What makes a successful design team?

Elmwood group chief executive David Godber has worked client-side, in-house and for agencies. He talks to us about what he thinks makes a successful design team.

David Godber

What makes a successful design team?

Firstly, I’ll scrap the word ‘successful’ and go with ‘amazing’. Amazing design teams, for those of you who are privileged enough to work with them, demonstrate extremely high levels of trust in each other and in the team as a whole. When you get to the point where individuals are apprentice telepaths, when words aren’t required, then you know you’re on to something good!

Beyond this, it’s about breadth, depth and intelligence. An amazing team has a wide cross-section of talent, values, beliefs, cultural and commercial experience, curiosity and capability. Not to forget gender balance!

One of the best articles I’ve read in recent times is ‘Designing through the eyes of a nine-year-old’ by Henrietta Thompson. It certainly made me think. Designers today need to be outcome-focused and able to role-play – in Elmwood-speak we talk about ‘From USP to UXP’. We have to challenge and live the brief from start to finish – for products it’s the design, engineering and manufacturing processes all the way through to recycling issues and where a product will ultimately end up.

It’s a cradle-to-cradle process. We have to be the end-user, the shopper – in fact any part of the chain of supply or consumption. Without looking at each aspect of a product or service journey, the result can only be an unhealthy compromise. And we want genuine outcomes based on unrivalled creativity.

What are the main challenges you can face in recruiting creative talent?

We’ve created an industry of stereotypical businesses, of graphic, product and typeface designers – businesses that are welded into a range of functional disciplines. But projects and challenges aren’t linear. So we need a new business model – one which is curious and generalist. One which brings in the right skills at the right time. It’s about finding and developing relationships with a broad range of partners and experts. And this is a straight case of supply and demand.

Simply put, when the market is buoyant, demand is high and top-talent is unavailable. The answer? Speaking as an ex-client of 25 years, if clients could plan further ahead, if agencies could better plan the resources required for given projects – the results would be better, faster and more cost-effective for all concerned.

What are the main challenges in managing creatives?

I love questions like this. Anyone who thinks there’s an answer to ‘managing’ creatives is in the wrong job. In my experience, the role of leadership is to ‘create the right environment so everyone can be everything they can be’. The days of treating designers like tools in a toolbox are long gone. For me, it’s about enabling; it’s definitely not about management.

Are different talents required for in-house and agency teams, or are the requirements the same?

The talents are broadly the same. But having run in-house teams for many years, it’s important they don’t get stale and stuck in never-ending refreshes of repetitive projects. In many ways, the care point for in-house teams is in fostering creativity and idea generation by actively bringing in creative stimulus from external partners and sources, as well as making sure the team ‘gets out there’.

In contrast, agencies probably have a broader church of work and experience. But what they don’t often have is the client or internal investment available to spend the right amount of time thinking through the details of a project in the way an in-house team can. So the brief, the strategy and the research and insight activity become key. For me, these disciplines become metaphorical waypoints along a journey. Without a story, and without a point of view, it’s easy to end up flying one degree to the west of the intended course for a hundred miles. Then who knows where your project will end up.

What do you think is the perfect size for a design team?

For what? In my life I’ve worked with design teams for car projects, for R&D projects, for service design projects, for a whole host of products and services ranging from the ‘Elise’ for Lotus to ‘Design for Patient Dignity’ for the NHS.  Some have been a cast of one; some a cast of hundreds. And it’s never about the number, it’s about the quality and depth of expertise.

For me, successful design depends on a number of factors, of which the team is one. But what are the others?

In my experience there has to be:

The Why. Often found in either an opportunity or a necessity, articulated in a brand or a business challenge.

The What. Usually the supply of a problem and the demand for a solution – often this is the brief!

The Who. There always has to be a sponsor – the person with the decision authority to get things done and say yes or no.  For sure a number of people often turn up. But there is always someone with the power to progress.

The Budget. There has to be an investment… on which effective design assures a return. And amazing design shouldn’t be returning single digit returns. It should be delivering a tangible and material increase in value.

The Team. The talent required to get the job done. From overseas cultural research and insight to localised rapid prototyping, whoever it may be, wherever they may be.

The Resources. A studio, hardware, software, technologies, a research facility, a production line… You name it, there’s a long list of required activities. However small a project may seem to be, the contribution of the many invariably outperforms the loud voices of a few.

David Godber is group chief executive of Elmwood. He is a former deputy chief executive of the Design Council and has also worked as a design director for Nissan and as chief advisor for renewable energy firm Vestas A/S.

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  • Karl Tall November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article. I’ve worked freelance and in-house, and now co-manage a design team. The biggest challenge we have as a team is balancing the need to create a large body of work, whilst keeping a creative freshness in everything we do. Throw in the demands of the sales force and it’s quite a juggling act – there’s a lot to take away from this article!

  • Aarefa Tayabji November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This is a bread of fresh air: ” In my experience, the role of leadership is to ‘create the right environment so everyone can be everything they can be’. ”

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