Design Leadership Handbook

Building the team

Chemistry is key

by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery

Your team’s performance and culture will be influenced greatly by the people within it. As you build your design team, think not only of the talents of the individual but how all the individuals will work together. Great teams are composed of individual contributors with complementary skills—they think we, not me. Chemistry is important—thoughtful leaders will choose people who unite, not divide.

Defining your team’s values will help you shape team chemistry and think more carefully about how you hire.

Defining team values

Your team is unlike any other team in your company—though your team is part of the broader company culture, you have your own sub-culture too. The act of design is uniquely emotional, as it requires exploration of new and uncharted territory. Because design is a qualitative endeavor—operating on feel, not numbers—it introduces a level of vulnerability that is atypical of product management or engineering. It is a unique discipline with its own set of values.

And those values are important. They will shape your culture, hiring decisions, team member evaluations, productivity, and ultimately the happiness of each person on your team. As a design leader, you should work with your team to define the core values that will shape your culture and establish a motivational foundation for the work you do. When there’s buy-in from everybody, teams operate more cohesively.

This process will help you identify your team’s values:

  1. Seed the conversation. Before getting the team together, gather values from other design teams and jot down a few notes about the values you’d like to see your team consider. This sample team values doc will give you and your team a starting point for your discussion and help you understand how values affect your work.
  2. Gather your team and share your thoughts with them. Have each team member write down 5 values on sticky notes privately, then post them on the wall for discussion.
  3. Let each team member explain the values they identified.
  4. Group common values on the wall to narrow your options and identify trends.
  5. After discussion, give each team member 5 small dot stickers to cast their votes for the values they feel best represent the team.
  6. Further discussion may be required to trim the list to the essentials. Once you have a final list, create a shared document with a detailed description of each value.

Consider making your team values visible. A series of beautiful posters can help them sink into your team’s culture more effectively.

Pay close attention to these values over time. Do they remain an accurate representation of who you are as a team, or are they merely aspirational? If the latter, realign the values to better reflect the team.


In the High Resolution podcast, Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu discuss what a strong designer looks like with Ian Spalter of Instagram. View the full episode on Youtube.

Whether you’re at a startup that’s doing well or a more established enterprise, your team is probably growing (as Y-combinator founder Paul Graham writes, startup = growth). To keep pace with your current and future growth, you’ll need to ensure hiring is ingrained in your workflow.

Hiring the right people is actually your most important job. The people you hire will form the foundation of your team, and may, in turn, hire others as growth continues. They’re also your greatest legacy. Some will outlast your tenure and carry on the work you started. Think carefully and invest your time accordingly.

If you’ve ever freelanced or run an agency, you know how critical it is to keep your project pipeline full. The same goes for hiring; if you wait until you have an open position to begin searching for talent, you’ve waited too long!

Think carefully about the needs of your team and the company as you consider candidates. You may be tempted to evaluate candidates based on their technical skills, and you may write them off if they’re missing one skill you think critical, even if they fit other requirements perfectly. The primary reasons for letting an employee go rarely relate to a lack of technical prowess; rather it’s a shortcoming in soft skills. Missing technical skills can be remedied with coaching, but shortcomings in soft skills are much more difficult to correct.

Assessing soft skills can be difficult, especially in the constrained environment of an interview—the interviewee is likely anxious and trying to impress you. You want to set your interviewee up for success, so get to know the person before discussing technical stuff. Find out what they’re passionate about and how they see the world. It can sound like casual chatter, but it provides the clues needed to evaluate soft skills. Here’s what to look for when interviewing candidates:

Broad perspectives

Diverse backgrounds and interests introduce different perspectives to the team. You don’t want to hire a bunch of employees who are just like you; this is why it’s best to avoid hiring for “culture fit.” Instead, to really foster innovation, look for people who bring new dimensions to your company, and strive to build teams with a variety of voices and outlooks.

Adaptation and grit

Listen hard to your candidate’s life and work experiences. Stories of overcoming adversity, not fitting in, or moving to a new country, for instance, provide clues about how someone deals with challenges. Adaptation skills demonstrate that the candidate has the aptitude to overcome a tough problem, team change, or new project.

MacArthur Fellow and psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth calls this quality “grit.” Grit is more than just perseverance; Duckworth ties grit to a focus on long-term goals and a commitment to following through on them. Candidates who’ve overcome adversity over a long period of time because they can see the payoff are gritty, and usually make great hires.

A collaborative mindset

Few skills are as important to a team as collaboration, but it can be hard to gauge during an interview how well a candidate will work with others. However, there are ways to pick up signals, like by asking the candidate about the dynamics of other teams they’ve worked on, and discovering how they like to collaborate. Look for red flags, like if the interviewee blames failures on other team members.

It might make sense to create a small, tightly scoped project to help you evaluate candidates. Here are 2 project ideas:

New product ideation exercise

Assemble your team and the candidate in a room with a whiteboard for a 1- to 2-hour ideation session. Identify a product idea to explore as a group—one that you and your team have no prior knowledge of so you’re on equal footing with the candidate. Work through a simplified Design Sprint process to explore design solutions to the presented problem. Sketch individually, present ideas, and discuss. Work through revisions of the ideas together and observe how the candidate works with your team.

Reimagining existing product exercise

Invite the candidate to conduct a detailed evaluation of an existing product (it needn’t be yours), identifying flaws in the user experience. From those observations, have the candidate design an alternate solution and present it to the team for discussion.

When the design is presented, listen carefully to how the candidate responds to critical feedback from the team. Are they defensive or open-minded? Do they talk more than they listen? Do they seek credit? You’ll learn a lot in that short exchange.

Social aptitude and energy

Beyond structured collaborative activities, social time with a candidate provides everyone a chance to get to know each other—invite candidates to lunch as part of the interview process.

Spending time together benefits both you and the candidate. You can determine if the candidate is still excited about the job opportunity. Do they gel with your team? Can they hold a conversation, or is there awkward silence? Discomfort in the interview process will be amplified if the candidate joins the team, so pay close attention. For the candidate, social time provides a preview of the working relationship.

Look for red flags and green lights, and be sure to listen to your gut. Gut feelings can tell us a lot if we’re willing to listen.


Humble people make great teammates, as they’re willing to listen to and learn from others. They don’t crave credit, so they’re natural collaborators, and they treat others fairly and with kindness.

A candidate’s humility, or lack thereof, comes through in a longer interview process. When they checked in, how did they treat the people at the front desk? Did they ask a lot of questions of the people they met? Did they take the time to learn about the company, you, and your team before the interview? It’s hard to ask about humility directly in interview questions, but tune into the language your candidate uses and you might get an accurate reading. Listen for an abundance of self-congratulatory statements and a lack of shared credit.

Though humility is an attractive virtue in a candidate, be sure it’s balanced with confidence; confident designers act upon their judgments but are humble enough to know they could be wrong.

Easy to hire, hard to fire

It can be tempting, as a project grows and existing team members are overburdened, to try to save the day by hiring the first halfway decent candidate that walks through the door. But it’s critical to take the time to make an informed decision—hiring too fast fills your company with people you don’t want to work with, who will derail your progress, and who will demoralize your best performers. Fast hiring often leads to slow, painful firings.

Remember, as a design leader there is nothing more important than hiring. Put in the time, get to know each candidate well, and choose people who bring new perspectives to your team.

In the High Resolution podcast, Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu learn a technique for writing a useful job description from Jared Spool of UIE. View the full episode on Youtube.

The designer hiring process

This hiring schedule will help you get a good read on design candidates and help you see how they’d fit into your team:

  • Phone screen (30 minutes): You or someone in HR will have a casual conversation to see if the candidate has any immediate red flags and gauge their personality.
  • Phone screen (1 hour): You and someone else on your team will speak with the candidate by phone to learn about their work history, interests, and views on design. Leave time for the candidate to ask questions, which will inform both you and the candidate!
  • On-site visit (4 to 6 hours): You’ll invite the candidate to your office to present their work and field questions about their process. Include your team and representatives from other departments, and leave time for more casual conversations.
  • Decision time: Get each team member’s feedback individually, not as a group—people can talk themselves out of red flags. If the candidate didn’t make the cut, give honest and constructive feedback to make this is a learning opportunity.


Sometimes, even if you follow a great hiring process, things just don’t work out. Before the situation becomes unworkable, take the time to coach your employee, and communicate feedback clearly and often. If things aren’t headed in the right direction, the employee should know and have a chance to improve. A firing should never be a surprise.

Firing is painful for all involved. It can cause you sleepless nights and inspire doubt in your abilities as a manager. But the sooner you fire a bad employee, the quicker you and your team can right the ship than if you put off the painful task.

You may also inherit a team with mediocre players. Unfortunately, mediocrity begets more mediocrity—it’s hard to attract top talent to the “B” team. Make improvements to the team quickly or you will find yourself stuck with a second-rate team.

A toxic team member can pollute the whole team and give other teams pause before collaborating on a project. If you have a bad apple, experiment with a temporary reassignment to see how the team dynamic shifts. A dramatic, positive change in your team with the problem team member absent will be a clear cue that stronger measures are needed.

If you do get to the point where the employee needs to be let go, be respectful, and help them find a new opportunity. This transition will help them reflect on their career and could be the change they need to rekindle their passion for their work.

Team structure

You’ve done the hard work of hiring the right people for the right roles, and now you need to organize your team so they can be most effective. What organizational model should you follow?

There are many possible team structures, each with benefits and challenges. None are perfect; instead of searching for a single solution, consider what’s right for your company right now and craft what’s right for you.

Let’s take a look at 3 different models and explore what they have to offer.


A centralized team structure keeps all designers on the same team in a shared space. Some refer to this as the “agency model” as other teams come to the centralized design team for their services—much like the way a client would approach an agency.

Centralized design teams can work in a shared studio space where work can be posted and discussed regularly, which can help designers grow in their craft more quickly.


  • Designers get frequent feedback from peers, helping them grow and stay engaged with their work
  • When a centralized design team monitors all UIs on a single team, it’s easier to create a unified user experience across many products on multiple platforms
  • Instead of focusing on incremental improvements, a centralized team can take a broader view and create a grand vision for a product.
  • A design culture is cultivated when all designers are together regularly


  • Designers leave important collaborators like engineers out of the ideation process in this structure, which can create political conflict
  • Designers are disconnected from technical requirements when they’re isolated from engineers
  • Designers must work harder to bring people into their process


In an embedded model, designers are positioned in cross-functional teams with engineers and product managers working on a specific product or feature. Cross-functional teams are a hallmark of the Agile process. This model is often referred to as EPD—Engineering, Product, and Design.

Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb, likens EPD to a 3-legged stool: if the team was lacking a design role from the onset, or if the role was added after the engineering and product management team had already matured and grown, then the design leg ends up being shorter and the stool topples over.

At Airbnb, each EPD function “is involved and aligned from a product’s inception to its launch.” At least one member from each of the 3 teams is involved with working groups for new features, or in product marketing, or user feedback sessions. In Alex’s observations, companies that successfully grow these functions in parallel as the organization scales do 2 things: they hire and unleash a design lead from the start, and they grow the headcount of the design team in step with engineering and product hiring.

Designers have the opportunity to learn from and build close relationships with colleagues from other domains in a cross-functional team and can gain a better understanding of the technical and business requirements of a product. But designers are often outnumbered by engineers and can feel pressure to conform to engineering values.

Mike Davidson, former VP of Design at Twitter, says that “designers in product teams are vulnerable to ‘path of least resistance’ behavior—engineers will ask the designer to make things simpler so implementation is easier. You’re accountable to a different set of values when you’re working with other designers.”


  • Working closely, designers and engineers develop a strong understanding of their colleagues’ craft
  • The rapport established within cross-functional teams fosters empathy and respect that make collaboration easier (and more fun)
  • Communication is much faster. Designers are immediately made aware of the technical challenges their decisions create, and engineers learn when function diminishes form.
  • Diverse perspectives each step of the way lead to better product solutions
  • Shared ownership dampens political fighting and builds trust


  • Designers can feel isolated and find that their growth has stagnated
  • Maintaining a consistent user experience across multiple products and platforms becomes difficult
  • Cross-functional teams tend to work iteratively in sprints, which lend themselves well to iterative improvements, but not big leaps in innovation
  • Teams that work on only one aspect of a product start to lose sight of the overarching customer experience

There are many ways to organize a cross-functional team. You can organize around:

  • Platform: Spotify has different teams for their desktop, Android, and iOS apps
  • Feature: Facebook has teams that work on News Feed, Messenger, and Profile
  • Customer experience: Airbnb has separate teams for the host and guest experiences of their service


You can, of course, blend models as well to create a hybrid design organization. You can position designers in a temporary cross-functional team to work on a focused project with a clear deadline, as is common at MailChimp. When they’re done, they return to the centralized design team.

You can distribute your designers in cross-functional teams, but pull them back together for design reviews, stand-ups, and fireside chats as Twitter does.

When a company has reached sufficient scale, a centralized team can manage a code design system that serves designers distributed in various cross-functional teams. This is Spotify’s approach—they bring designers together in a design guild for design reviews, but with a focus on adhering to design systems.

Sometimes a change in your seating chart is all you need. Lendingtree has positioned their centralized design team among engineers and product managers to promote collaboration, but each designer still reports back to a design leader.

Team structures evolve over time, especially as a company scales, and there’s no single path to building great design teams as a company grows. However, we can apply the problem solving skills and iterative approach that we use to build great products to also build great teams.

Point your team in the right direction

It can be tempting, now that you have a team that can execute quickly, to dive in and start building. But as Laura Martini, product designer at Google, writes in her article So Your Boss Doesn’t Believe in Design Research, it’s critical that your team is headed to the right finish line, and user research can help you get there. However, it’s not always easy to convince stakeholders that this is a pivotal step in the design process.

When your team is under the gun to produce results quickly, baking research into the design process can seem like a daunting challenge. Just mention of the word “research” seems to imply that it will be expensive and time consuming—something more suited to a particle physics lab than a product design team.

But research doesn’t have to be difficult or take a lot of time. Erika Hall, partner at Mule Design, outlines a wealth of techniques for low-effort user research in her book Just Enough Research. And if you’re too constrained on time and resources to read the book, you can use her great technique—a Minimum Viable Ethnography—to get invaluable insights for less than $300 over 3 days.

Using an approach like this, you can often sneak research in under the radar. When you share the wins with stakeholders, you can show that a little research helped you get big results. This may give you more latitude to include research in your design process for future projects.

Key takeaways

  • Define your team’s values to help your team make great hires and keep your culture healthy
  • Hiring is your most important job—invest your time accordingly
  • When vetting candidates, focus on soft skills. Technical skills can be coached, but soft skills are hard to change.
  • It’s easy to hire, hard to fire. Devote enough time to the hiring process so you and your team get to know the candidate.
  • Provide honest and timely feedback (the kind that’s not easy to hear) to help change negative behaviors
  • Firing is your last resort. Offer ample coaching and clear warnings before you consider termination.
  • Consider establishing cross-functional teams to improve collaboration and communication between design and development. The EPD structure—Engineering, Product, and Design—is becoming common in design-driven companies.
  • Conduct regular design reviews or even a design guild to help designers embedded in product teams to remain connected to their peers

About the Authors

Aarron Walter
VP Design Education, InVision

As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices. Aarron founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. His design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups and venture capitalist firms.

He is the author of the best selling book Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart. You’ll find @aarron on Twitter sharing thoughts on design. Learn more at

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education, InVision

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

  • Currently listening to: audio book version of Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
  • Currently giving me inspiration: MasterClass series from folks like Neil Gaiman and Aaron Sorkin
  • Cultural thing I’m loving: Nerding out on the last season of Game of Thrones