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Ask DN: Are you the only designer where you work?

almost 7 years ago from , Designer

I work for a small to medium size start-up in London, and I'm the only designer. I've found it to be quite a double edged sword. On one hand I have a great deal of creative control — I've more or less directed the direction of the brand for the last two years — but on the other hand I operate in a culture of one.

I don't have anybody to bounce ideas off of, there's no other perspective. I can obviously ask other people in the company for their opinion, but there's nobody who can really deep dive into a critical analysis of my work.

Do you also find this frustrating, or do you love being solely responsible for your creative output? How long have you been in this position? If you were in this position, how did you change the culture of design in your workplace?

36 comments

  • Azam Malik, almost 7 years ago

    I am the only designer where I work, but we have marketers who fancy themselves designers. I find myself constantly butting heads with them. They're the defenders of engagement while I am the defender of users.

    I tend to go to friends and former colleagues for critiques and advice, but they are often so far removed from the product that it is hard to get any real help. Internet strangers help from time to time.

    My compromise has been letting go of the reigns on branding, while holding on to product for dear life. I let them change whatever they want on social media, but they have to prove to me that yet another push notification will really matter or move the needle significantly before we bug our users with useless alerts.

    18 points
    • Will Thomas, almost 7 years ago

      Having to accommodate other departments with different objectives is hard, as you say, it feels like being the defender of your domain. I find being the only designer only exasperates the issue because you don't have to bandwidth to keep up with what they're doing and make sure the branding/messaging etc. is consistent. We've been thinking about producing a brand book so we're all starting and the same place, but do things like this even get adhered too?

      0 points
  • Daniel GoldenDaniel Golden, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

    I think one of the greatest disadvantages of not working with other designers is the lack of opportunity to grow as a result of being surrounded by designers better than you. When you are the standard, I think your growth and development rate takes a hit.

    There are also, obviously, advantages to working alone. I just think they are outweighed by the disadvantages.

    11 points
    • Will Thomas, almost 7 years ago

      Yeah absolutely. I was talking to a friend about this, and they suggested finding a mentor. I don't know where I would begin to look, or even find the time to meet with one.

      0 points
  • Bruno MarinhoBruno Marinho, almost 7 years ago

    I've been in this kind of position for about 3-4 years now. While sometimes is good because you can make faster decisions the main downside is not having a designer mind working side by side with you.

    From my previous experiences, it gets really worse when the engineer to designer ratio is higher. Because engineers have a quite different mind so with time you just get a bit tired of fighting for stuff that's completely clear in your mind but others simply don't get it.

    When you work in a small company and small team (my current situation) it's a nice opportunity to be more like a multidisciplinary design than just a product designer. You end up by being responsible for shipping way more stuff than in a big team with a lot of designers. Personally I like that.

    Another possible downside is that sometimes is hard to focus on a single problem and explore everything you need to. Because you'll always have multiple problems and tasks that need to be solved.

    5 points
    • Stefan SohlstromStefan Sohlstrom, almost 7 years ago

      I feel the same way.

      You've been able to accomplish some awesome things @ celery!

      1 point
    • Will Thomas, almost 7 years ago

      There are a lot of engineers where I work. I think they all think about usability a lot, and sometimes I get great feedback. Engineers tend to be less sympathetic however when you talk about taking the time to delight users — I can only suggest Aaron Walters' "Designing for Emotion" so many times. Without another designer I think it's difficult to justify these more subjective projects to a company culture so centered around engineering.

      0 points
  • Laurens SpangenbergLaurens Spangenberg, almost 7 years ago

    I'm the only designer in the small sized startup I work at. I'm a young, less experienced, self-taught designer, and being the only designer can be frustrating at times.

    It can be difficult to get feedback, which is important given my lack of experience.

    The founder has a more marketing/business background which at times can lead to conflict. I sometimes wish that there were more designers on the team so that I wouldn't have to convince the founder on certain design decisions alone, or at least know why, from a design perspective, my design doesn't work.

    3 points
    • Will Thomas, almost 7 years ago

      Yeah, I'm mostly self taught too, I do however have the benefit of some years of experience, but that doesn't stop you questioning yourself from time to time!

      We have a product manager who has a lot of UX experience and that really helps but when it comes to feedback regarding visual design, I'm more or less on my own. I've thought about doing a design degree part time but I don't think I can realistically find the time to do it.

      1 point
  • Chris CChris C, almost 7 years ago

    I've been in this scenario many times and it's very very hard because as you mention, the only people to bounce things off of with quick turn-around is your colleagues. I used to find this very frustrating because it started to go down the path of design by committee. It was a good thing I noticed this pretty quick.

    Some things I did: -Reach out to designers in the community (slack teams, email, etc...) for critique or litmus tests

    -TALK TO USERS OFTEN. Their feedback will help you tremendously. Even if you aren't getting better at visual design this way, you will ultimately grow your UX knowledge

    -I stumbled across this which also helped a ton: https://signalvnoise.com/posts/3024-questions-i-ask-when-reviewing-a-design

    I tried to change the culture at one of my workplaces for a very long time but it was so engineering focused and completely disorganized that people were too busy putting out fires to see and get behind what I was doing. No longer there for that very reason. I tried to deal with it for ~2 years but it was extremely taxing to keep having the same conversations over and over for that length of time.

    3 points
    • Will Thomas, almost 7 years ago (edited almost 7 years ago )

      Hey Chris, thanks for the Jason Fried article, that is certainly a comprehensive list! And I can definitely sympathise with trying to change the culture, I've got a feeling design needs to not be a part of an engineering team to have the influence it needs to create its own culture. A difficult prospect when design is a team of one >_<

      0 points
  • Bevan StephensBevan Stephens, almost 7 years ago

    I'm the only designer at a small start up in London. We use UX consultants occasionally from time to time but I'm the only full timer.

    Whereabouts in London are you? Perhaps we could meet up occasionally and critique each other's work?

    2 points
    • Will Thomas, almost 7 years ago

      Hey Bevan, that sounds like a great idea, I'm near Old Street. I think need to make more of an effort to engage with the tech community around here, there's so many talented people.

      Have you been to Silicon Drink About or Design and Banter before?

      0 points
  • A Paul, almost 7 years ago

    If you're not experienced or confident enough, I can definitely see why one wouldn't like being the only designer. I think being the only designer has only helped my design skills. There's a lot of pressure to keep learning and improving. I think I thrive under that pressure, but I know some people like having a safety net and there's nothing wrong with that.

    2 points
    • Harvey Enrile, almost 7 years ago

      i think it's more of a collaboration problem rather than a skill-related problem. I'm also the only designer in our team and i think the growth has been spectacular, but having another designer would greatly help improve designs that you could've missed.

      1 point
      • Grahame Beresford, almost 7 years ago

        Agreed. For me it's a matter of having the responsibility of the company's entire visual output. I love having that responsibility, but when I have burnout or go on vacation or whatever, there's no one to pick up the ball and run with it in my place. And even, like you alluded to, Harvey, having another set of eyes to look for things I missed because I'm too close to the project. There's an iron-sharpening-iron element that I'm definitely lacking here.

        0 points
  • Lee Mahayati, almost 7 years ago

    quite devastating anyway, since you manage all things related design in your company, I've been in this position just one month so haven't yet figured it out how to manage this. But will soon. When every part of your company asking something from you that's the hardest.

    1 point
  • Jacob ErikssonJacob Eriksson, almost 7 years ago

    Same thing here. Was the solo creative/designer at a small-team startup during last year.

    I managed to introduce some design culture / processes and I think the CEO really adapted some of the tings, like working with MVP's, research, testing/validating, iterating etc.

    Although I really missed having other creatives by my side, deep diving into heated arguments over details. Or the bigger picture :)

    1 point
  • alicia m, almost 7 years ago

    A team of one is all of these things, for sure! I've been in this position for many years and depending on what I am doing, I love or hate it. You get to do whatever you think is best, but sometimes its hard to discover what is best when you are in a bubble. I guess it depends what kind of design work you are doing though. In UX design, there is a research component so you are still able to collaborate, test things to validate/invalidate assumptions and discover problems and new ideas even though no one else is doing the same kind of work.

    1 point
  • Grahame Beresford, almost 7 years ago

    I'm right there with you, man. I'm the only designer in a company of about 25 developers with a couple of PMs and BAs thrown in for good measure. And I know exactly how you feel.

    On the plus side, like you said, I have creative control, and my boss and I collaborate incredibly well together. We both come away from brainstorming sessions feeling really excited and creatively refreshed.

    But, also like you said, it's just me. I have nobody to delegate work to when I'm up against a time wall. I'm working on a high-pressure project right now for a large international client, and I'm designing the UX and UI for three different device sets with tight deadlines, as well as getting a roll-out blog up for this new software we're developing. And when I get burned out, I have no one to back me up, or bounce ideas off of.

    It's definitely a lonely and stressful position, but I love it here. Like, I was definitely meant to be here.

    0 points
  • Tori PughTori Pugh, almost 7 years ago

    In my division, I'm the only designer working with a developer. It's nice to bounce ideas off of him but for deep design ideas, not just UX I find myself looking up inspiration or reading blogs to grow my skills more and help me revisit my ideas. Then I can confidently come up with solutions. I also try and educate the non-designers around me about how a "designer" would think and approach things so I have less head on clashes.

    0 points
  • Zach McKimminsZach McKimmins, almost 7 years ago

    Maybe you could convince them to hire part-time temps from your local art school. They get the job experience and you get a better creative environment.

    0 points
  • Adnan Lahrech, almost 7 years ago

    "If You Are The Smartest Person In The Room, Then You Are In The Wrong Room", But being alone in the room? that sounds a very bad place to work.

    0 points
    • Will Thomas, almost 7 years ago

      There's plenty of smarter people here, they're just not designers. Obviously that is exasperating but otherwise it's a great place to work. That's why I'd rather help find another designer and change the culture regarding design here. The problem is it's really hard to find design talent in the London area right now, we've been looking for over a year.

      1 point
  • barry saundersbarry saunders, almost 7 years ago

    i work at a consultancy of 50+ UX and visual designers, and I work with a banking client who has 140+ UX and visual designers. We have a lot of meetings.

    0 points
  • barry saundersbarry saunders, almost 7 years ago

    i work at a consultancy of 50+ UX and visual designers, and I work with a banking client who has 140+ UX and visual designers. We have a lot of meetings.

    0 points
  • Elena MaksimovichElena Maksimovich, almost 7 years ago

    I am not a designer myself, but I imagine that being one designer in a team might be hard at times. Because all responsibility on the creatives is on yourself. But we all are humans.

    At Dizzain we have 2 designers on staff. Sometimes we need 2 different ideas for a logo or website style. One day we tried to ask one designer to create both (the other was pretty busy or on vacations so we had to). That was a fail! Our designer was pretty stuck to one concept and just could not think for smth completely different for this project.

    So, an alternative viewpoint is great. Not only in the described situation, but overall.

    As for analysis and ideas - one of our founders is a professional designer, so all design works are going though his and get a great deal of analysis and criticism at times :)

    0 points
  • Ethan ParkEthan Park, almost 7 years ago

    I know that feeling that you are only one in an island. In my experience, it helps a lot as one designer became art director and creative director in 3 years. Don't be comfortable in your work. Be own your boss!

    0 points
  • Johan Ronsse, almost 7 years ago

    I used to be, but then I grew the company. Mostly to grow as a designer myself. We are 3 designers and will be 4 designers soon.

    0 points
  • Sean O'GradySean O'Grady, almost 7 years ago

    Yes. And developer. And Sysadmin. And Product Manager (and nearing my degree in professional hoop-jumping)

    0 points
  • Ansh DebAnsh Deb, almost 7 years ago

    I have been working mostly as a freelancer from past 5 years, but during this time as well, I was hired by a local company as UX lead. I was pretty skeptical about it since, being a freelancer it was always I me and mine. Like you said, no other perspective on our outlook. Working along side those people proved really helpful to me. Everyone shared their knowledge about UX and how they also think the UI should change accordingly. There were a lot of times when I would have said to myself, "oh thats really nice..I wouldn't have thought about it myself" and finally lead to a better design solution.

    Working alone definitely has its perks, infact upto a point, I feel that working alone excites self improvement a lot more than working in a team can possibly do. But, after a certain point, working collaboratively is the best. Cannot say, which one outweighs the other, since there are a lot of factors governing a fixed comparison.

    0 points
  • Joel designerrrr, almost 7 years ago

    I am the only designer at my company...I love not having other design ego's to deal with...but then again I miss having another design to workshop through ideas...We also have a marketing person that has an opinion how things should look...i dont know for now I like the situation but I know thats not going to last long once we start hiring more designers...I made a point that when they hired me I would be the design director so I wouldn't have designer above me I would be butting heads with.

    0 points
  • Alec LomasAlec Lomas, almost 7 years ago

    I am the only designer at the company I work for currently, and the only designer at the side-project company i cofounded with my brother.

    The situation is really not ideal at the former, but it's likely for the best at the latter.

    0 points