Help! How do I build out my product design team?

In today's market, designers are becoming increasingly valuable for startups and established companies alike, and more companies are starting to recognize their benefit to reducing churn, driving adoption, and improving users’ efficiency. A great design team can be the difference between a good product and a stellar product. 

Yet, hiring and finding effective designers can be time-consuming and challenging. 

Start with a leader

As a head of product looking to make your first full-time design hires or the head of design looking to build out the team, how do you even begin? Here are a few tips and strategies I've learned along the way during my journey in the world of product design. 

For those just beginning to build a design team, in most cases, I’d recommend starting by hiring a lead designer or player-coach head of design. Someone with a strong end-to-end product design skill set and some leadership experience is ideal – someone motivated to do hands-on work, establish the company's design processes, and build a great design culture will be worth their weight in gold. Forming a team from the "top down" helps ensure that the design team will start off with expertise, as well as the ability to mentor incoming designers who are more junior.

Team size and structure

Once your first design leader is in place (or maybe that’s you!), consider how many designers you’ll need for the next 6-12 months. A good rule of thumb is to consider the ratio of designers to engineers. Generally, I've found that having 4-10 developers per designer works well for balancing the design and engineering workload. That number of engineers per designer should be higher for back-end heavy products and lower for front-end heavy ones. 

Next, you’ll need to decide on which structure you want to adopt for your teams. I’ve seen an agency model work well for smaller companies with one or two engineering teams. In this approach, designers are assigned projects but may be overall less integrated with the engineers and the rest of the company. 

A matrixed model, on the other hand, assigns designers (usually all reporting into a common design manager or director) to different cross-functional teams, which each typically consist of one product manager, one designer, and a team of engineers, working together to accomplish their goal. In this kind of environment, researchers and other roles may either be embedded in each team or work agency-style across multiple teams. 

The model you choose will depend on the size of your company as well as the nature of your business, and even the same kind of structure can have unique flavors in different contexts. Be flexible and willing to adjust if something isn't working well or if another structure will better utilize the strengths of your team. 

Seniority and skill sets

Finally, you’ll need to consider what level(s) and role(s) you’ll want to hire for your new team. Senior designers will obviously provide more experience and hard-earned wisdom. Junior designers can bring energy and fresh fire to help fill out a team. You’ll need to ensure you have the bandwidth on the team (or in your own schedule) to invest in their growth, but in my experience, bringing in the right juniors is well worth it with the passion, unique perspective, and growth they contribute to the team. Either way, it’s vital to hire people with a growth mindset: seniors who are passionate about mentoring others while continuing to grow themselves, and juniors who are eager to learn. 

In addition to level, you’ll want to evaluate if generalists or specialists designers will best serve your needs. Generalists are responsible for everything throughout the process (called "end-to-end" design) – research, wireframing, prototyping, working with developers, etc, and are great for matrixed teams and new teams alike. On the other hand, specialists will hone in on a specific area, such as research, design operations, etc. and are great additions to a growing design org. Ultimately, either approach can work well, as long as you make sure you have a balance of skill sets. 

Though forming a design team can be a daunting task, with time and patience the results will be worth all of the effort! Here’s to your design team, which might just make the world a little more amazing!

Blog photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Mark Tegtmeier

Founder Mark Tegtmeier brings years of design experience to Trailmerge. He has worked with early stage startups, design and software agencies, government, and enterprise, driving them further in their product vision. A husband of one, father of four, and urban homesteader, Mark loves developing tech talent and coming alongside founders with ambitious visions for their products and companies.