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Field Notes From a Cross Functional Design Team

Collage illustration showing hands with pencils drawing in old-fashioned and cutting-edge styles.

I started my career in media in brand design working in entertainment, at first designing main titles and graphics for television shows which eventually led to me creating brand identities for the very companies that made those shows. Back then, television design teams worked in two areas: “on-air” which was what you saw on screen and the less glamorous “off-air” which handled any design work, print or otherwise, that didn’t appear on the channel. It was considered a relatively big idea and a strain to work collaboratively, so we didn’t. Before we knew it, the web came along and created a whole new front that nobody in television really understood—so it wasn’t prioritized. Our companies’ unwillingness to accept this new frontier led to digital work being siloed from us

Today’s modern media organizations work across many more disciplines of design and now I lead such a multi-disciplinary team at Vox Media. We make products, design editorial and advertising experiences on those products, create new brands and translate existing ones to new experiences both on the web and out in the world. In many ways we find ourselves in another new frontier exploring what cross functional design truly requires as it continues to evolve.

Optimizing these practices across teams is a challenge that increasingly speaks to the state of modern media as an experience. Done well, the digital consumer experience is a seamless knitting of all of these design functions coming together.

From a leadership perspective this can all seem very chaotic and complicated, but it also gives us a unique vantage point to see shared problems and learnings across teams. At Vox Media, we are fortunate to have the space where the teams building the ad products can learn from those designing the ads and vice versa. We have product designers that can give graphic designers perspective on a logo design with an eye towards accessibility. Brand designers can influence our design systems by offering input on what expressions brands need on and off platform. Some of the best outcomes happen on projects that require direct collaboration between disciplines.

One area where we’ve honed in on this is our new software as a service business for our proprietary publishing platform, Chorus. This process involves not only migrating all the content (video or otherwise) onto Chorus but often requires improving both their brand and user experiences. We recently launched Deseret News, one of Utah’s legacy local newspapers, onto Chorus. At the same time, our brand designers helped implement a relaunch of their identity and helped guide them on how to best express their new brand on Chorus.

We looked for opportunities to bring their new identity to life by leveraging the customizable masthead component in Chorus, adding new branded navigational elements, and even creating a custom drop cap font. This all had to sync with the product designers work to extend and create new components and required close collaboration with our product engineers who would vet the brand designer’s proposed solutions.

I have many hard won lessons I’ve learned from being a leader across all of these teams playing a game of three-dimensional chess together. I’ll admit, some days it brings me to my knees, but it always reminds me of how much more exciting it is to work in media these days. I hope this helps other design teams to continue to work in new innovative ways and push media into its next frontier.

Create a common vision

At Vox Media Design we realize that the work we do not only reaches a lot of people but has the potential to influence media in general, and we have committed to a number of principles that stress ambitious, ethical and responsible design and that help our industry chart a course toward the future.

Lofty as that may sound, it provides inspiration and a common north star so that of any discipline feel a shared sense of purpose. It also makes our work better. Not surprisingly our principles emphasize collaboration and respect as well.

Hire designers with multiple skill sets

More and more we’re seeing designers come to the table with multiple skill sets—brand designers who know a bit of code, product designers who are also strong visual designers, graphic designers who have migrated to motion. A well rounded background is an asset in cross functional problem solving as it speeds up collaboration, creates empathy and builds those bridges of common language.

Commit to diversity and a culture of inclusion

This isn’t only about doing the right thing—even though it is—it also adds another layer of cross functionality to a team. We design for a diverse set of audience members, and cultural awareness and empathy play such an important role in understanding our audience as part of our design process. Having designers who can share their own perspectives provides space for the experts on a variety of experiences who can lead us to the best solutions for everyone.

It’s difficult to put together a successful diversity and inclusion agenda by oneself. Perhaps saying that leadership efforts in this area need to be inclusive is too reductive. My perspective is always going to be clouded by my own experience which is skewed one way or another. What I can do is create a safe space where those conversations can happen and where as many voices can be heard as possible. It’s always best to listen first and foremost and always be open to feedback or alternative points of view. When leaders are not hearing from teams about this subject, I’ve learned that it’s a sign we probably need to do more to create that safe space.

Speak multiple design languages

Collaboration is not just about aligning process. Sometimes the barriers live below the surface in the very roots of our communication. There are many subcultures within design. If you’ve ever attended a traditional AIGA event you will know that the audience and topics feel vastly different than what it is like to attend a conference like An Event Apart. The first step in understanding each other is realizing that we even have differing languages. Once we’ve established that we use terminology differently, we can begin to form our own shared definitions together. For example, a brand team’s idea of a design system is vastly different than the design systems that our product designers make. The awareness alone helps us bridge the gap between teams and brings us closer together. I always start with the assumption that each design team doesn’t authentically understand how the other works—and from there allow those teams to define among themselves a shared vocabulary.

Keep striving

This stuff is hard and we will occasionally take hits for the process being bumpier than it should. I’ve learned that it never really is perfect and like the quicksand that the media industry is built on, it is also constantly changing. It’s not worth stressing when these things happen. Education and learning is a much better use of that energy. Design can sometimes be a black box to the rest of our organizations so part of my role as a leader is to also help my partners understand the challenges and seek feedback as often as I can.

In the background there are always best practices that can improve team health and create an environment where collaboration is more likely to thrive than to fail. Many of these have been written, but they bear revisiting every so often. The key takeaway I have found is to push really, really hard to make these best practices solidified on all of my teams. I work to empower my teams to hold themselves accountable to being cross functional as well. None of these ideas have impact without a sustained and unrelenting commitment.

Celebrate collaboration

If you’ve done all these things don’t forget to celebrate the successes that appear when this cross functional pairing happens seamlessly. In our monthly design all hands meetings we save time to give shout outs to designers working successfully together across the design org, on the very basis of their collaboration. Collaboration itself is a worthy end goal and worth celebrating.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in media these days, and I know that my hard work of building a high performing cross functional design organization is far from over. What we know for certain is that the products and experiences we create can no longer be designed in a vacuum.

At Vox Media we are fortunate to work in a company culture that strongly emphasizes collaboration. We fundamentally understand that cross functional design is essential to get the future right of modern media experiences and we continue to push ourselves.

Onward.


Thank you to Katie Kovalcin and Laura Holder for their edits.

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