And those who specialize in it are more than just “meeting shields.”

“Neon sign reading YOU’LL GET IT EVENTUALLY in window that reflects building” by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

This article on the invision blog has good intentions, but is infuriating on so many levels. So much so, that I got out bed to write this. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been a producer / project manager / account executive for over a decade. I’ve done it across a number of industries including advertising, tech, finance and whatever you would classify my company as. I’ve worked with designers every day for the past 12 years. I’m also married to one. Oh, also, I AM ONE.

Why is the invision article so infuriating?

Not because the contents don’t ring true, I definitely align with a lot of what’s stated. There are two things, really, and they’re somewhat related. The biggest is the segregation continually manifested throughout the article (and thus in the real world) when speaking about people in operational positions as just that. And referring to almost everyone else in the org as the “Creatives.” We’re on the same team, and guess what, just because I get a kick out of spreadsheets doesn’t mean that I’m not also well versed in the realm of sketch or after effects.

The second thing that pisses me off about the article is the way it’s positioned.

It reads as an attempt to justify the existence of design operations to an audience of designers. Is there a bigger issue that we’re not addressing here? Perhaps.

So, what is design ?

It’s a division of people and tasks pertaining to the planning, management, and execution of responsibilities and design process in order to get shit done, whatever the task-at-hand may be, particularly in a design organization. In other industries, it’s sometimes referred to as project management, account management, and yes, even product management.

I first came upon term “design ops” in 2015. In my experience, it was a new title given to project managers at the design firm I was at in order to differentiate ourselves from the more general or technical PMs that existed elsewhere in the org after we were acquired by a much larger company. In actuality, we did similar things but with a different focus.

So what does a design ops person do?

  1. They ask questions and figure out wtf it is people soliciting design actually want. And then they make it happen. And sometimes (a lot of times) this requires an arduous process of pretending to be [insert client name / department / etc.]’s best friend — listening to them complain about all of the prior work coming out of the design department (and how their prior agency or cousin Caleb would do a better job at designing that “”). All that, in addition to making up excuses, playing dumb and providing assurances that things would be different this time around.
  2. They manage a ton of other things they don’t get credit for, like budgets, headcount, recruiting, retention, evangelizing design process, purchasing and maintaining legitimate file naming structures (because adding “v47” to the end of your sketch file doesn’t help anyone), taking notes that you will never read, AND DOING EVERYONE ELSE’S TIMESHEETS.

3. They design. Operational and business processes like project intake, staffing and resource allocations, spreadsheets, logistics, you name it. All of these things have to be well thought out, documented, tested and put in practice all with the objective of meeting the needs of the people involved.

Or, in summary, it’s not just going to meetings.

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What makes a person “good” at design ops?

  1. They are master facilitators and can navigate the people and the room in order to achieve the goals they set out to achieve. They create agendas when they have to, but are otherwise great at just winging it.
  2. They have fantastic memories AND can predict the future in order to mitigate risk. Process is mastered through repetition. They know approximately how long it will take every single person on their team to do things because they’re able to draw on past experiences. And also, because they do your timesheets.
  3. They know the output as well as you do. They can answer nearly every question a consumer of the design artifact may have about it, convincingly. They understand and can articulate the intention and actually care about design.

How can you collaborate with design ops (assuming you’re a designer person)?

  1. Involve them in your process. They might save you a ton of time reading all of those background docs and maybe even be able to answer all of those questions you’re too scared to ask about in your executive stakeholder interview. Hell, they might even know of the 15 other design projects with similar briefs that tried and failed, providing you my friend, with the advantage.
  2. Set expectations and communicate. Most of the time, if you tell us how you prefer to work and are consistent, we respect that. The worst thing you can do, though, is set your own timeline and then miss it.
  3. Do your own damn timesheets. And don’t lie, because we’ll know if you do.

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Some of the best Design Ops managers I know aren’t just PMP (Project Management Professional) certified. They’re illustrators, musicians, film makers, architects and strategists — they were once too, considered “Creatives.” Remember that the next time you forget how to login to webex.

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