The day-to-day calendar and to-do list for early design hires at nascent startups and design leaders heading up mature orgs may look vastly different. But at the core, designers often struggle with many of the same stumbling blocks — fighting to bake design into the company recipe for success, rather than settling for sprinkles that are added as a flourish on top of the cake.
As design continues to mature and cement its status as a pillar in a company’s long-term architecture, there’s a double-edged sword to contend with. Design has fought for a booming, clear voice in the company’s end-to-end vision. But with that voice, a mountain of cross-functional work, process particulars and a calendar bursting at the seams with meetings comes with it. Before you know it, designers are too busy to design.
Enter a role that’s gaining steam in organizations at every stage of the growth journey: Design operations, tasked with crafting efficient workflows, optimizing design’s internal partnerships and creating functional growth that scales for the long term.
Here at the Review, we’re always on the lookout for roles that, although not widely recognized, may be the secret sauce your company is looking for (like this profile on fellow design function subset Growth Design). Sketching out the mandates for design operations has been on our editorial wishlist for a while now, so it was kismet when we came across Alison Rand, a DesignOps pro who’s long been tweeting, blogging and even podcasting about this amorphous discipline. Who better to serve as our trail guide for this trek?
Rand’s had a front-row seat to DesignOps’ vast transformation in just a short amount of time — before the function even earned an official title. She previously served as Director of Program Planning for Hot Studio (a design firm acquired by Facebook) and frog before taking on her first formal DesignOps role as Head of Design Operations for Automattic. Now, she’s Senior Director of Design Operations for InVision, a digital product design platform that builds collaboration tools for structured workflows, as well as providing education and community for product teams around the globe.
“My journey with design operations has really come full circle. I always laugh because at this point in my career I’m leading design operations for a DesignOps and collaboration platform — it’s so incredibly meta,” says Rand.
And while Rand spends her days immersed in the vast pool of design operations, she’s well aware that the discipline is still misunderstood. “There’s a lot of fogginess around the definition of design operations. It’s not dissimilar to the ambiguity around what it means to be the Chief of Staff,” she says. “At its simplest, it’s my job to make sure that companies are making the most of the incredible designers that they hire — their time, their skills and growth potential.”
Design as a function is really starting to mature in organizations of all sizes. It’s reached a tipping point where companies need to think about how they can scale their design process — and that’s the sweet spot for DesignOps to come in and make magic happen.
In this exclusive interview, Rand outlines what this role actually means and how it could be the boost you didn’t even know your company needed. But there’s a catch. This design function subset isn’t a pair of track spikes you can pop on your feet and take off running — the shoe’s got to fit. She’ll walk us through assessing your company’s own design maturity before outlining how to set your first DesignOps hire up for success. Whether you’re curious about adding this new discipline to your stable of leadership, or looking for operations best practices to lean on before adding any new headcount, Rand’s got plenty of frameworks to share.
“The definition I’ve honed over the years is that DesignOps builds a platform to enable design strategy and execution to work together in harmony,” says Rand. And as design’s footprint within a company grows ever-larger, that merging of vision and action has never been more critical. “It used to be that designers were mostly considered pixel-perfectors — brought in at the latest stages of product development. But we’ve seen a lot of evolution and maturity in this design thinking, and for many companies design now has a hand in every single step of the customer journey,” she says.
But with that widened scope, designers now face a vast slate of challenges, including:
Silos: “Although at most companies designers are expected to work closely with marketing, engineering and product teams, these departments are often completely independent from one another, without shared OKRs.”
Complexity: “Design tools and systems are wide ranging, ever-changing and increasingly complex — often resulting in bottlenecks. I’ve seen plenty of design teams that are reluctant to adopt developers’ processes and tools (like Jira). There are separate planning and tracking tactics and general misalignment across product, stakeholders and executives. That lack of quality assurance across development ultimately equals a poor customer experience,”
Career path: “Designers are often expected to wear innumerable hats — from creative leader, to producer, to project manager. That leaves little time to hone your craft. There’s also a lot of ambiguity around how organizations design the career paths for designers — if they even map them out at all.”
Strategic oversight: “Plenty of companies may say that design brings a strategic lens, but the reality shows that plenty of designers are purely in production roles. It’s all reactive — creating at the request of developers and product managers who lead strategy, rather than defining a direction for the product’s design at the ideation phase.”
The myth of the unicorn: “There’s a lot of nuance in different types of design roles that is often overlooked. Companies may be hiring for a visual designer, when what they actually need is a creative technologist. Or they might have a product designer that would be even better as a communication designer, but they aren’t tapping into those skills.”
These problems are particularly acute these days. “As companies’ digital transformations have been sped up so quickly by COVID-19 and the transition to remote work, the needs and desires to mature their design practices will be more pointed. There’s a tipping point here. When designers are managing all this process, they’re not actually designing — and they are going to become super unhappy,” says Rand. “If you want to remove those extra layers of process-management so your designers can focus on the craft, you’ve got to start thinking about the type of design operations person you could bring aboard.”
The goal of DesignOps is to look at these challenges end to end, and architect agile design systems and processes that can tackle them at scale. But before we dive even deeper, a quick point of clarification from Rand: “If I were to debunk the biggest misconception about design operations, it’s that it’s purely a project management role. Companies thinking of it that way and hiring that way are doing themselves a real disservice,” she says.
DesignOps can do so much more than keep projects on track. We think about the entire end-to-end experience of a designer — from recruitment, to onboarding, to role definition, to leveling and career path — plus the tools and processes we can arm them with to have the smoothest experience possible.
All this talk of design systems, processes and structure may make creatives at heart feel a bit itchy. It’s a reaction Rand has encountered plenty of times over the course of her career. “It’s a very misunderstood role, which can be frustrating. But it’s also an incredible opportunity to put our stake in the ground and say, ‘This is how we can help take your company to the next level,’” she says.
I’ll never forget when someone asked me, “Does DesignOps take the joy out of design?” That couldn’t be further from the truth — DesignOps brings the joy back into design, by enabling designers to focus on what they do best.
After spending the bulk of her career as a consultant, Rand kicked off her first in-house DesignOps journey at Automattic. Getting started, she armed herself with a playbook that gives us a bird’s-eye view of understanding the magic of DesignOps before we dive even deeper.
“I first tackled my new role by going on a massive listening tour across the organization — not just talking to every designer at the company, but all the cross-functional partners. I had my own ideas about what I wanted to shift, but first I needed to level-set on what was working and what wasn’t. I was conducting my own design maturity assessment,” she says.
You can’t take what everyone says at face value — more often than not, they think they’re halfway through the race, but they’ve barely crossed the starting line.
Next, she compiled the notes from her listening tour and highlighted common themes, breaking down the next steps into the People, Practice, Platforms design management framework. (She’s gone in-depth on this over on her Medium page if you want to really dig in here.) “DesignOps’ purview is massive — what I love about this framework is that it boils it down to operations’ most essential elements. You’ve got to start somewhere,” she says.
People: “I think about the entire experience of a designer, from recruitment, to onboarding, to role definition, to leveling and career path. I scrutinize the authenticity of the talent brand, as well as what diversity, equality and inclusion actually look like in the day to day,” she says. More tactically: “To address concerns around career development, we built out Personal Professional Missions for each of our designers and established a centralized partnership model for all of Automattic’s designers. We implemented discipline-specific Communities of Practice areas that covered the full breadth of our design talent, including Product Experience, Creative Technology and Emotional Design.”
Practice: “I consider each aspect of the production realm, including your traditional program and pipeline management, capacity planning, budgets and annual planning,” says Rand. “We established our Design Principles and developed OKRs that explicitly map back to those principles, lighting the way for our designers to look to clearer priorities and how they relate to our product objectives. We also created a weekly Visual Status meeting, fostering cross-functional partnership by reviewing work early and processing feedback together.”
Platform: “This includes the infrastructure around staffing, contracts and measurement and thinking about the design systems, like a Center of Excellence, that gets you closest to your customers,” she says. “We grounded ourselves in customer research and empathy for users — and more importantly, bringing that lens to the product roadmap so it gets put into practice. This is aligned to the Four Planets of Design: Discover, Hypothesize, Deliver and Listen.”
“To be clear, there were a ton of iterations along the way, and in total this process took close to a year to put together,” says Rand. But it’s worth it to be patient. “It’s about recognizing that the habits and frameworks you put in place now will become how your company does business for years to come. If those are bad habits, it’s going to take years to unlearn and break them. The sooner you institute these tenets of good design hygiene, the stronger your company will become.”
Like any change-management process, integrating DesignOps into a company is a game of inches.
Deeply embedded in the world of DesignOps for her role for InVision, Rand estimates that there are now over 800 design operators in the industry — and that number keeps rising. But that doesn’t mean all the ambiguity surrounding the role has lifted. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with recruiters who reach out to me just to get a better understanding of the role they’re hiring for. All these open recs are coming in for DesignOps, but the business hasn’t really defined what that means — so recruiters are lost,” she says.
If you look even closer, there’s more to it than simple miscommunication between hiring managers and recruiters. “Time and time again I’ve seen companies or hiring managers expect that just upping the manpower will tackle the problem. They think, ‘Oh, if I want to level up design, I’ve just got to hire more people. But more people does not mean better collaboration — in fact, it’s usually the opposite.”
Maximizing design’s potential is not about throwing bodies at the problem, it’s about understanding the problem to solve and solving it intentionally with the right collaboration models and structured workflow.
Before sitting down to craft a job description, ask these questions first. If you’re seeing plenty of ‘yes’s,’ you may benefit from this new hire:
Are your designers and design leaders so taxed with process work that they’re less focused on craft and delivery?
Are design leaders in the room where big decisions happen?
Are you experiencing increased designer turnover?
Are you expecting design to be your company’s competitive advantage?
There’s one more assessment that Rand believes is most important of all — although the answer requires some soul-searching. “At the heart of it, design and change are inextricably tied. When you’re trying to become a more mature design organization, that means fundamentally changing the way you operate.”
If your company only cares about design from a pixel-pushing and ship-only mentality — and is not ready to change that mindset — you’re not ready for DesignOps.
“There’s no shame in admitting that you have a problem but not being quite ready to tackle it yet. Self-awareness has got to come first,” she says.
But Rand’s seen plenty of companies where this mindfulness delta is quite wide — and she’s got research to back her up. In 2019, InVision released The New Design Frontier report, a survey of thousands of companies exploring the relationship between design and the business as a whole. The study (the largest-ever conducted in the design space) categorized companies in five levels of design maturity, from Level One at the most basic (about 40% of the companies surveyed), with designers solely in a production-based role, up through Level Five companies, where design is firmly rooted in the entire business strategy (only 2% of companies surveyed).
“What we’ve seen from the research is most companies overestimate how mature their design function is. They say that it’s a major part of the strategy and decision-making, but once you dig into the details, those assertions really fall apart,” says Rand. (InVision also offers a product based on the survey, which allows companies to measure their own maturity against the model.)
Some might associate DesignOps with robust, well-established design practices, like Airbnb and Spotify. But Rand believes that startups big and small can tap into this functional group’s power. Circling back to her earlier point, it’s not simply about which companies have invested more in design from a headcount perspective — in fact, InVision’s research shows that Level One companies employ more designers on average than Level Five companies do, at 30 and 15 designers respectively.
“I may be belaboring the point, but if there’s one thing I want people to take away it’s that you can’t solve this problem just by adding more people when your cross-functional partners aren’t on board to go on this change journey together. It’s about adding the right people at the right time and arming them with the tools they need to move the needle,” she says.
But if you’re ready to start scaling the mountain the right way — slowly, methodically and with the right gear — here’s what to expect from your first hire.
When you hear “operations,” you’re likely conjuring up spreadsheets, budgets and analytics — but look under the hood, and there’s much more than meets the eye. “The design role of operations is relational — how does one build really strong relationships across an organization? It’s not something that happens overnight, and you’ve got to be comfortable working through some inevitable friction,” says Rand.
I always say that hard skills are table stakes — it’s the soft skills that set incredible DesignOps leaders apart.
She outlines the unique mix of hard and soft skills the best DesignOps hires bring to your org:
The People Person: “Relationships are so crucial to successful outcomes for both design and DesignOps. They’ve got to bring stakeholders together to clearly understand the problem and align on the desired outcome.”
The Innate Leader: “Look for someone who is willing to do the work to set up the team for success. Fostering a cohesive culture is a fundamental part of the DesignOps role — that culture will make the team feel comfortable working with shared processes and standards.”
The Scientist: “The best DesignOps leaders are masters of data-driven design. They have sophisticated practices for analytics, experimentation and measuring the success of specific efforts.”
The Visionary: “Ultimately, what separates the most mature design organizations and DesignOps leaders apart are their understanding of business strategy and prioritization. Everything else trickles down.”
It’s a unique blend of skills, and with this growing discipline still relatively in its infancy, it’s unlikely that when you publish a job posting for DesignOps, you’ll have all sorts of folks with that exact background and title banging down your door. If you’re looking for pointers on how to spot the right design hire, Rand’s got some tips here, too:
“I’ve never hired anyone with a traditional project management background for a DesignOps role,” she says. “Find people who have related competencies, are systems thinkers, or have worked in adjacent fields such as social sciences, mechanical engineering, and even neuroscience. You’re looking for someone with the ability to make an altitude adjustment at any given moment, and the ability to see something through from end to end, as well as systems thinking and execution.”
She underscores that for an unconventional role, letting go of the more conventional parameters is essential. “Try not to get caught up in the traditional paths — while there are some schools that are just beginning to train in design management, life skills are exceptionally important in being able to build trust, foster collaboration and lead with curiosity towards a common goal,” says Rand. “I once hired an MIT grad with a Mechanical Engineering degree for our internship program, because she was amazing at understanding the individual components that make up a system as a whole.”
The right DesignOps hire has a resume that shows a drive to solve complex, discrete problems — not any exact title or work history.
When it comes to interviewing, in addition to leaning on questions that probe this special cocktail of hard and soft skills, invest the time to create an exercise for candidates to complete. “In the past, I’ve created a case client or request for proposal (RFP) problem to solve and gave the candidate up to two hours to come up with a plan and present it to a cross-disciplinary panel of interviewers,” says Rand. “It’s easy for candidates to talk about how they operate in a certain way. But you’ll never know if someone can walk the walk without working through a project together. You can’t fully appreciate a candidate’s problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills just by scanning a resume.”
“Joining a company as the first hire in any discipline is super overwhelming. It’s like being given the final destination where you want to go — without any directions or vehicle to get you there,” she says. Rand’s found comfort and clarity in Walt Disney’s triumvirate model of creative leadership: the Dreamer, the Realist and the Critic.
The Dreamer presents a vision for the future as it could be, and pushes the boundaries beyond what others may see. They focus on the what.
The Realist considers the dreamer’s vision within a logical planning style. They focus on the action plan and the how of the idea.
The Critic probes the barriers of bringing the idea to life. They suss out the weak points and the logic behind the vision, and ultimately consider the why.
“There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all here, but I’ve found that DesignOps, like any operations role, most often falls into the realist role. You believe in the vision, and you’re laser-focused on how to bring it to life,” she says. “You’ve got to be the voice of the customer — in this case, your customer is the company’s designers.”
But in signing on as an org’s first DesignOps hire, there will be times that you’ll need to play all three roles at once. “The field is still so new and growing in massive ways. You’ve got to bring that dreamer vision of how design can flourish at the company, tap into ideas for how to make it happen, and you’ve got to keep an eye on the minefields that might stand in your way,” says Rand.
Her prescription is to root yourself in the core principles of change management and start building momentum. “Begin with a massive listening tour across the company, and then narrow your focus to a small group. Figure out the partners that are excited to work with you and believe in your potential. Bring in some folks who are skeptical. Map the high risks areas for failure,” she says.
Next, look for an early win — a relatively small area with great potential for impact that can ripple outward. “I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but when you join a company and see all of this fertile ground for change, it can get difficult to spot the forest for the trees. Start building those change muscles by identifying one foundational area that can make a big impact and get the ball rolling,” she says.
Her suggestion for where to kick things off? “Talent capacity planning is a great place to start here. Most product-driven organizations don’t really know who’s working on what — and more importantly, how that ladders up to the broader company goals and roadmap. If you start mapping out what work is needed and who is available, you’ll get a much clearer understanding of where you stand on a design maturity basis, and how securely design is interwoven into the fabric of the company.”
On the hunt for some inspiration as you start your journey into the vast DesignOps landscape? Rand’s recommends a few guideposts that have caught her eye:
Pinterest: “They’ve done a great job of championing design operations from day one and evolving the team around employee and customer experience. They’ve gone back to first principles on what culture design actually means and how that’s all related to the end-user experience.”
USAA: “The Chief Design Officer, Meriah Moulton-Garrett, brings a strong design-led thinking lens. I love the fact that they also have data analytics within design operations. It’s so much about that crystal ball peering into the future — to evolve DesignOps even further, you need to prove the impact and results on the bottom line. It’s got to be quantifiable.”
DesignOps Summit: “Rosenfeld Media hosts a DesignOps summit every year that’s a can’t-miss event if you’re interested in learning more about the discipline and getting started. In the meantime, you can also join their DesignOps community.”
DesignOps Assembly: "This super-active Slack channel is run by two rockstar DesignOps leaders Meredith Black (formerly of Pinterest) and Elyse Hornbacher (Facebook). It’s where the conversation is at!”
For those companies that aren’t yet ready to make the leap towards a dedicated DesignOps team, that’s no reason to completely put this on the backburner. “Not every company is at the point of dedicating headcount to DesignOps. But the habits that you build around design — the vision and strategy, business objectives, cross-functional work, career planning, prioritization and mapping back to OKRs — you’ve got to get that right. Otherwise, by the time you do decide to bring on DesignOps, they will be so underwater that it will take many, many months to move the needle. It’s like stretching and warming up before a big workout — you’ll save yourself a lot of pain later,” she says.
To start fostering collaboration and harmonious cross-functionality early on, Rand advises a few key tactics to borrow from her playbook:
Visual Status: “I learned this from Meredith Black, who was the Head of Design Operations at Pinterest. It’s as simple as meeting once a week for about an hour, and reviewing all of the cross-product design work so that everyone has a better understanding of how the work is connected (or not). The important point here is that you’re also inviting cross-functional leadership to the table so you’re looking at the work together. It’s a critical moment in time on a weekly basis where you’re establishing process and rigor around reviewing design work — no DesignOps pro required.”
Advisory Council: “A design advisory council is a small group that consists of multiple cross-functional partners — and it doesn’t have to be just leadership. You should bring together people from all different levels. This is the group where you throw out crazy ideas and experiment and get feedback. I also strongly advise bringing in folks where you tend to have the most friction.”
Structured Communication: “Build a communication strategy that you can wash, rinse and repeat over and over again. Establish that effective frequency and the right channels to communicate what design team members are doing. We did this for the InVision design system, Helios. We implemented it and orchestrated a road show to build buy-in. Once we got that, we put it into our Design System Manager, where it now lives and is accessible to all. To borrow an advertising concept of ‘effective frequency’ — how many times does it take the consumer to get the message before it sinks in? This will vary from company to company, but start trying out different ideas and see what sticks.”
Looking beyond the processes to make design’s job easier — not harder — requires carefully considering career planning for designers long before a DesignOps leader joins the org. “There’s a huge risk when organizations overlook this. At the core of what design is, ideally it’s human centered. We care deeply about the human experience with our products and our brand, yet we forget about this work in our own internal design teams. That’s why I was attracted to joining Invision — this is exactly what the company is out to solve.”
If we’re not remembering that our user experience and our employee experience are inextricably tied, then we’re thinking about things in the wrong way.
“More than ever, it’s such a competitive market for good designers. Offering remote work or good benefits is not going to be enough to hang on to the brightest stars. It’s about the growth opportunity,” says Rand.
To get started, she suggests you borrow from her own playbook and put together Personal Professional Missions for your company’s designers. “We look at three key areas — what they love to do, what they’re doing now, and what the company mission is. We’re looking for the closest alignment between what they love to do and what’s best for the company,” she says.
“Stay intentional about how you’re growing and developing your people, because when people feel like the company’s invested in them and they have an opportunity to grow, you’ll get a whole new level of commitment from those folks,” says Rand.
She’s hitting on an important point where a lot of companies — from small upstarts to large enterprises — continue to struggle. Not every person wants to be on the fast-track to management or leadership. How are you supporting and growing your employees that want to be the organization’s subject matter experts?
“I call it nurturing two tails — there are the folks who want to dial into their craft. There’s still a ton of responsibility that comes with elevating that craft, but you don’t have the responsibility of managing people — I liken it to a fellowship,” she says. “And then there’s the folks that want to manage people — either because they’re really passionate about it, or they think it’s just the traditional path to company leadership. It’s super important to recognize that those are two distinct paths. One is no better than the other, and they both contribute massively to your organization in completely different ways.”
If your only definition of employee growth and development is moving into management, you’ll never develop the passionate experts you need to set your company apart and win market share.
Whether you’re ready to dedicate headcount to this up-and-coming discipline and supercharge your design org, or just getting started integrating some of these principles, Rand urges everyone’s least favorite virtue — patience. “Integrating design as part of the business strategy takes time — but it’s worth it,” she says.
“Don’t just hang your hat on crushing it on a few projects. Remember that if you want to evolve how design operations functions at your company, it takes careful orchestration throughout the entire organization —not just a one-off victory,” she says.
Rand’s fired up about the strides DesignOps has made just in the past few years since she took on her first official Head of DesignOps role, but she’s eager to see what the future holds.
“I worked with visionary design leader John Maeda at Automattic. He was interviewed for Fast Company and the headline was ‘In reality, design is not that important.’ He got so much Twitter hate for that! But in a way, he’s right and I totally understand what he was saying,” she says. “Engineering, product and design should be a three-legged stool, but often we don’t act like it. Everybody thinks their leg is more important. We need to chip away at that protectiveness and understand that it’s not about any one discipline, it’s about the customer.”
She closes us out with a prediction that’s got us keen to keep tabs on DesignOps for years to come: “I’ll stake my claim that I think the future state of the design operations role will be a blended capacity of EDP ops or CX ops, sitting together in the org chart. At the end of the day — and what’s best for the business — is less focus on the individual design discipline and instead truly centering around collaboration in service of the most cohesive customer experience.”
Photography by Michael George.