A Field Guide to DesignOps
Micah helps businesses craft meaningful connections through branding, illustration, and design.
DesignOps is a mindset that frees designers to focus on problem-solving rather than administrative duties like managing workflows and libraries. The DesignOps mindset informs design-centric roles that facilitate creative excellence. DesignOps staff orchestrate processes and toolsets, develop design team culture, and ensure that design is an integral part of organizational strategy.
The term “DesignOps” is a takeoff of DevOps, a collaborative approach to software development and systems administration that prioritizes speed, efficiency, and automation. Like DevOps, DesignOps emphasizes efficiency. Its primary focus is to ensure that designers are free to concentrate on craft, thereby allowing design to have greater organizational impact.
Unfortunately, many designers are pulled into administrative duties like maintaining design systems or communicating design workflows to other departments. The role of DesignOps staff is multifaceted:
- Empower designers to produce at a high-level by coordinating design team processes and toolsets
- Foster interdepartmental relationships by raising awareness of design team goals and methods
- Enable design to scale without sacrificing productivity or design team dynamics
What exactly is the DesignOps mindset? How can organizations begin their DesignOps journeys? And, once established, how can DesignOps teams reach greater levels of maturity?
DesignOps Is a Mindset
In an ideal world:
- Design teams wouldn’t exist in isolation
- Mundane tasks wouldn’t burden designers
- Engineering (and other departments) would be eager to collaborate
But in reality, large organizations are complex entities full of moving parts, maddening bureaucracy, and mixed agendas.
DesignOps confronts complexity with structure and flexibility. It’s not a standardized formula or a rigid set of rules and tools. It’s a mindset. Granted, DesignOps staff establish practices and processes, but only after addressing organization-specific questions like, “How can we…”
- Grow and evolve our design team over time?
- Attract and retain highly skilled design talent?
- Create design processes and systems that balance efficiency with quality?
- Measure and improve design output at regular intervals?
- Build lasting cooperation between design and other departments?
- Ensure design is an essential aspect of company strategy?
At big organizations, such questions are especially pressing. To stay organized and on target, many companies rely on strict internal governance. The intention is order, but more often than not, the outcome is stagnation, or anti-innovation, a digital-age deathblow.
8 Tips for DesignOps Solo Staff
Enthusiasm for design is greater than ever, yet many leaders don’t know how to implement design holistically within their companies. Nor do they understand how to scale design teams skillfully. Design gets budget, but it doesn’t function to its full potential because designers are pulled in multiple directions or excluded from decision-making.
At this stage, one of two things happens. Someone decides to champion DesignOps and its corresponding duties, or someone recognizes the need for a design facilitator and makes a hire. Either way, a DesignOps team-of-one is born.
This is a critical juncture. How can a single person in a vast organization orchestrate the people, processes, toolsets, and impact initiatives that make design successful?
1. Build and Nurture Relationships Above All Else
Solo staff can’t prosper without knowing the people, problems, and goals in their organizations. If there’s no relationship, there’s no trust.
2. Document Conversations and Meetings, and Prioritize the Takeaways
Any role with “Ops” in the title will be bombarded with requests, many of which will have nothing to do with design. Document everything and consider affinity mapping to help identify recurring needs and ideas.
3. Establish a DesignOps Backlog and Rank Entries for Relevance
Solo staff can only do so much. Some ideas (even good ones) will need to wait for a later date but shouldn’t disappear altogether.
4. Align With Company Goals and Strategies
Areas of alignment might not be apparent, and there may be goals and strategies in need of adjustment to better include design. But whenever possible, design (and therefore DesignOps) should strive to be in unison with company objectives and processes.
5. Learn About Strategies for Implementing Change Within Organizations
There are proven models to introduce change within organizations. Each has its strengths, drawbacks, and philosophical views. For instance, Lewin’s Change Model posits that organizational shifts occur in three stages:
- Unfreeze: Prepare the company for the changes to come.
- Change: Help the company embrace new attitudes and actions.
- Freeze: Formalize and document the updated principles and processes that govern the company.
6. Communicate the Value of Design at Every Turn
Don’t assume that people appreciate the value of design. Explanations, presentations, and conversations devoid of clear value propositions tied to business goals are wasted opportunities.
7. Avoid Taking on Too Much Responsibility
Under commit, over-deliver. Don’t be overeager to say yes to every request and new initiative, and weigh the risk before jumping into long-standing company conflicts.
8. Remain Patient and Positive, and Anticipate Gradual Change
DesignOps solo staff shouldn’t expect to change company culture overnight. Celebrate small victories and don’t dwell on the inevitable setbacks. Organizational inertia is difficult to redirect. It’s not impossible, but it does take time.
DesignOps Mile Markers
There’s no single way to grow DesignOps within an organization. It’s best to think of DesignOps development as an iterative process rather than a linear one. The needs of designers and organizations aren’t fixed. They’re dynamic.
That said, there are some key mile markers on the path between no DesignOps presence and a well-oiled DesignOps team.
Stage 1: Save Time With Systems
Once there’s support for DesignOps within a company, it’s not always necessary to establish a new role. It may be beneficial to formulate a DesignOps vision to guide its implementation.
During this transitional phase, many companies begin systematizing design. Often, this looks like a design leader partnering with a dedicated design-team member to create visual guidelines and component libraries. Systematizing saves time by equipping designers with reusable assets and repeatable logic to solve recurring design problems.
Stage 2: Assemble a Collaboration Force
Systemization is essential, but it’s only one aspect of DesignOps. Even robust design systems can be siloed. It’s time to collaborate and gain support from stakeholders outside of design.
A DesignOps task force, sometimes called a “tiger team,” is a cross-functional group composed of leaders from departments like design, engineering, and marketing. Members meet semi-regularly to open lines of interdisciplinary communication and work towards shared, design-related goals.
Task forces are useful because they combine the problem-solving abilities of people from diverse professional backgrounds.
Stage 3: Find a DesignOps Diplomat
For DesignOps to flourish, companies eventually need to hire someone whose sole aim is empowering design and promoting the DesignOps mindset. This person works with the design team to understand their challenges and introduce processes and resources that improve productivity.
Whoever holds the role must exhibit diplomacy to ensure ongoing cohesion between design and other departments.
Stage 4: Hire Staff To Bolster Operations and Culture
With a dedicated DesignOps hire established, additional staff is needed to support the growing DesignOps workload. Here, approaches differ. Some companies enlist an operations manager to coordinate design staffing, budgetary, and resource needs.
Other companies may appoint someone to cultivate a design-team culture that attracts and retains high-caliber talent. This person oversees the customs (onboarding, performance reviews, advancement paths) that give design staff a sense of purpose and motivation.
Stage 5: Manage Interdepartmental Workflows
There isn’t a “final” stage of DesignOps maturity. The DesignOps mindset requires ongoing vigilance to ensure that design team needs and company objectives are met. However, there may come a time when it’s beneficial to employ a person who manages the workflow between design and other departments, particularly engineering. The intention is to maintain cohesion between design and other functions as they move towards common goals.
DesignOps Energizes Problem Solving
While many companies value and invest heavily in design, non-designers in leadership may not know how to scale design or incorporate it into broader initiatives. Without DesignOps or similar facilitative roles, design teams in large organizations risk being overwhelmed by distractions and detached from other departments. Processes dovetail, toolsets grow unwieldy, and the resulting confusion causes product inconsistencies that yield internal strife and user pain points.
The DesignOps mindset recognizes the need for harmony between processes, toolsets, and the people who use them. Companies will differ in approach and needn’t be dogmatic about implementation. Diverse structures can be successful so long as they embrace the core conviction of DesignOps: designers need time to do what they do best—solve problems.
Let us know what you think! Please leave your thoughts, comments, and feedback below.
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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
Understanding the basics
What is DesignOps?
DesignOps is a mindset that seeks to free designers and design teams from administrative tasks, like file management, so that they can focus on creative problem-solving. DesignOps staff orchestrate design processes and tools and work to ensure that design aligns with organizational goals.
How do you manage a design team?
There are several models for structuring and managing design teams, but design leadership is the most crucial factor for success. Effective design leads don’t merely hand out instructions to their team members; they must develop junior staff, uphold design quality, and advocate the value of design internally.
How do you scale a design team?
Scaling a design team isn’t as easy as hiring more designers. If there’s no plan for addressing team structure, processes, tools, and culture, adding staff causes design teams to become slow and inefficient. DesignOps orchestrates these concerns and ensures they align with company goals and strategies.
What does a design system consist of?
Nearly all design system models house a combination of style guidelines and interface components. Since design systems are the single source of truth for digital products, many contain code examples for development teams. It’s important to host design systems in a shared location that diverse departments can access.
What is operational design in business?
Much like DesignOps, operations design focuses on standardizing business processes, toolsets, and initiatives. The goal is to help diverse departments move towards common goals using shared methods and terminology. Similarly, DesignOps seeks to integrate design into every aspect of organizational thinking.