pretty quickly, I learned that establishing career goals and learning paths for a design team can be challenging. Not a single design team is the same. Team members have different skillsets, strengths and weaknesses. Designers on the same team can be at different points in their careers. Some are professionally trained, and some are self-taught. Some designers have decades of experience, and some have a few months.
Every design team is different. Every individual designer is different. As a design lead, that can make establishing growth plans for your entire department a bit challenging.
Despite all the variables, I learned how to use those challenges to my benefit. I learned how to exponentially grow my team’s skillsets via the use of design sprints, cross-departmental training, technical skill sharing, individual growth plans, 1-on-1 sessions, and more. By applying some of these methodologies, I’ve been able to grow my designers into a stronger, more efficient, and more passionate team full of amazing individuals, and as a design lead, there is absolutely nothing that makes me happier than seeing my team grow and thrive. Here’s some of the departmental initiatives I used to help my design team grow and blossom to their fullest potential that you can start using today.
Start With Assessing Your Design Team’s Skill Level
Before starting your year-long mountain climb of onboarding, skill training, design sprints, and documentation, take some time to establish where your design team actually is skill-wise. Every design team’s skillsets are different, and it’s important to figure out where they are before starting your yearly learning plans. Get all your designers in a meeting room, pull up some of each designer’s recent designs, and talk through the following to establish where they are in their careers:
- Out of the all of designs you’ve created in your career, which ones are your favorite? Why?
- Out of the all of designs you’ve created in your career, which ones are your least favorite? Why?
- What are your strengths as a designer?
- What are your weaknesses as a designer?
- Do you think you have a particular design style? If so, what is it?
- What software are you currently using to create your designs?
- Is there a design software or tool you haven’t learned yet, but want to?
- Is there a subcategory of design (such as branding, icon design, or lettering), that you feel is your strong suit?
- Is there a subcategory of design that you feel is your weakness as a designer?
- Is there a subcategory of design that you would like to learn more about?
- What designer’s work do you admire?
- What would your ideal portfolio of work look like? What type of work does it have? Does it lean to a particular style or subset workload of design?
- Is there anything in design that you’d like to be trained on?
- What are you most passionate about as a designer?
Establishing Department Goals
Based on the outcomes of your skillset assessment meeting, establish a set of long-term yearly goals for your design team. Figure out common themes amongst your designers in terms of strengths and weaknesses and set overarching goals for the department based on those common themes.
Do most of your designers struggle with logo design? Set a department goal to host a branding training session, and to brand one new client by the end of the year. Do your designers all want to learn more about a new design tool like Figma? Set a department goal to host a Figma training session, and give them time to test out the tool. If they find that tool betters their design workflows and project deliverables, plan to transfer the team to Figma fully by year’s end.
Your department goals can vary year-over-year, and can change as designers come and go, so don’t worry if you have to pivot goals. The important thing to note is that you absolutely need to meet with your team to establish exactly what it is that they want to learn, instead of forcing training sessions on topics the team has no passion to learn. Passion is important. The passion we have for our careers is what gets us up every morning eager to try on a new challenge. Passion for our jobs is what keeps us satisfied in the work we do everyday. Passion for design is why we’re willing to dedicate decades of our lives to this industry, and as a design lead, you should always let that same passion you have for design, lead you in the passion of growing a design team that is just as satisfied and ecstatic with their careers as you are. And honestly, helping your team of designers learn and grow in their careers is one of the easiest ways of keeping that passion alive.
Establishing Individual Growth Plans
Now that your overall department goals are set, take a step back, and note (if you haven’t already) that every designer on your team is different. They all have different strengths and weaknesses. Different interests and goals. Different career path ideals. Because of this, you can’t just force all of your designers into a single growth plan box. You have to treat them all as they are – individuals. After establishing overarching department goals, meet with each designer individually to establish their personal goals. Are they more interested in illustration or user interface design? Is their strength in custom logo work, or typography? Is there a weakness the team as a whole doesn’t have, but they feel they may need more guidance with? Take this time to find what your designer is passionate about, what their career goals are, and find ways to chart out their growth plans and to keep them satisfied and passionate in the work they do each and every day. This may mean some designers require more than just team training sessions, and would need 1-on-1 time, and that’s totally, 100%, okay. Your job as a design lead is to not only focus about the team’s success as a whole, but also on your individual designer’s needs. Step one to achieving that is to converse with them about their growth needs as a member of your design team.
Tailored Skill Learning and Technical Training Sessions
Now that you know each designer’s personal goals and the overarching learning needs of the department, set up skill learning and technical training sessions for your team. Host skill learning sessions on topics based on common weaknesses shared by your designers, like logo design or user interface design. Host technical training sessions on new design software the team hasn’t yet used, like Sketch, Figma, or Adobe XD. If your team is already up-to-date on the top industry software, then host design workflow sessions for using new design plugins or add-on tools for that Software like InVision or Abstract. The important thing to note is that there is always something new to be learned. These sessions can be hosted monthly or quarterly, but the important thing is that they happen, and that you give your designers a new avenue of design to explore and thrive in, in order to test new methods and workflows that strengthen their individual value to the team.
Host Design Challenges
Design challenges are a fun way to get the team into the habit of speed designing and learning different speed workflows from each other in order to become for streamlined and productive. Host a meeting with your design team, and have them tackle three design challenges. Have them design anything you’d like: a product modal, a home page banner, or even a three-piece icon set. The caveat is that they only have 20 minutes to complete the design. The challenge is to do your best, and to get into the habit of understanding what elements are needed to deliver a design based on a directive challenge, and how to use design tools to your advantage to be as productive as you can be. If you need design prompts, try one from CollectUI.com – they have a list of over 100 design prompts for your team to try.
At the end of each individual challenge run, have your team of designers show their work to each other. Let them talk about what went well, and what didn’t. Ask them about what software, tools, plugins, and workflows they used while designing, and how that impacted their speed and quality of design. I always allot time for these end-of-challenge retrospectives, because this is the opportune time for your designers to learn from each other. They’ll be able to learn their own strengths and weaknesses, get practical design application knowledge, and learn from each other the different ways in which they could tackle the same design directive challenge.
At the end of each design challenge meeting, I also gave each designer some additional time to pick their favorite design from the challenge, finish and polish any last changes on it, and post it to their Dribbble account. I want my design team to feel accomplished, to show growth and progress, and for their portfolio to not get stale. I want their portfolios to shine and show passion and a steady stream of work, and the outcomes of the design challenge are just absolutely amazing content to feature on their profiles, and become a two-for-one benefit to hosting challenges. You can host these sessions monthly or quarterly. The important thing is to give your design team the chance to have fun and work together in a design jam to learn and grow from each other as equals in a comfortable and trusting environment.
Something that I learned early on in my career is that the strength of a design team does not only lie in their ability to design great looking work and obtain design approvals, but moreover their ability to work well with other departments. I say this because a great looking design doesn’t mean anything unless it performs a user’s needs and gets great user conversions. A great design won’t even make it to the user’s hands if if can’t be built by the development team. A design won’t even make it to production if it can’t be made within budget and timeline constraints set by project and account managers. This means that every designer on your team needs to learn to collaborate with every department in the company, from development, to marketing, to project management, and more.
To help your design team work better and more efficiently, I highly suggest hosting cross-departmental training sessions. Have your design team meet with the development leads to learn about development restrictions in web browsers, web accessibility guidelines, and cool development tools your team may not have known they have available at their disposal. Host a joint design and marketing session so that your designers learn to understand which of their designs are performing best, or what user experience design patterns have an increase in user conversions and should be used more frequently. Have your design team sit down with account managers, project managers, and leadership teams to understand client budgets, expectations, and timelines. Open the floor to talk about how often are designers going under or over budget, learn how that impacts the project’s timeline, and hear directly from account managers the feedback clients are giving them about your designs.
As a design lead, I learned that a company’s success does not lie in the success of a single designer, but rather in the combined work and full force of the entire company and its teams’ deliverables. Most design leads tend to focus on internal team initiatives and technical training. That is 100% valid and expected, because first and foremost, you need a design team that can, well… actually design. But in my time leading design teams I’ve learned that the true strength of a design lead comes in when they open the floor to communication between departments and increase productivity and deliverable output through cross-departmental collaborations. Because of this, I always highly encourage design leads to add cross-departmental training to their yearly growth plans and educational training sessions. Trust me, they’re worth it.
Review Cadence and 1-on-1 Meetings
With all of the skill learning, technical training, design challenges, and growth happening, it’s important to connect with your team members one-on-one to see how they’re doing. Not everyone learns at the same pace. Not everyone is driven by educational growth. Not everyone is able to keep up with monthly educational trainings, and others actually need more training initiatives than others because they learn faster. And all of this is okay. This doesn’t mean that your training as a design lead is too slow, or too fast. You’ll come to learn who needs more one-on-one time, and which of your designers need extra challenges. That’s part of the richness of being a design lead – you get to learn how your designers learn, on a very personal, one-on-one basis.
Meet with each designer for a 1-on-1 meeting. This is a personal session with you and the designer to see how they’re doing. To see how they’re doing, ask questions like:
- How are your feeling about your career growth plans?
- Are your career goals still the same, or have they changed since our last meeting?
- Do you feel as if you’re making progress in your design goals?
- Did you enjoy the technical training sessions and design challenges?
- What have you learned from those sessions?
- How do you feel about the pace of the sessions? Are they too slow, too fast, or adequately paced for your learning preferences?
- Do you feel as if the sessions are helping you grow in your career as a designer?
- Is there anything else I can do for you as your design lead to help you achieve your career goals?
These sessions can happen bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly. It really all depends on your team’s availability and communication preferences. Just make sure to make the time to reflect on your team’s progress as a whole and as individuals a few times throughout the year in order to course correct any issues in your design education workflows and training sessions, so that you ensure everyone is going at a comfortable speed and iron out any growing pains.
The most important part of your role as a design lead is to document your team’s progress. Without this, you can’t reflect on their progress and what they learned, which defeats the purpose of a growth plan. As the design lead, keep track of what sessions were hosted every month, and what your designers created with the new skillset they learned. Keep track of new skillsets your designers learned that your company can now offer as a service, as well as new client deliverables that were a direct cause of your technical training. Also document your design team’s productivity – after 6 months of design challenges, are your department’s start-to-end times for task completion faster? Have their designs performed better, or are clients approving designs much faster? Keep track of these items as they happen, so that at end-of-year, you can report to your design team how much they grew in the past year of training.
Note that documentation isn’t just for noting internal growth. If one of your designers learned a new technique or design software, have them document how they used it. This helps the rest of the team get cross-trained on fellow designers’ new skillsets, and helps make it easier to onboard new designers later down the road. Another benefit to having your designers document their learning is that it’s a sneaky way to get your designers into a cadence of learning technical writing. If they learned how to use new design software, have them write a blog on their findings. If it’s great writing, pitch the blog to industry publications like UXPlanet or Awwwards and if published, see how excited your designers get to see their work published at top-tier industry publications.
Measuring Growth In Your Team and End-of-Year Reviews
At the end of the year, I always suggest hosting a team review session. Bring in your year-long documentation stack and review everything that was accomplished in the last year. Talk about all the training sessions that were hosted, as well as the new design software, tools, and techniques that were tried by the team. Bring up the outcomes of design challenges and show the designs created by the team throughout the year. I also like to review team productivity rates and the time-length of design approvals compared to last year.
In order to measure my team’s growth, I gave my design team a challenge at the beginning of the year. They each had to design something and post it to their Dribbble account. That design could be anything – a website home page, a logo, an icon set, or even a font. I have them do the same at the end of the year and have them compare both designs in a team end-of-year session. I’ll ask questions like:
- In creating this design, did you use a new software or tool you didn’t know about last year?
- In creating this design, did you design something new that you haven’t practiced prior to last year?
- Do you feel as though your design work has improved? If so, how?
- Is your use of typography better, are your layouts and use of spacing cleaner and more consistent, or have color choices become bolder or more cohesive?
- What did you learn in this past year?
- How have you grown as a designer over the last year?
By the end of the year, you’ll see your team’s growth as clear as day. In my personal use of these techniques as a design lead, in this year alone, my own team learned how to work with the marketing department to view heat maps of their live design’s performance and make adjustments based on user interactions. They also learned how to test their designs for web accessibility and perform WCAG checks for the development team. We learned how to use Principle to animate user interactions for the first time. We learned so many things together. But most importantly, we learned something new, together, and we GREW. That’s the most important piece of all of this, taking the time to learn and grow together, as a team.
If you try implementing these practices with your design team, let me know how it went! I love hearing about teams learning and growing together. If you’re interested in hosting a design team growth session and need help, send me a message and we can work together to help your team flourish.