Design is a Team Sport

In the early stages of web design and later UX design, designers typically flew solo. They were either freelancing or were the only designer in their team or even the whole company.

Tools of that era reflected this solitude – designers would create mockups in PowerPoint and hand them over to developers, complete with specs about paddings, spacings, alignments, etc.

This was the epoch of the “rockstar” designer — the individual that brought the magic and creativity to what was otherwise a dull, technical solution.

As the discipline matured, design teams began to form within companies, or designers found themselves part of wider product / engineering teams, or multidisciplinary squads. The career path of many designers often mirrors this transition; starting out with freelance projects before joining a team.

The skill set required for teamwork differs from working alone. It demands a bunch of soft skills such as active listening, empathising, negotiating, critiquing, gathering feedback, presenting, persuading, and selling.

One of the deterrents for designers in working within a team is navigating the politics, either within the team or the wider department or organisation. Designers, often creative and introverted, get energised by working alone. They might find small talk and the other social aspects of group work draining.

Nevertheless, the rewards of teamwork in design now outweigh the benefits of solo-working. Products have grown complex, and solving knotty usability problems or working within specific constraints demands a melding of minds.

Designers need various perspectives to make well-informed decisions. Colleagues — like PMs, engineers, sales reps, customer success managers, marketers, UX researchers and UX writers — provide insights on technical feasibility, branding guidelines, business priorities alignment, language choices, and a deep understanding of users.

Even our tools have transitioned to cater to this collaborative nature of modern design. Unlike the days of Photoshop and Illustrator, modern designers favour Figma, which is tailored for collaboration. Colleagues can review designs at all stages, make comments, or even create variations.

Working alone, you may hand over work you’re proud of, but what happens next? The feedback is often limited. In a team, your work typically gets richer scrutiny, from varied perspectives across departments. You gain the opportunity to advocate for design decisions that you feel are important for the user. You can monitor the performance of UX elements post-implementation.

Tips for Transitioning and Thriving in Teams:

  • Embrace continuous learning; stay updated with collaborative tools and best practices
  • Cultivate your soft skills, such as enhancing your communication, being open to feedback, and practicing empathy
  • Lean on experienced team designers for guidance
  • Nurture a culture of honest feedback and idea sharing
  • Welcome diverse perspectives and different viewpoints for innovative solutions
  • Embrace and invest in collaborative tools like Figma or Slack, which can significantly enhance team collaboration

The transition from individual designers to collaborative design teams signifies the evolution and the enriching of the UX design discipline.

If you’re starting out in design, or still early in your career and working as a freelancer, my advice is: don’t get left behind. Join a team, even as an intern. Learn to embrace the modern collaborative design spirit and gain the skills that only teamwork can provide.You’ll find that the quality and impact of your work is amplified.