Defining roles that defy definition

I went to an Ada’s list event a few days ago and someone asked me what kind of design I do. For a moment I had no idea what to say. I told her that my background is in graphic design and nowadays I eat and excrete digital. Working on a team in an agile environment definitely makes me stop to think about how I would classify myself as a designer now. If I even need to.

There is no creative director. There is no project manager. Everyone on the team has relatively equal responsibility and is expected to pick up the slack of anyone else’s parts. There is a non-linear flow that I started to click into this week – you connect with the person you need whenever a block arises.

Every project begins with strategy. In my MFA program at Pratt we spent so much studio time talking talking talking talking talking about our projects and their implications in larger contexts. At the time I wanted to spend more time making but I suppose it has prepared me for what’s next. I’m comfortable with living in conceptual space but at a certain point decisions need to be made and a strong direction needs to take shape. Things need to get made.

Friday night I went out with a friend who works as a fashion designer and he reminded me of the traditional notion of the creative director who ideates and dictates their vision in service of the brand. This model was passed down to many other disciplines including advertising, and in my experience that’s the structure I’ve worked within. 

One of my freelance projects recently was for a startup creating a scientific discovery platform, where my role was user experience and design. I also provided creative direction for the brand, looking at Mailchimp as an example of friendly and engaging tone of voice. In our case with Sparrho, the more the user interacts with the site by saving and sharing the more accurate the results will be, so the tone of voice of the site needed to be friendly and attractive to encourage interaction and extended use. Voice and tone is a great site created by Mailchimp to provide creative direction for their content creators. It provides a template for every type of messaging on the site, how to relay the service’s personality and make people feel “at home”.

I find that there’s a feeling of rootlessness and ambivalence in a design solution when there isn’t a strong creative direction. But in the digital product world there are many other factors that take priority, including user experience, service design, business objectives and technological feasibility. The “brand” is not necessarily prioritized before any of these things, and design direction is not prioritized either.

This seems to be the direction that our world is going in, no longer the one-sided advertising model with the brand as dictator convincing you of its greatness. Now all power is shifting to the hands of the consumer. The brand is simply a vessel to meet the needs of the people who will use it. There was a link going around from the Harvard Law blogs – a concept called vendor relationship management is being anointed as the new customer relationship management (CRM). The idea is that instead of getting people to talk about a product, you’re giving them the power to create and price it themselves.

On my team we rely heavily on something called service design, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what that is lately. I find it interesting that every time I ask someone to define service design I get a different answer. I asked someone the other day and they wedged it in between two other disciplines – “above” interaction design, and “below” strategy. Ok, well… Here’s wikipedia’s definition: “Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.” I like this definition but I think the job description changes for every project.

With web projects at large organizations there’s a whole ecosystem of stakeholders and wide array of networks that could help or hinder the project. The organizational work is almost more important than the actual project you are doing. If you can’t get past the most critical people it doesn’t matter how amazing your product is. 

That’s also why the incremental approach works really well. If you release prototypes in tiny increments you reduce the size of a potential failure. It helps to bypass large bureaucratic structures, and is also healthy for scrappy startups because there is little investment needed for each stage. I just started reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which forms the intellectual roots of this kind of approach.

Designers in an agile workflow have a huge responsibility. We need to think at three zoom levels: All the way out for strategy to pitch our work, medium zoom for creative direction and user experience, and zoomed all the way in for graphic design and details. When I’m really deep into a project and doing creative work my brain shuts off in a way, so it takes a moment and some strategic thinking to explain it to my colleagues and clients. I’ve never thought of our job as sales, but it so so so is and I’m trying to get better at it. We also – somehow – need to keep in mind everything that we’ve learned along the way from our users through the prototyping phases.

This job is going to be a much needed change of pace from my lone ranger lifestyle as an independent contractor, but I need to rework the idea of creative director passing along their genius for everyone to follow and fit it into my current process. The true design challenge will be working cohesively as a multi-disciplinary team and getting the job done.

Published by Elizabeth Pizzuti

Design, art, and cats mostly

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