This is not to say that designers need to always be working on screens together. Nor is this intended to be a counter-argument to embedding designers into cross-functional teams.
When designers and engineers sit together, they talk, they develop friendships, they become more understanding of each others craft, and ultimately they work together to communicate in similar languages.
What I mean when I say “designers work best in groups” is simply that designers work best when they have others to lean in on for support — especially if you’re the asshole tossing junior designers into deep waters…
Expectations are high.
Being the sole designer on a product seems to have become the expectation for junior-to-mid design roles (my anecdote).
This is insane.
What you’re asking of them is basically:
“Hey kid, or adult graphic designer who’s taken a boot camp on Product Design because graphic design salaries are often shit.
I know you’ve shipped either nothing, or a few things in your short life as a designer but I want to throw you into deep waters and see if you swim. Smooches.
Don’t hear me wrong; it can work.
It did work for me. I got fucking tossed off a cliff and into an ocean of agency work that I had no business being part of. Yet, somehow, I lobtailed my ass up like an orcha, breached for a hot second, and swam oddly.
But all to often tossing junior-to-mid designers into deep waters leaves inexperienced designers alone on an island in isolation with PMs, BAs, QAs and Engineers speaking a bunch of wild jargon that no one taught them in school.
They just get dropped off onto some foreign agile planet with a culture that has strange ceremonies like sprint plannings, retrospectives, grooming sessions, and daily-what-what-why-are-we-all-standing-around-pretending-there’s-a-campfire?
Most junior-to-mid designers lack confidence to speak up. They’re not trying to get fired so they’ll just sit there quietly — and for however long it takes — hoping to pick up on it.
And, sadly, that’s what they’re expected to do. All the while sitting alone on that island, feverishly sending SOS slack messages to a Design Manager who’s off somewhere in the ether likely trying to play firefighter and put out some legal explosion.
Like I said, it can work.
But so can growing up in a single-parent household — it doesn’t mean it’s awesome. Much like my path early on in design, I spent a lot of my childhood in isolation. I won’t go too far into the weeds on my upbringing but I was raised by a single mom (her name is Anna and she’s awesome).
She worked 2–3 jobs at any given time to ensure that I, at the very least, had spaghetti on the table every night.
I spent a lot of time alone — and I preferred it. But when it came time to interact with others, I was fucking mortified. It took me a long time to overcome the angst of having to communicate with others.
The correlation here is that it also took me a long time understand what it means to be a mentor. I spent quite a while on islands in isolation. I never really had anyone to guide me.
I quickly became good at doing. Eventually people started asking me to make more people that are good at doing. I was, once again, fucking mortified. I hated the idea of having to guide others to figure out how to accomplish something.
I’m still a work-in-progress but I’d like to think that, much like how the childhood version of my bearded self was able to befriend 13 year old assholes, I’m less anxious about guiding others.
Please; let designers lean on each other.
If you’re looking for experienced product designers to lead entire products alone, that’s fine. It sucks but I understand that budgets are a real thing.
Just hire a Senior Designer.
If your organization can support multiple designers on a product, then by all means sit them within a particular product team.
If your organization doesn’t have the resources to do such, it’s okay. If you have a mix of a couple of senior designers, and a few junior-to-mid designers all spread across multiple products — keep them close so that mid-to-senior designers get experience in mentoring, junior designers have the support of others to distill the right product experiences, and no one feels stuck on solo-designer product island.
Stay cute. Everyone. xoxo