I have a friend, let’s call him Walt. Walt is a true force in the design industry. If you’re in a certain narrow niche of design, you’ve heard of him. Walt was hired by a fancy place full of smart people who had world-changing ideas. They wooed him with big starry-eyed visions, and wowed him with state-of-the-art labs. When he got hired I was, I’ll admit, jealous. What a gig.
Walt put in his two weeks recently.
The people were dicks. They had him work too much.
Ideas, my ass.
Design is people.
You Had One Job
Sure, every workplace is people, but creative gigs are especially people. I always like to think of creative people as folks with their antennas sticking straight up. They are empathic and externally aware, hyper-observational and emotionally narcissistic, meaning that they are always aware of how they feel.
Companies that do not put a premium on the retention of good people blow my mind. Do you know how hard it is to find actually good people?
I know a few people who believe that 🌈 everybody can be a great designer✨!!1!
This is patently untrue. There are not only some people who cannot be great designers out there*, there are some bad designers out there. Some people are not talented. This may fly in the face of everything we may wish for in an egalitarian society, but it is the case. I don’t know why. It’s obviously not about anything about background or status. But it is the case.
If you happen to have Good Designers on your team, you have one job, my friend — keep them happy. Truly talented designers who are easy to work with are extremely rare.
By the numbers
There’s a pretty simple formula I use all the time when regarding team members:
(Aˢ) + (Nᶦ) / (Δ H) = level of designer
(Aˢ) = Ability to ship. Essentially, can this person meet a deadline with little complaint.
(Nᶦ) = New ideas. Is this person always thinking? Reexamining? Questions assumptions, either mine or their own?
(Δ H) = The amount of help a person needs from me, versus the amount of help they can give me. I love mentoring and helping people grow, it’s a real joy for me. But it does mean that much more of time is spent on that task, versus others. Team members who can help me out with the pile of things that always needs to be done on a small design squad are very valuable.
A person who can ship, who has new ideas, and can help me implement not only those new ideas, but other ideas, is extremely valuable to me, to the team, and to the company. I will literally walk through glass walls for people like that. Want me to dance a stupid dance? Will it cause you to turn down the recruiter from that FAANG company? How long do I have to dance, and should it be jazz or modern?
Vultures, vultures everywhere
Running a small design team in this demonic dystopian doom spiral of an economic system we call the tech industry has…challenges. Perhaps one of the largest is that there will always be another recruiter quietly pulling your designer aside and Worm-tonguing them with truly eye-popping numbers and sweet perks of working at a massive, society-crushing company.
We cannot compete with the numbers waved in front of potential recruits faces, and we know this. We make up for it by have a few key elements that we feel add some weight to our side of the spec sheet.
We care about each other.
Our healthcare is good, we’re remote first, we have paternity leave: all the things that would make Bernie Sanders happy. But maybe most importantly, the meta-narrative communicated by these perks is pretty simple: we care about you.
We trust each other.
Here’s a weird one! Not only are we Remote first, but we hire the best and then trust them to actually do the work when it makes sense to them. I don’t need to see a Doctors note to know that your kid got sick. You don’t need to check with me if you’re feeling low and need to take some time. I don’t care if you do your best work at 3AM which watching Fail Videos in your bed. You do you, man.
We like each other.
My team makes each other laugh all the time. We have silly nicknames, dumb memes, and light ribbings galore. People seem genuinely happy being with us. To me, that type of stuff is not “Nice to Haves”, although the CFOs of the world may ignore it. That stuff is the stuff that turns a stable company into a profitable company, and an agency that does acceptable work into an agency that does outstanding work.
There will be some people who will be wowed by the huge companies offering massive paychecks, and who will take that bait. I can’t judge them, but I will say I’ve known many people who take that leap and leave sooner than they would have thought, as every shiny object has a price. A large company isn’t going to know you as a full person, and there’s a trade-off in that agreement.
Take care of your people. They will take care of you, in return.
*I will forever hold that in a vacuum anyone can follow best practices to be a functional, shipping designer, but that the key ingredients that make a great designer (curiosity, creative-thinking and hard work) can’t be taught.