The story of the lonesome designer
Meet "Tom", he’s the sole digital product designer at a fairly sizable company. Basically, he's responsible for anything visual. He gets pulled into several projects that require his attention all the time. A new feature for the dashboard, new campaign visuals, some new states that need some love. Luckily, Tom’s a fast worker and manages all of this on his own.
In true agile fashion, whenever Tom finishes a task, he tackles the next most highly-prioritized task on his backlog. You can probably imagine Tom's backlog kind of resembling a coffee machine you can't stop from running, so he fills as many cups as he can without making a mess.
Put it like that and it sounds pretty bad right? But the logic in many companies goes something like this: It’s much easier and faster to draw a square than it is to program one. So having less designers than developers by default makes sense, right?
When sh*t hits the fan
Well, not really. Imagine the following scenario. All of a sudden, one team is asking Tom for an immediate feature overhaul while another project also requires new assets by tomorrow. But then the marketing department comes knocking, saying they need some visuals for an event they're hosting at the very last minute. But the fun doesn't stop there, Tom's own client also comes in with fresh feedback wants to see some changes made ASAP. Guess who's working overtime?
Everybody's relying on Tom, so he has no choice but to juggle priorities constantly. Unfortunately, human brains aren't fit to multitask effectively, or at least not without losing focus to some degree. The irony is that trying to finish multiple tasks at the same time, often causes you to lose more time in total, in part due to the incessant context switching.
Lastly, here's another fun fact of being alone in your profession at a company: the absence of peers makes it so that you work never gets challenged by an expert in the field, and neither can you really vent or discuss things with anyone on your level because they simply don't exist in the company. In the case of Tom, this can backfire once his designs make it into production, and it can affect his mental health as well.
You can probably tell where this is going. The relentless pressure is starting to get to him, and he starts making more and more little mistakes, delivering work with less attention to detail than what people are used to. It's not that he's incapable, he just can't stop the coffee machine from spilling hot bean brew everywhere, steering Tom directly towards a burn-out.
A better way of working
Naturally, this doomsday scenario is something you want to avoid all costs. In other words, is it possible to create a working environment where your focus can be preserved, and where workloads are sustainable? And is there a way to allow Tom to grow as a designer as well? For instance, by letting him conduct user interviews, have him be responsible for internal quality assurance, or have him supervise the hygiene of design systems?
The most obviously solution that's on everybody's mind at this point, would be to just hire more Toms, right? But how many Toms do you really need?
I may very well be a little biased, but as a product designer myself it's my belief that every project or product needs to have a dedicated designer on board, in order to insure the best possible quality of work and protect their work-life balance.
The latter is particularly important for creatives. Creativity is very much a finite resource; dry spells are inevitable and toxic workloads have a hugely negative impact on a person's ability to stay creative and fresh.
Luckily for me, this is how we work at Bothrs as well. We even take it one step further by creating entire, multidisciplinary teams for each project. We do this so everyone on the team can remain laser-focused through the entire sprint week. If you'd like to know the whole story, check out this article.
But let's go back to Tom for a moment. Relieving him from his involvement with a dozen other projects, opens up opportunities for him to truly own his profession and hone his skills as a designer. For instance, Tom is now also able to:
- Manage file structures and asset collections
- Co-create and conceptualize new features
- Building and maintaining design systems
- Designing all of the required flows and states
- Setting up style guides and writing documentation
- Performing product and design QA with colleagues
- Syncing with clients during meetings, demos, and stand-ups himself
As you can tell, this extra bandwidth allows Tom to grow into a well-rounded professional, making him a much more valuable asset to the company overall. And, suppose Tom is now also able to expand and maintain the design system of the product, new features and changes can be created much faster that what would otherwise be the case. It's a win-win if you ask me.
People tend to underestimate just how much focus and mental energy is required for creatives to continuously perform at a high level. For instance, they'd see sales people or account managers who seem perfectly capable of working on multiple projects at a time, and assume the same therefore applies to designers or creatives as well.
Having a full-time designer on board for every digital product may sound like a lot, but you get a lot in return: a motivated and energetic professional who just keeps aging like a fine wine. That's what focus can do to a person. I'm speaking from experience here!
Not only that, you'll see the quality of their work improve, communication run more smoothly, and faster delivery times overall.