As the baton of design leadership at Made by Many passes onto a new generation, the moment has given me pause for reflection. What does it mean to be a designer at Made by Many, and how has that changed since we started the company 12 years ago?
The founders came from different backgrounds (mine was design) and that was very intentional. The company was built on the principle of equal disciplines (design, strategy and technology) working seamlessly together.
Yet if the foundation consisted in different skill sets successfully collaborating, another important principle was multifaceted people. Nowhere was this more true than in the design team.
This came from a long standing belief. One of my co-founders, Tim Malbon, put it very elegantly when we were working together at a previous agency. He described a young designer he’d just hired as a ‘graphic designer with an information architect’s brain’. A visual designer and an organiser of information.
This was in 2003 when the world was waterfall and wireframes were laboriously created (detailing functionality and the links between pages) before being handed over to another team member to ‘colour-in’ (at worse) or turn into a real, branded interface (at best).
(Pic: wireframe, circa 2003)
Fast forward to 2007 and Tim’s words now expressed itself as a shared belief. If a visual designer had been involved in the wireframe creation process then they’d be better placed to create the final designs. (Not least because they would understand the decision making process behind the placement of each element.)
Similarly, effective, understandable wireframes could only be created by using the tools and techniques of visual design: Hierarchy, layout, contrast, and using real content so an untrained eye (a.k.a. the client) could decipher the page.
This begged the question, could one person do both roles?
Of course, the internet was more of a Wild West back then. Colours were measured in hundreds not millions, screens were often constrained to 1024 by 768 pixels (with nothing below the fold) and the fields of user testing and user insights were still in their infancy.
In Made by Many’s early days we hired both designers and information architects. It was an age when wireframes were often mandated deliverables (imagine that!). At the time it almost felt right.
However, as we pioneered the integration of design into the agile process, it felt that wireframes were becoming more and more redundant. Not just because developers would always rely on the design sent to production over a wireframe, but because of a fundamental shift in our process: prototyping.
(pic: prototyping for ITV News, 2011)
From the first days of the company we had always used sketching and low fidelity techniques to explore and bring new ideas to life. 1) the faster we could create the better, 2) a sketch had an intentional unfinished quality. Neither the client nor the team could fall in love with an idea that wasn’t completely expressed.
This shift coincided with bringing real people into the process through user testing. What better way of doing this than by designers making prototypes (whether it be post-it notes, sketches or Keynote decks - this was many, many years before the advent of Marvel, Principle or InVision).
It was around then, in 2009, that I wrote a blog post about the future of wireframes. In it, I posited that the roles of information architect and design were converging. In fact, I went further and said that designers needed to become responsible for wireframes (aka prototypes). This had quite the reaction:
“I completely disagree with you regarding designers stepping up to the plate and claiming wireframes as their own. Any black-turtlenecked, navel gazing, Coldplay-listening graphic designer who tries to tell me that they “own” the wireframes is going to get cold-cocked.”
The point about ownership is strongly made. Perhaps ‘responsibility for’ would be a better phrase? However, the divide the commenter makes is still prevalent in a wide selection of our industry today: user interface vs user experience designers.
At Made by Many, however, our working practices continued to evolve. Having one designer on the team - with the ability to both prototype and design - was essential, and more effective. It was the power of small, collaborative teams working seamlessly together. Just as there would be no moment when the team thought ‘now would be a good time to get some technology involved’, none of us wanted an artificial handover between different types of designers.
At some point in the early part of this decade, I can remember explaining this principle to a designer from another agency:
“Oh, I’ve heard about guys like you that have generalists and not specialists.”
It took me a surprisingly long time to untangle this viewpoint. ‘Product’ was just coming of age, and coming to the fore was the mix of all the skills you needed to make a successful one (research, insights, testing…).
I realised that Made by Many was not a company of design generalists. We were a company of product design specialists.
This was reinforced by the impact successful branding can have on a product. Knowing that this wasn’t a superficial layer painted on at the end but an integrated part of the experience meant it was something that needed to be considered as a vital component from the first days of a project. Another string to the product designer’s bow.
So, where does that leave us now? Made by Many is the original product studio. Except now our remit is wider, and we use product to drive change across businesses. Does this mean that the skills of a designer here have changed? In the age of unicorn designers what do we look for? Do we believe that designers need to code for example?
No, but they do need to have the people skills to respect and collaborate with technologists, and to understand the boundaries and opportunities of what’s possible. Oddly enough, these soft skills hold in good stead when working alongside all our colleagues and clients.
Other skills are the ability to describe our process and why it’s relevant; to be able to write about the problem you’re solving; and to write good copy for interfaces (another example of real copy aiding usability and understanding); and to keep the end user at the centre of product development process.
The list goes on and on. It sounds like a lot. It is.
That’s why our market-leading professional development program has evolved to help teach and mentor designers from all backgrounds at all levels.
(pic: Made by Many's professional development handbook)
Here’s the introduction, and our definition of what design means in the age of digital transformation:
"Design is at the heart of everything Made by Many does.
"It is both a differentiator for the products we build and a reason for our clients’ success. It is fundamental to how we work, both between ourselves and with our clients.
"It is the designer’s role to balance the business objectives of the companies we work with, whilst championing the needs of the users we design for; to balance any technical and brand constraints whilst constantly pushing the edges of what can be achieved when these four elements work together seamlessly.
"You are a collaborator and creator, a consultant and a craftsperson.
"As a collaborator you will work alongside clients, users, product strategists, managers and engineers throughout the lifetime of a project. At every step of the project your empathy will help unlock products that people really desire, and you know that this desirability can only be validated by real people.
"As a creator you will bring new ideas, brands and services to life from raw assets, opinions and user insights. Along the way you know that your ideas will rarely survive first contact with both users and clients. Yet you embrace change and uncertainty and make it a part of a truly iterative process.
"As a consultant you are able to see the big picture, helping to transform our clients’ businesses through the ventures we design and the stories we tell. This world view allows you to see the wider problem beyond design, yet brings design to the fore to help solve ideas with real purpose. It is this purpose that allows you to design thoughtful, elegant and delightful products where brand is the summation of the entire customer experience.
"As a craftsperson it is your skill that makes these ventures and products real – from first pen on paper to each product release. Your understanding of the interplay and connectivity between different skill sets allows you to build the most effective and successful products. For example, you can call upon UI skills to make better experience prototypes, whilst using UX skills to build better interfaces.
"The four qualities of collaboration, creation, consultancy and craft make the designer’s role at Made by Many both a simple and comprehensive one. Simple in its intention: to build the best products, yet comprehensive in the depth of skill needed to achieve this goal. This book covers the many skills you will need – from practical expertise in prototyping, insights, visualisation and production to softer skills such as creativity, communication and teamwork.
"Go forth and do work you can be proud of."
Many of these qualities are derived from our founding principles. Many have evolved as our industry has grown and changed with us.
What’s consistent though is how effective this approach has been, and how many of our products, are still live and loved in market.
Today’s digital transformation is rightly hard work, but nothing proves this more than the value of the intersection and integration of great design.
Got a project you'd like to discuss with us? We'd love to hear from you - drop us a line at [email protected]