;

Department Function.

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Welcome back to our Design at Scale™—Academy series, focusing on design practice in a team of one hundred. This article explores a department function often unnoticed by new design team members. This lack of awareness can create misunderstandings and tension between the department and the latest designers. By shedding light on this crucial function, we aim to foster smoother collaboration and a more positive onboarding experience.

Function definition

A business function refers to the essential activities performed by a team or teams with a specific expertise. In your case, the design function encompasses all design-related activities that contribute to the organisation's overall vision and generate revenue. This may involve the creation of final goods, services, or experiences intended for the market or external clients.

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) govern the organisation's activities. SOPs ensure consistency, efficiency, and quality in the delivery of these functions. Core business functions are the primary activities that define an organisation's purpose and generate its revenue stream. These activities directly produce final goods or services offered to the market or external clients.

However, some enterprises may consider additional (secondary) activities as part of their core functions. An advertising agency, for instance, offers a comprehensive service encompassing research, analysis, strategy, design, motion graphics, development, and campaign management. In this case, all these activities are considered core functions because they are directly tied to the agency's core offering of advertising services.

Product teams play a crucial role in delivering successful propositions. Within these teams, design functions can be structured in four ways: Supportive, Peripheral, Central, and Integrated. Over the following four chapters, we'll delve into the characteristics of each model, explore how the design function operates within them, and guide designers in navigating their roles within each structure.

Supportive–Design as an external resource.

Supportive design teams typically operate outside the core product team structure. This can involve external agencies providing services to a corporation or even internal design teams within an organisation that primarily support specific features developed by product teams.

In a supportive role, designers are not fully integrated into the product team. This can limit their influence and access to information. They may have a single point of contact (POC) within the product team who determines how and where their resources are allocated.  Furthermore, supportive designers might work with limited information, potentially less than 50% of what's ideally needed for optimal design decisions.

The current structure might limit the desired flexibility within the design process. This, in turn, weakens the product team's ability to leverage the design's full potential. Despite this challenge, having at least one designer embedded within the product team is crucial. This is why many agencies are now opting to deploy their designers directly with clients rather than having them work remotely.

Peripheral–Designing with part external/ part internal resources.

Many agencies utilise the peripheral model, which integrates their designers into extended client teams. This allows for collaborative delivery across the entire design process, including proposition development, prototyping, research, and more, all within the client's environment.

The peripheral model offers a win-win situation:

  • Business Benefits: Businesses gain flexibility by accessing a skilled design workforce on-demand, allowing them to scale their design capabilities as needed.
  • Agency Benefits: Agencies can deploy high-quality designers to client projects, potentially increasing the project's success rate.

However, working within a peripheral model can present a potential challenge. Designers might serve two masters: their employer (the agency) and the client company. Agencies often have a more ambitious vision, pushing for significant design outcomes.  Client companies, on the other hand, may prioritise stability and incremental delivery, focusing on practical solutions rather than groundbreaking innovations.

Central

Central design teams represent a natural evolution from peripheral models. They aim to establish a centralised and standardised way of business operations. This goes beyond design systems; central teams often take ownership of the user experience, encompassing brand marketing and product interactions.

Central teams must coexist within the same space. Broadcasting their function effectively ensures everyone can access standard operating procedures (SOPs), manuals, guidelines, and design systems. These resources are vital for success, and businesses lacking a robust internal presence can weaken their external product teams' ability to craft exceptional customer experiences.

It's important to remember that "central" for design might not translate to other departments like development, accounting, or operations.  In some cases, there might be several central teams within an organisation, each focused on a specific area to support the success of peripheral teams within the larger ecosystem.

Integrated–Design in all aspects of the business

Fully integrated design teams are the ultimate game-changer, creating a significant competitive advantage for businesses in any industry. These teams go beyond delivering a cohesive and consistent user experience; they also ensure the proper use of design assets, preventing misuse or misapplication.

The true power lies in the integration of these elements. They function seamlessly within a unified ecosystem, fostering mutual understanding across teams. This holistic approach ensures a continuous and exceptional user experience, where each touchpoint reinforces the brand identity.

  • Brand Guidelines: These guidelines define how your brand operates and communicates, dictating its voice and personality.
  • Marketing Guidelines: Marketing guidelines outline how you sell your products and services, ensuring consistent messaging across all marketing channels.
  • Design System: The design system serves as a comprehensive toolkit, specifying how your product or service is visually and functionally created.

Navigation 

The first step to successfully navigating different design team structures is understanding your current setting. This awareness shapes your communication approach – how you tailor your message for internal and external audiences. It empowers you to craft targeted messaging for each specific group.

Don't be surprised if a single presentation requires adapting your visuals, objectives, and overall direction for different audiences. While you don't need to create three separate presentations, recognise that your audience changes and the message should adapt to meet their expectations.

Communication and Visibility: Keys to Success

The final and arguably most crucial aspect of navigating design team structures is ensuring clear communication and visibility of your role and contributions.  Both your superiors and subordinates need to understand the value you deliver. While the specific tools used for recording your work may vary (Jira, Confluence, Slack, Figma, etc.), it's essential to actively document your achievements.

Furthermore, don't hesitate to ask questions.  Proactive inquiry is vital for navigating complex design team environments.

Building Your Organizational Map

As mentioned earlier, creating a mental map of the landscape is crucial when entering a new organisation. Similar to visualising the Pyrenees mountains, this map should include key departments, their connections, communication styles, response times, deliverables, and how other departments use their outputs.

Write Your Own Story
Write Your Own Story

By understanding this organisational ecosystem, you can develop a personalised strategy for integrating yourself effectively and maximising the benefits of this collaborative environment.

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