Scaling Design

By Dennis Field • About a read

One of the hardest things that you have to do as a designer is scale yourself – whether you bring on other designers as contractors to help you with your client work, or work as a design leader who's looking to scale the team. I've been in a number of environments over my career. Some were super established and already had a "system" in place, but I've also been in small startups (and ran my own studio) where we had to take the first step towards scaling. It's not an easy task by any means, and it can be a bit scary, but through these experiences I've noticed a few things. Hopefully, they'll help you if you're struggling with or thinking about scale.

Don't Be Afraid to Scale

Sometimes it can be scary to scale. It was frightening when I took the plunge to hire a hand to help me get some work done for the first time. However, there's no way around it. You only have so much time in a week to balance life and work, so once you start getting busy, you'll need to make the choice to either scale yourself, stop taking work, or choose to lose some of your personal time. Don't be afraid to scale. It's critical to ensure that you continue to progress, without letting your growth stagnate and getting passed up in the process.

“Don't be afraid to scale. It's critical to ensure that you continue to progress, without letting your growth stagnate and getting passed up in the process.”

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Establish Your Needs

To make scaling easier on you, determine what your needs are ahead of time. Do you truly know what area you'd scale when things begin to tighten up? Would you hire another top-quality designer to help you scale your skills, or would an intern take on some of the production work that's sucking up your time? Maybe you would hire a PM to manage projects. Whatever it is, have a solid idea before you start your hunt. It will make the choice easier.

It's Not Just About Access to Files

My very first "real" big moment as a designer was when I landed my first gig out of college at a large global design firm. When I went for the interview, I was not only impressed by this company’s clients or their cool office tucked up in the woods complete with a basketball court, print studio, etc. What impressed me the most was one person. He was the creative director, the man in charge of all the creativity that this company was pumping out. Yes, he could design; however, he didn't know much about any of the tools we used, but what he was able to do was think much "bigger" than everyone else. He had the ability to ensure we were all pushing our ideas for the clients, but still staying true to the goals and missions of the company. Although he was responsible for our creative direction, he was more in charge of ensuring that our work was on brand for the company while inspiring us to create the best work that we could at scale.

“When you scale, you’re focussed on inspiring and motivating your team. It’s your focus to help them find their best self so they can create their best work with your DNA on it.”

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Establish the Process Before You Need It

It took me a while to realize this, and in reality it can be applied to more than just design environments. Every day at InVision, I’m reminded of how fast the industry moves and that, in order to really push, grow, and accomplish things at scale, you need to establish a process *before* you think you need it. That way you are ready when you do need it. Having a process does not necessarily slow you down either. You can have a loose process that can adapt. After all, what you do today can be very different from what you’ll do six months or a year from now, but you need a place to start. However, by attempting to put a few key processes in place early, you can test and perfect them before you really need to lock something in.

Have a Deep Bench

Now this is something I learned the hard way, but have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you were drowning in work and had no way to get relief? Have you ever felt like your pipe dried up for just a few weeks? One thing that is important to do as you scale is to look at your bench. Do you have a network of people that you can call on when things get tight? Maybe some other designers at various skill levels to pull into the "game" when you need them? How about a few quick-turn clients that you can approach for some one-off work to buy you time until the larger projects kick in? This bench is something that you should always keep warm. You may not need it today, but you will at some point, and nothing is worse than feeling like you don't have options. So get out there, network, and find some people you can work with if needed. Also, don't ignore the pipeline when things dry up, as it takes a ton of priming to get it moving again.

“Your bench is something that you should always have and keep warm. You may not need to use it today, but you will at some point, and nothing is worse than looking at an empty bench when you need it.”

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Document Everything

Another big thing that you can do to make scaling easy is to start documenting things that you use often and that you feel others may use often. Do you have certain grids or design assets that you like to use for all your projects? Consider making a template or documenting what they are. Do you have code that you find yourself using often? Why not build some starter templates that have everything you need? The more you can automate or eliminate repetitive tasks, the easier it is to scale and let another person take care of them for you. Again, even if you don't have a plan to scale, it makes your job easier and buys you more time to find talent or clients. At InVision, we have playbooks and templates to help scale everything, such as blog posts, designs, sales processes, etc.

Make Things Easily Accessible for Others

This sounds like a no-brainer, but believe it or not, I've been in environments where I was constantly hunting things down that should have been easily accessible to the team. As you scale, you'll need to pay attention to this. Does everyone have everything they need at anytime to do their job efficiently? Are things stored on servers like Dropbox or Google Drive? Are you using creative software like InVision or Craft Library to ensure that your team and stakeholders have the insight they need across your projects? If not, start today. Making things accessible is the easiest thing you can do to speed up efficiency across your teams and projects.

Don't Choose Help Based Solely on Price

I think this is where many designers go wrong. They look at the cost of what it means to scale and start off by choosing cheap hired hands. Some tasks are great for this, but design often is not. You have to be willing to invest in the role based on what you need. If you go cheap and expect great work, you'll only find yourself re-working the project, get frustrated, and reconsider scaling yourself in the future again. So don't go cheap. Don't lose money in the process, by hiring someone way over your rate, but don't be afraid to spend a bit either, depending on the role. Keep in mind the value that this person can bring to you. Time is money.

Final Thoughts

Scaling is not easy, and as you grow, you'll constantly have to watch these areas and tweak them. The above are just a few of the things you can consider as you scale design in your organization. The number-one thing to always keep in mind is to ensure that everyone can play a role in the process by having what they need to do their job, with the appropriate expectations and inspiration you set forth.

“Ensure that everyone has what they need to do their job, and complement it with the appropriate expectations and inspiration you set forth.”

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Scaling can be a challenge in every organization, big or small. The above are just a few things to think about as you take on that task, but these are not all of them. Scaling design is custom to each organization and shouldn’t be too disruptive. If you're struggling with scale, let me know – I can help. I've learned a thing or two about scale over the years, and I'm also well versed in how other companies get through some of these hurdles. If you're interested, I'd love to work with you on how to scale design and even how to refine your design process to ensure you're reaching your freelance or business goals.

Also, be sure to download my free guide on scaling design where I outline the tools, roles, and techniques that I use to scale myself and my designs. Do you have any tips that you'd like to add? Share them with me on Twitter!

Until next time.

Dennis

P.S. Are you struggling with scaling design or taking the next leap with your freelance business or organization? I’m more than happy to help you work through the next steps. Just ask.

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Author

Scaling Design

Dennis Field

I’m a designer and educator who works @invisionapp. I’m also writing a book that helps other designers reach their goals. You can find me on Twitter @dennis_field.