Talkin’ Design with Adobe’s Caitlyn Burke and Matt Rae
Last month, I joined Matt Rae - Senior Product Manager, and Caity (short for Caitlyn) Burke - Product Lead Manager, of Adobe, for a new episode of their Talkin’ Design series. As you might have guessed from the title, the livestream interviews cover all sorts of design-related topics, ranging from trends to best practices all the way to career development.
Matt, Caity, and I had an insightful talk about scaling design and everything that comes with it, such as design systems and how to build a design infrastructure from which you can quickly scale up. We even ventured into how designers can set themselves up for a successful career. All in all, lots of interesting topics to learn more about.
You can watch the full interview here or choose to read on, as I’ve also condensed our talk into four key takeaways.
1. When scaling design, start with your foundation
Scaling design is literally about how to scale design for the brands you work with, or work at. It’s a hot topic because a lot of brands are now at a phase where they’ve digitally matured or are rapidly maturing.
I often see that especially global brands with complex digital ecosystems - consisting of multiple products, platforms, and communication channels - are now building in-house teams dedicated to scaling design. But, naturally, that comes with a set of challenges.
One key struggle is maintaining brand consistency. Often, there is no centralized design infrastructure in place to start working from, which makes it more difficult for teams and departments to be aligned and speak the same design language. For example, it’s normal for designers in local teams to want to be creative and add a tweak here or there. Next off, you’re ending up with confused customers and a shattered reputation as you’re not on-brand at every touchpoint.
When you’re scaling design it’s important to build your foundation first. This foundation goes further than creating a few design systems and calling it a day. You need an infrastructure in place that contains and links all your design systems and files in a hierarchical structure. I always use the family tree analogy where your brand design system sits at the top of the hierarchy and can be seen as the first ancestor.
2. Build a design center of excellence early to avoid big pains later on
Building a comprehensive design infrastructure or in DPDK’s terms, a design center of excellence, takes a significant investment in terms of resources and time. That’s why I would advise starting early, as this is the best way to go. You don’t have to invest a big chunk of time and resources, and you can keep the dots connected and churn out consistent designs while the brand grows.
Global and larger brands, on the other hand, will have to deal with a certain amount of pain. Because while they were growing, usually so was the disconnect between their design assets. At this point, they can only heal by investing a considerate amount of time and resources to rework and connect their entire design network. Don’t get me wrong, they should definitely still invest in a design center of excellence because the benefits that come with it, like shorter time-to-market and increased cost efficiency, are huge. There will just be more blood, sweat, and tears involved.
For those of you who want to learn more about the benefits of a design center of excellence and how to build one, I’ve written a complete guide on the scaling design topic.
3. Challenge yourself to be creative inside the box
Within a single source of truth architecture such as a design system, creativity will come in different flavors. It’s not the type of creativity where you have a blank canvas and can dream big. You’ll have to see creativity in a different light.
Because truth be told, you won’t design a new website every year or completely redesign a brand. It doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t innovate and continue to make the site or brand better. Unfortunately, this is an area where a lot of in-house teams struggle, since it takes a different creative mindset.
The kind where you have to be creative inside the box and work with constraints. I always find “thinking outside the box” such a cliché. To me, true creativity is like a Rubik’s cube: a puzzle that needs to be solved. You can’t always change the brand colors or typography - often you’ll need to work with what’s already in place and still deliver an elegant, relevant solution. That’s real creativity right there!
4. Always ask yourself the question, “Why?”
Every designer that’s just starting out should ask themselves this very simple question. And repeat it every single day for the rest of their design career. British-American author Simon Sinek best explains what makes “why” the single most relevant question, in the video below.
Asking “Why?” works for everything in life, including your design choices. Just ask yourself, “Why do I design the way I do?” or, “Why am I showcasing this?” Or ask your client, “Why is my design wrong?” Because then you can fix it. It applies to your career choices as well. Questions like, “Why do I want to be this type of designer?” help you achieve clarity in what you do. And so does grabbing a post-it, writing “Why?” on it, then sticking it somewhere on your laptop or the side of your monitor. It definitely helps me stay inspired.
What the points above boil down to is the fact that you can scale design in a consistent way with a design center of excellence. In today’s digital world, there’s no escaping them. You need to be able to scale up and move quickly while maintaining consistency and quality. I can imagine that you’re new to design centers of excellence and still have unanswered questions. I’m always up for a chat, especially over coffee. If you want to read a bit on the topic first, the scaling design guide I mentioned earlier is a great resource.
For now, all that’s left to say is: start building your design center of excellence now rather than later.