Today we’re going to talk about design leadership. At some point in your design career it’s inevitable that you’ll be given the chance to lead and manage others — an opportunity that can be exciting for some people, and a challenge for others. This is what we’re talking about today — tips to help designers become leads, and advice for existing leads who want to improve. We’re glad to have Buzz Usborne today who has some experience in this area. He’s currently Lead Designer at Atlassian, previously Head of Product at Sendle, UX Director at Campaign Monitor & Design Lead at Skype. Before that he worked as a Digital Designer at agencies in USA, UK and Australia. You can find his incredible resumé here.
Hey Buzz, how are you doing? You joined Atlassian 4 months ago, how is it going?
Hey — I’m really well thanks! Yeah Atlassian is going great… it’s a huge team tackling some really big problems, so there’s definitely enough to keep me busy! It’s been a big shift for me too, moving from quite a small startup to one of Australia’s largest tech companies — but there are more similarities than I was expecting.
Any good tips for young designers who wants to join Atlassian? Yeah… apply! There are always heaps of jobs on the careers site plus there’s also a solid grad and internship program too — so lots of ways to get through the door. As with any job though, knowing someone in the team is the best way to get fast-tracked, so my advice to anyone looking is to come to a few events and make some friends!
Tell us a little bit about what the transition to Design Lead at Skype was like? Skype was actually my first job working directly for the client, before that I’d always worked at agencies — so the transition was definitely difficult in that respect. But I was extremely fortunate in having an amazing team and a few solid mentors around me at Skype to help cushion my transition. Working alongside and learning from the likes of Eva-Lotta Lamm (now Google) and Steve Pearce (now Global Head of Design at SkyScanner) gave me an excellent head start, I really appreciate how important those mentors were to my transition now. I was also lucky to join a team of designers who were amazing and passionate about their work, so my job was really just about helping them continue to do their best work.
You used to work for digital agencies, what made you change to work for tech companies? Yeah I’d spent about 6 years prior to Skype working for various digital agencies all over the world, which was a lot of fun and an incredible way to get exposure to lots of different elements of design. But as I got more senior, the more I craved a longer more iterative approach to problem solving — I wanted to work on solving customer-focussed problems that didn’t have an expiration date… which is what attracted me to tech. I still miss that agency mentality of working fast, and designing in a new style or medium every day — but the opportunity to work with amazing people to produce innovative customer solutions still keeps me the most interested today.
Can you tell us a bit about your design process? How do you work with other designers? Whether I’m working on something by myself, or with other designers, my process always starts with sketching (thanks largely to working with Eva-Lotta at Skype, who is a huge advocate of sketching). No matter how big or small, obvious or difficult the problem — I do my best work when I’ve done a heap of drawing first. I find it helps define the problem and gives me the ability to quickly iterate over a bunch of ideas without feeling too tied to any one approach. These days I find myself encouraging designers around me to do the same, which doesn’t always feel natural (especially when there’s a looming deadline), but it’s always proved to be a successful way to kick off any brief. When it comes to the execution I like to be as collaborative as possible — printing work out, gathering around a screen, going through sketches or research together — whatever it takes to get a shared sense of inspiration, urgency and motivation. Designers work their best when bouncing ideas off each other in an open and collaborative format, so that’s what I look for when building teams and processes. Aside from that, I spend a lot of my free time looking for inspiration in less obvious places, in an attempt to influence and inspire my day-to-day work. I spend a good amount of time on fashion, photography and architecture blogs — reading about psychology and physics — and gathering images of beautiful branding, packaging and typographic projects. I find that looking at the world through an unfamiliar lens and learning new things inspires me so much more than scouring pattern libraries or website showcases.
How do you balance management and design work? Yeah, personally I find management really tough. For me it’s about finding the right balance between enough structure to help designers do their best work, and the needs of the business. Sometimes that means making judgement calls that don’t seem in the best interest of design, for the sake of the business or the wider team — which is what I find to be the hardest. Ultimately I side with designers, so I really want to give my teams everything they need to be awesome — but sometimes it’s not that simple. Personally, switching off the manager part of my brain and getting lost in a piece of design, my true passion… that’s something I’m still working on!
What do you think are the key values of being a great Design Lead? I’ve only ever wanted to be the kind of manager that makes the people around them better at what they do. Whether that’s directly, by talking through an idea — or indirectly by providing the time and environment to do good work. I believe that’s the key to good leadership, especially with designers and creatives who are driven by passion, rather than a desire to rise through the ranks. At a more practical level I think a good manager is someone who shields their team from unnecessary distraction, gets the best out of individuals on their worst days, and fights for the best interests of the team. They’re largely invisible efforts, but are the measures I judge myself by.
How do you manage to take out time for side projects? Side projects, for me at least, are a way of satisfying that creative urge in times when perhaps my day job has required something else of me. So it’s not really difficult to find time, more a necessity. With Prevue, I find myself working best in 1 hour chunks — sometimes before work, other times at the weekend, but never at the cost of spending time away from the computer. I find it difficult to schedule time for side projects, but I’ve found recently that if I capitalize on the occasions when I’m feeling inspired to work, then I end up producing good things.
How do you collaborate with developers? Developers are problem solvers, just like designers — the only difference is that their medium is code. For me that’s the first thing to understand — so the key to collaborating is more a case of framing what problem you’re trying to solve, and working together on a solution. I also try to be as open minded as possible when working alongside a dev — I have a broad understanding of how code works, but recognizing that they’re the expert and allowing them time and space to produce something awesome is always important. Ultimately we’re all out to ship something awesome that satisfies a customer pain point, so finding common ground is the key.
Sketch or photoshop (or anything else)? Why? Haha, what a question… I’m probably not going to win any popularity points here! I’ve been using Photoshop for well over a decade — it works for me, I’ve never had any issues, and I’m fast… so that’s my preference. For me, Sketch lacks the fidelity you can achieve in Photoshop — which makes it a bit cumbersome for conceptual work, or developing a visual style from scratch. That said, Sketch is awesome for reusability and pattern-based work (perfect for big UI roll-outs of collaborative design), so these days the tool I use depends on the project I’m working on. I’m also a big fan of prototyping early — so getting something in HTML or as a click-through is preferable to pixel perfection. In my opinion there’s too much emphasis on software, and not enough appreciation that the best design solutions can’t be produced in static screens. I always told my designers that they can use whatever software they felt produced the best outcome — if that happens to be MS Paint, then go nuts!
Last word you want to tell our readers? Think beyond your role — know that by really understanding your audience, by feeling their anxieties, motivations and backgrounds — you’ll be able to produce better design solutions. It took me far too long to appreciate that good design is so much more than just pretty visuals, following industry trends, or looking at the competition — it’s about creating true customer value. Work on that, and you’ll nail any brief that comes your way. You can find more about Buzz here — thanks to him for his time and all the best for the future! Don’t forget to join our newsletter for more interesting design articles.