Five tips for an empowered, productive design team

Grace Tai, the manager of the brand design team at Contentful, shares her tricks and tips to running an empowered and successful brand design team.
August 31, 2020

Grace Tai



Is there a team that toes the line between creative chaos and organizational precision more than a brand design team? Probably not. But if you're a brand designer or the manager of a design team, you already know that. You've probably spent the morning deep in a JIRA board while simultaneously trying to fix the wonky cover of the latest whitepaper.

As the manager of Contentful's growing brand design team, I thought I would share some tips and tricks to succeed as both a team member and designer. From encouraging Vulcan mind-melding to being friends with your freelancers, here's how I make it work:  

Empower co-workers to make design decisions 

Brand designers can't get a lot done if they're facing an onslaught of small requests coming at them from all sides. As a designer, you're probably very familiar with messages asking for this logo, or that header. While the time it takes to answer requests might seem insignificant, it can quickly eat up the hours in your day.  

Templates, component libraries, or a design system can work wonders in empowering your co-workers to make their own design decisions. Not only can people help themselves to the design assets they need (without hitting up your Slack), but you're also making sure no one strays too far from established brand guidelines. If you're a designer in a smaller team, start by giving people access to a library of your most used assets — logos are a great place to start.  

Trust, trust and, you guessed it, more trust 

There needs to be a strong element of trust between members of a design team. Whether it's between the in-house design team or with freelancers, everyone should feel empowered to make their own design decisions. As a designer, you should have the freedom to decide the creative direction. 

It's up to the manager or team lead to provide structure, remove blockers, and then step back to allow designers to do what they do best — design. 

New team member? The first 90 days matter 

Managers, whether your new team member is full-time or freelance, spend the first 90 days getting into the weeds with them. We're talking up-close-and-personal, new-best-friends kind of thing. Why? By really getting in their space, giving them a lot of feedback, and working to develop a relationship, you're building a foundation of trust and understanding. 

After those first 90 days, the groundwork will be there to release them to make their own decisions. At Contentful, we like to call this the Vulcan mind-meld. The Vulcan mind-meld is where I know what you're thinking, and you know what I'm thinking, and mutual understanding will be at a point where you'll feel empowered to go off and make decisions. 

If you're the team member who is getting the grilling, remember that this intense time of being in each other's faces will end in a much deeper understanding of what is expected of you — no ambiguity whatsoever. 

Make the most of your freelancers 

Not every company can have a large design team with members covering every area of expertise. And that's where freelancers come in. Freelancers can be valued members of your design team, even if they're just employed on an occasional or project-by-project basis. By integrating them into the team, you can create a more seamless workflow where freelancers can just jump right in without a lot of upfront prep work. 

Another thing: getting to know your freelancers on a deeper level can help draw out their areas of expertise. You'll know which person is the best fit for a project when it comes to assigning work.  

Document everything  

Keep track of everything. We've all had projects where you're halfway through and have to ask: "Wait a second, who is responsible for that?" The more documentation, the more transparency, which is good for everyone. Documenting everything means you won't have to re-explain the details of a project, checkpoints are visible to everyone, and everything necessary is in one place for people to check when required. Remember if you're thinking — "I'll remember that" — you probably won't. Write it down.  

Listen to the podcast and learn more about how Contentful empowers brand and marketing teams

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