Going Hollywood

Sometimes I wish I had a simple answer to the question, “What do you do for work?” Instead of being able to say “I’m a tax lawyer” and move on with the conversation, I answer “I’m a design producer.” This usually leads to a response of, “So… like a movie producer?,” which is not far from the truth.

The craft of being a producer in the creative world is similar to that of a movie producer. Filmmaking is one of the most logistically complicated creative workflows in the world. Naturally, this discipline helped to introduce roles that maintain the creative integrity of a director’s vision while working to coordinate large teams against tight timelines and budgets.

As film industry talent spilled over into commercial advertising, broadcast producers followed. Then as advertising and design agencies grew, more and more types of producers were brought on, each with their own craft discipline. Broadcast, print, interactive, experiential, design, and even integrated producers who spanned multiple mediums began to support creative teams.

Nowadays, the role of DesignOps is becoming more commonplace. DesignOps teams help to forecast work, manage resourcing, drive the day-to-day project flows, oversee budgets, support team health, and basically facilitate anything that allows creative teams to focus on what they do best. Companies are beginning to understand the value of design, and are investing in the role of DesignOps to maximize design’s value and impact.

I began my career as an interactive producer at Goodby Silverstein and Partners. The timelines were insane, the clients were demanding, and my production teams were trained to “yes, and” every creative idea that landed on our laps.

An ad agency was (and still is) a great proving ground for a producer; I was often tasked with scheduling and budgeting unrealistic and impossible ideas from teams of art directors and writers, with the expectation to never say it couldn’t be done.

I came away from the ad agency with some incredible experiences and came to realize that what mattered most in my role was not to fight just for the creative team but to build a process that would protect the integrity of the creative team’s work.

As I transitioned from an agency to a startup consultancy to in-house DesignOps at Dropbox, many aspects of my work have remained the same. However, unlike my time at the agency, where I sometimes felt I was producing creative work for its own sake or for awards, I now clearly see when and how DesignOps can serve and impact both design teams and the businesses they serve.

When is it time for DesignOps?

The craft of a DesignOps team boils down to process. When you have a team responsible for process, it lets every other team focus on their respective crafts. It can be hard to gauge when to ramp up a DesignOps function, but I’ve seen three scenarios where it might be time:

  1. Craft specialization: it’s no longer feasible for roles to blur
  2. Operating a design team at scale: it’s no longer possible to keep everyone in sync
  3. Safe harbor: designers need protection from the grind and thrash of creative development

Craft specialization

In the early stages of a design team, designers and other team members wear many hats. The roles and responsibilities are blurred in a persistent “all hands on deck” approach to every problem. For small teams, this is often the fastest way to work together—the workflows, stakeholders, coordination, and communication are all easy enough to keep in check, and everyone is in sync.

At this limited scale, designers manage their own project intakes and timelines, as well as other tasks outside their own design crafts. At this stage, while teams are small, DesignOps functions don’t make a lot of sense; it would likely take more work just to keep a DesignOps person up to speed on projects that are moving quickly.

As organizations mature and grow, specialization becomes increasingly important. As a business scales, the processes that were once effective might no longer fit the changing org. Design teams may find that as they scale, they require specialist roles beyond the UX designer—like design researchers, UX writers, brand designers, illustrators, and motion designers. This is when a DesignOps role can help to make sure that the right people give the right feedback at the right time, with each specialist aligned to the same overall objective. It’s a tough job that seems more of an art than a science.

The job of the DesignOps team is to protect the time and headspace of everyone within the design organization—the designers, writers, researchers, and so on—which allows everyone to focus on their respective craft. That focus benefits managers, who are able to pull themselves above the fray of the day-to-day to set a longer-term vision, as well as individual contributors who gain more time to hone and develop their skills. Specialization also introduces a financial upside to an organization by ensuring that people are doing the work they were hired to do, rather than taking on work outside of their core competency.

Operating a design team at scale

Organizational growth means more teams and individuals—from product management, customer support, marketing, sales, etc.—lean on the design team. Keeping these teams and their requests in sync often becomes a responsibility unto itself beyond the actual work of design.

Beyond organizational headcount, companies tend to expand their product lines and functionality, which creates an acute need for design standardization and optimization. This is when it becomes critical to better manage communications and coordination across all teams and projects.

When I joined the Dropbox brand studio team in 2015, we were growing fast and spread too thin across a wide variety of projects. I was hired as the team’s first executive producer to help our creative team to collaborate better in general, as well as with cross-functional teams, our marketing team, and external creative partners. We were experiencing growing pains on two fronts.

First, other teams were growing faster than our team. Dropbox was establishing marketing teams in multiple cities around the world. As teams like communications, sales, and product design relied on us for more and more projects, suddenly everything was considered “high priority.”

 

Second, we were expanding our product offerings. The launch of the Dropbox Paper beta was my first project, and we faced a number of internal challenges to get it out the door.

For many years Dropbox had a smaller portfolio of products and features, and we had not established an operational cadence for new product launches at scale. The Paper beta required lots of hunting around to identify the project stakeholders (not to mention determining how they wanted to be involved), as well as the financial and legal management of new vendors.

As organizations build out these processes they become the “fine motor skills” that ensure consistent quality at scale. DesignOps is uniquely adept at defining, socializing, and maintaining these type of workflows.

Safe harboring design teams from burnout

Creative teams are uniquely vulnerable to the subjective nature of their work. On any given project, they might receive bad feedback, late feedback, conflicting feedback, and even feedback from unknown parties with no apparent involvement in a project. After jumping through the burning hoops of a long creative approval process, a team will see their good ideas arbitrarily go down in flames. This creates a stressful environment with few safe places to explore and ideate, and little to no empathy or support for the creative process.

What’s more, scale, pace, and complexity can add up to an environment where creative teams feel like they are always reacting, and never exploring and refining ideas. When this happens, it’s understandable that a designer might just throw up their hands and say, “Just tell me what to do.” This happens all too often at companies that invest in amazing design talent, only to relegate them to software operators rather than thinking of them as partners in solving business problems. It also means that these great creatives are going to look elsewhere for a creative outlet—hopefully on a side project, but likely at another company.

DesignOps is not a panacea for every issue, but it can mitigate the workflow problems that impact a teams’ health—beginning with planning. If a team knows when to expect feedback from specific people—whether from the CEO or other stakeholders—they can tailor the presentation of their work to reflect how it addresses things like revenue goals (this design will increase conversions), product goals (this redesign will make features more discoverable), etc. What’s more, a design producer can set expectations and explain to stakeholders what type of feedback is needed at each particular stage in the design process.

At Dropbox, producers create what we call “blue boxes” at the top of each document we present for creative reviews. These are check boxes that clearly state—before any work gets presented—what feedback we are looking for and from whom. We also call out what types of feedback won’t be helpful. This approach is a great reminder at each review of roles and responsibilities; while we want everyone to be heard, we also want to clarify who is the ultimate decision maker for different aspects of the creative output.

To use a video production as an example: in the final edit review, our design producer will kick off the meeting with specifics on what feedback we need, but will also note that we have a locked cut—signaling that we are not accepting feedback on the voiceover or other unchangeable elements.

Beyond managing stakeholder feedback, DesignOps can prepare the team for upcoming projects and even expose the creative team to the decision-making process early, elevating them more to project partners than executors. This advanced forecasting allows creative teams to get involved with those requesting projects—like product or marketing—and work collaboratively to define the problem.

DesignOps models

The specific flavor of DesignOps you put in place can vary. In general, I’ve seen two DesignOps strategies surface, each of which overlaps with the other:

  1. Operations support: the DesignOps role sets standards and refines processes for the entire design team.
  2. Project support: the DesignOps role embeds into each specific project workflow to drive and improve the creative process in partnership with design leadership.

The operations support model

In a DesignOps support model, the ops function builds systems that impact the work at a high-level. Here the ops function tends to be smaller—sometimes just one person—with a broad focus that allows for spotting areas in need of triage. These areas include design tooling and systems, communications, recruiting, team development, and budgeting.

The DesignOps team can standardize the tooling and systems used to scope, resource, track, and archive projects. While some of these systems can drive high-level strategy, others—like file nomenclature and folder structure—can be just as vital to a team’s success and sanity.

The ops role might dictate meeting cadence, thinking strategically about when 1:1 meetings, team meetings, and leadership meetings should fit in any given week. More, the DesignOps role can implement and enforce good meeting hygiene by requiring and documenting clear agendas and action items.

More broadly, a DesignOps support function might set recruiting standards, plan new hire onboarding, and set a curriculum for the ongoing education and development of the team. The support model also extends beyond the logistics of project work and facilitates teammate recognition, the “pulse” of the team, special projects (like a “hack week”), and other projects where there is no natural project owner.

Finally, the DesignOps role can support the team by managing the budget. Forecasting and tracking both external and internal spending trips benefit even the most adept design leads. This is especially true when your team relies on freelance talent, vendors, and agencies.

The work of managing contracts—setting the scope of work, negotiating rates and terms, coordinating with the finance team—is absolutely crucial for team success. A DesignOps function can manage this responsibility, giving both the design team and external resources an informed and helpful point of contact.

The project support model

In the project support model, a design producer or program manager attends not just to the high-level systems but to individual projects, driving the day-to-day creative workflow.

As each project kicks off, DesignOps can establish clear roles and responsibilities for the working team as well as for stakeholders. Within Dropbox we don’t have one set way of doing this across each of our teams; one group may be using a R.A.C.I. model, others a D.A.C.I. model, and still others some (likely made-up) acronym that means the same thing.

DesignOps can help pair the different work styles into a unified project flow. And while this obviously keeps everyone accountable for their respective contributions to a project, these clear responsibilities also delineate what folks should not work on, like tasks that can best be handled by someone else or that are out of scope.

While a product or project manager might own the overall schedule, in this model the DesignOps team owns the creative schedule and milestones and ensures that creative teams have what they need to develop their best work on time. This project support might include documenting tasks and follow-up items, wrangling project specifications, and handling asset management.

Moving the practice forward

You might find the trigger for your org’s adoption of DesignOps doesn’t fit the scenarios listed here or in other chapters—or perhaps the trigger is a combination of a few scenarios. You might also settle on a hybrid DesignOps model that provides both operations and project support. There is a lot of overlap and variability in DesignOps practices worldwide, and that’s fine.

Whatever the reason behind and shape of your team’s adoption of DesignOps, just remember the most effective DesignOps teams are servant leaders to their organizations and respected peers to design leaders and teams. Whether in an operations or project support role, the DesignOps function is there to push projects forward while providing creative teams the space and time to create.

As design teams and companies invest in DesignOps, they’ll realize better creative results faster, and they’ll see how better work processes can impact the entire culture of collaboration.