How to Inspire your Design Team 

As a design manager, I’m always looking for ways to motivate my team, as well as — ideally — get them delivering consistently high level work. The challenge is to avoid burnout, which can rear its head in a slew of increasingly uglier ways. Some designers push hard for success at first, but feel underappreciated in the long run and grow bored. Others lose steam, get sick, neglect their needs and fall behind on responsibilities. It’s a domino effect.

My view is: generally all designers want to make good work and add to the success of their team (in many years, I’ve rarely seen otherwise).

The manager’s job is to make this as easy as possible for them. More often than not, the manager’s success in this is determined by their approach to time management and inspiration. Do they consider critically how their team refuels? Do they structure their designers’ time in a way that’s productive not just in the short term — but the long run? Exactly how are their designers expected to balance that with the level of freedom provided?

After testing a variety of approaches over the years, I’ve found allocating my designers’ time to achieve a balance of inspiration and energy works best.

It breaks down to something like this:

70% of a designer’s time is dedicated to the main body of work that they are responsible for at any given time. If they’re part of a larger team, that means all current work associated with and decided on by the team. This is often derived from a product roadmap, or the client work they’re assigned.

20% of a designer’s time should then be spent innovating; thinking of questions to ask, features to build, untouched avenues worth exploring. Designers are always on the hunt for new methods of innovation, improving an approach, communicating an idea; this 20% is a workout for those muscles, by means yet unexplored. It’s “think outside the box” time. Designers could spend it interviewing users to better understand a feature, or sharing their know-how at a lunch-and-learn on the benefits of experience design. By making the most of this time, they’re taking a risk; these explorations could lead nowhere fast, or somewhere big. Regardless, the exercise is integral. That’s how the muscles are built.

10% is probably the most important part of a designer’s time, and certainly that which pays the biggest dividends: time spent being inspired. I love working with designers for many reasons, a big one being that each expresses their creativity differently. It’s all over the map — music, fashion, sculpture, programming. The effect this has on their ability to problem solve and tackle a project from a variety of angles can’t be underestimated. Maybe they use this 10% to visit a gallery, or watch the latest Ted Talk. Ideally, they return with not only a renewed focus, but a new perspective.

I applied this approach for the first time with my two most recent teams. They were forced to spend time they wouldn’t have on various aspects of their practice, and over time each member found what worked for them. In both cases, my teams ended up balancing their fuel and energy productively.

Keep in mind: the exact hours one dedicates to the 70, 20 or 10% depends on their current workload. Maybe the project pitch has a scarily close deadline and there’s no time for musing outside the box. That lost 20% could be compensated for later, between projects — a time ripe for exploration. That being said, if a manager wants to get the most out of their team, they’ll push for a balance.

Even now, in 2019, time spent on anything outside the project at hand is sometimes seen as time wasted — by executives and designers alike. Articulate to them the importance of creative and intellectual refueling. Executives need to know that a balance improves design effectiveness, and translates to more thoughtful product experiences.

For the designer, it’s about practicing self-management, finding the solution efficiently, and holding onto the excitement that led them to design in the first place.

Most may say they know the importance of taking space to refuel, but occasionally a reminder is needed: productivity isn’t about the amount of time put in, but how that time’s spent.

Thank you.

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