Over the past year, I’ve worked with a variety of designers, engineers, PMs and managers. Throughout that time, I’ve noticed that those I enjoy working with the most share similar qualities.
These people are good at what they do, inspire those around them and come through when I’m in a tough spot. Through observing them, I learned that just having hard skills is only part of the equation to being a good teammate. As I strive to be a better designer, teammate and employee, I adhere to these principles I’ve picked up from my inspiring coworkers.
"I love that I can go into work every day without feeling I need to prove I belong there."
Communicate openly, frequently and succinctly
When I hear couples share their secret to a long, happy relationship, they always seem to say that the key is communication. It’s a similar situation here.
I’ve found being open and vocal with my teammates helps us understand how we can support one another, prevents us from unnecessary work overlap and contributes to a culture of trust. What this communication looks like will vary from team to team, but for us it’s posting daily YTBs (an abbreviated daily standup covering what each person did yesterday, what we will do today, and any blockers we have) in Slack, having the design lead delegate tasks to the designers, and being respectful and friendly with one another.
Open communication and mutual respect allow us to give and ask for help without fear of judgment. I’ve grown to see the value of workplaces that create these “safe spaces” for their employees to be vulnerable, and how it correlates with my level of enjoyment of working at a company. I love that I can go into work every day without feeling I need to prove I belong there.
When it comes to communicating with the client, never underestimate the power of clarity. Because we rely so heavily on our phones and computers to stay in touch, we are surrounded by noise. Notifications are missed, messages are read but not responded to, and auto-correct fails us. To avoid confusion and cut through that noise, communicate directly, succinctly and with intention.
Pleasantries can be distracting and unnecessary when talking business with the client. They are just as busy as I am, and I try to respect that by sending quick and direct messages. For example, instead of saying:
“Hey X! I took a look at the requirements you provided and mocked up these designs. I was wondering if you could take a look at these designs and let me know your feedback or any thoughts you have? There’s no rush, just get back to me when you’re available.”
I could say instead:
“Hi X, these designs are ready for your review. My recommendation is on the left because of its increased legibility and clear hierarchy.”
The client doesn’t need to be reminded in every message of how polite and nice I am. They know that already. Not to mention, they are paying for the time I spend writing this email, so they can appreciate efficiency more than anyone. My job is to make it easy for them to help me without having to sift through fluff.
"The pitfall of weekly or bi-weekly design reviews is that designers may assume those meetings are the only times they should be sharing their work, causing them to be radio silent the rest of the week."
Share work often
Having regular design meetings is not only critical in ensuring open communication, but also to share progress and confirm everyone is on track to meet project goals.
However, the pitfall of weekly or bi-weekly design reviews is that designers may assume those meetings are the only times they should be sharing their work, causing them to be radio silent the rest of the week. Meetings can, ironically, make room for passivity. And that’s dangerous for several reasons.
First, if I’m waiting until my Thursday Design Review meeting to share my work, I’m probably not communicating enough (see previous section). Second, I have to compete with everyone else’s agendas in the meeting. If we don’t get a chance to talk about mine, progress on my work may be stalled until the next meeting. Third, if I’m not actively working to ensure my designs align with the most updated requirements and goals, I might go too far in the wrong direction before someone tells me otherwise. This wastes my time, wastes my team’s time, and compromises the project timeline and the budget.
This is an area that’s especially intimidating to me (send screenshots of my WIP designs to the entire Slack channel? What if I get roasted?!), but in sharing my work more often, I’m becoming more confident in myself. Taking a proactive approach – whether it’s sending screenshots through Slack or bringing my computer over to a teammate’s desk – opens the door for better communication and collaboration. It’s a way to make sure my work aligns with the team's flow and efforts.
Be adaptable and flexible
In my relatively short design career so far, I've already learned a designer’s attitude and mindset play a large part in their success or failure.
In a perfect world, I would only need to learn one design tool (which would also happen to be the preferred tool for project management and handoff) that only gets better with each update so I could use it forever until the end of existence. In reality, designers juggle multiple tools while remembering the different hotkeys for each software, making sure everyone has the correct permission level, checking that files sync up across devices and platforms, deciding on the best handoff tool, and remembering what platform we’re supposed to leave our notes on (do I leave this comment in Figma, JIRA, or Slack?).
Collaboration with big teams can come with difficulties, such as the decision to switch design tools mid-project (yes, this happened to me), and I’ve found the key to overcoming these hurdles is to have a positive attitude, embrace the challenge and be flexible. Sometimes, no matter how much I love Figma, I’m going to have to suck it up and use Sketch.
Adaptability and flexibility also come into play when balancing client and internal feedback. A large part of design is about problem solving and presentation; how can I use my design expertise to show the client my design is the best solution for the problem at hand?
For example, I might present a design that is beautiful and functional, clearly improving the user experience. The client might come back saying the design can’t be implemented because of budget limitations, time constraints, or simply because they didn’t like it. What now? Do we count ten paces and draw our pistols? That’d probably be more fun, but no.
I have to remind myself that the client and I are one team. As a designer, I advocate for the user, and the best clients will try to understand and trust my perspective. But I also need to remember the client knows their business and their audience best. Some questions I like to keep in mind here are:
What are the business goals?
What are the specific project goals?
What’s best for the user?
Stepping into the client’s shoes allows us to work more smoothly together. Compromises will always have to be made, but as long as the client and I can view the problem from a shared perspective, we’ll have a better foundation to create a successful product.
"No smart person will write me off as being dumb if I’m asking a question for the benefit of the team."
Understand everyone’s role on the team
Depending on the team and the project, designers are often assigned a specific part of the product or flow. This way, we can work in parallel and meet project goals sooner. While this seems straightforward, I’ve found it challenging at times to understand who owns what part of the product and how my work fits into the larger picture, especially when working with a large design team spread across three time zones and two countries.
Working to receive that clarity is like making sure your machine is well-oiled before starting it up. This should ideally be established at the beginning of the project’s engagement, usually by management. However, there may be unexpected staff changes, revisions to the client agreement, etc. Speaking purely from a product designer’s point of view, I prescribe to the mindset that if I have a question about the team structure – or anything else fundamental to the project – I just ask it.
Here’s a question I asked my team past week: "Who can I reach out to about the engineering capabilities of this design?"
By surfacing these questions early on, I can avoid working off of an ever-growing stack of assumptions. I’ve had to get over my personal insecurity of sounding “dumb” by “asking a stupid question,” and it’s worth it. No smart person will write me off as being dumb if I’m asking a question for the benefit of the team.
With a clear understanding of everyone’s role in the project, I’m able to reach out to the correct person for any questions I have or resources I need. This eliminates the need to chase down the person who is in charge of the checkout flow or trying to figure out who can direct me to the most updated design library.
Clarity also facilitates better teamwork and allows me to anticipate the needs of my teammates. If I know another designer’s work will overlap with mine, I can be proactive in working together with them. It can be tempting and easy for designers to work in silos (I know how much we all like our heads-down time), but working to foster a culture of collaboration leads to a better product and a more effective team.
The list goes on, but these are the observations that have been most useful to my growth as a designer and teammate. Hopefully, no matter where you are in your career, they are a nice reminder for you as well.
A bit of a personal update: Last time I wrote for this blog, I had just accepted a full-time position as an associate product designer at Funsize. I’m happy to report that I’ve been promoted to product designer, thanks to some amazing opportunities and great coworkers who have helped me grow along the way. When I think about the past jobs I’ve had, the ones I liked most were because I got to work with awesome people. In pursuing the qualities and habits I’ve shared here, I’m trying to be that person for my team.
I'm Terri Lee, a designer, poi lover and podcast enthusiast from Austin.