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Management in Practice

How Do You Build a Design Team?

When designer Cap Watkins arrived at the digital media powerhouse Buzzfeed in 2015, the company had a group of talented designers. What it didn’t have, Watkins told Yale Insights, was the structure to help them to work together and build their careers.


Photo courtesy of Buzzfeed

Jonah Peretti founded the digital media company Buzzfeed, a data-driven destination for gifs, quizzes, lists, and other viral content, as an experimental side project—Peretti’s full-time job when the website went live in November 2006 was helping to launch the Huffington Post.

In the decade since, the company has added a news operation, posting breaking political stories alongside quizzes and slideshows, and grown dramatically, with 1,500 employees in multiple locations. But like many technology companies, it has maintained the flavor of a startup.

Cap Watkins, an internet veteran who had worked at Amazon and Etsy, was named the company’s vice president of design in 2015. He visited Yale SOM in the spring of 2017 as a guest of the student-run Design and Innovation Club; in a conversation with Yale Insights, he said that part of his task was to take a group of talented designers and give them the structure to work well together and build careers at the growing company.

Q: Where does design fit into the culture of the various places that you’ve worked? Is it becoming more central?

I’ve been designing about 10 years now. When I started my career, I was working in startups, in really small, maybe five-person companies where design was extremely central. So we had to work together really closely. And I think I have gravitated toward companies that have a similar opinion about how design should work. That’s how I learned to work, and how I like to work—very closely with engineering, closely with product—where we’re peers, and there’s not a hierarchy between us.

I’ve worked with Amazon and Etsy and now Buzzfeed. And at each of those places—I don’t know that I would say that design is central. The best situation is that nothing is central. It’s like a stool where the legs are all the same height. There are some companies where design is a shorter leg, and your stool is tipping over a little bit.

I think it’s becoming more even. There’s engineering, and design, and then product and QA and they all have an equal portion of the responsibility and accountability for what we make.

I think that’s mostly because the skill sets are starting to merge a little bit, and get a little messier. We have product designers at Buzzfeed who write code, who do product work, at the same time as they do the design work. And then we have product people who think about design. And we have engineers think about design, engineers who think about product. We’re all in each other’s worlds.

Q: Buzzfeed started as a source for fun, viral stuff but now has serious news coverage as well. Does design play a role in establishing trust for your product?

Obviously Buzzfeed news hasn’t been around that long. If you think about news brands like the New York Times, or these other news brands that we want our news to be competing with, these brands have been around a really long time. They’ve had like 100 years to establish this trust with people. We’ve not had that time.

So I think a little bit of it is a time problem. That’s just one of those things where, if we continue to write compelling, hard-hitting news content, we will get there. The fact that we’re even talking about this means that we’ve gotten really far with that. Do people trust what we’ve written? Do they read what we’ve written?

When I first got to Buzzfeed, I think we had done some study where we found out that a lot of people thought that Buzzfeed news was aggregated. That we weren’t writing it. We have reporters all over the world, in multiple countries, on the ground writing stories. I do think some of the branding work we’ve been doing is to try to make it feel a little more grounded—and a little more serious than the rest of our entertainment content—has been useful.

But I don’t know that design alone is enough. I feel this way about entertainment articles, too. A lot of what we talk about is, “How do we get design out of the way of the content that we make?” Because that’s the thing that really matters. If we write a bad article, it doesn’t matter how good the design is. It doesn’t help them. It doesn’t help us. And so, a lot of our job at Buzzfeed is to represent a brand, but also make sure that brand doesn’t compete with the article—or doesn’t try to make the article more than it is. Or try to get in the way of people’s experience with it.

Q: At both Buzzfeed and Etsy, you were brought in to take a group of autonomous people and meld them into a team. Is that a typical path for design in a startup?

At a startup, there’s no leadership for anybody, really. At a lot of startups, the CTO is also the engineer building the thing. The leaders are the people doing the work. It’s messy.

There have been designers for a long time at Buzzfeed before me. I think the thing that I bring—that I think is the thing that companies should think about—is management and leadership of teams. Forget that it’s design. It doesn’t actually matter what it is. A lot of companies go through a long period where they don’t have good leaders. They promoted people who had been at the company a long time into leadership positions.

The problem that Buzzfeed had wasn’t that no one cared about design. Because that wasn’t true. They had designers. People they worked with cared about them, liked them, wanted to work with them. But the problem was, they weren’t being managed. They didn’t have structure, they didn’t have career paths. Those are the things that all companies are missing at first. Because again, when you’re just five people, and you’re all the leader, who needs a career path? You’re just trying to make the company not die. But eventually, you get into a position where like, “OK, we’ve hired a few people now. And they care about having a career here. They want to grow here. How do they do that?” And a lot of companies are willing to go without that for a very long time.

Q: When you’re looking to hire people for a more unified team, are you looking for different skills, as opposed to designers who sit and work by themselves?

Actually, the designers aren’t centralized at Buzzfeed. They sit with their teams. They sit with their engineers, and their product people, to work on stuff together. And then we bring them together at certain moments throughout the week or whatever, to talk. Or we’re all in Slack rooms together. There’s communication happening. But they are embedded in teams that are not design teams.

What we’re looking for is what we were always looking for. The designers at Buzzfeed are all expected to write some code, to be able to prototype their ideas. I think getting closer to engineering is really important, because they’re the ones who build the thing that users use. Design is expected to be more product-minded, too. They have to go the other direction, too, and think about why we’re doing things, and what we should be doing next. Strategically, is this important? We talk about data analysis a lot. The designers at Buzzfeed do user research. They are generalists in the best sense. And that’s what we’ve been driving for.

Q: How do your own habits and preferences play into design?

Less and less, I think. I would be the first to admit that I was always a pretty good designer, but I’m not the best designer. Not even on this team. There are way better designers on this team than me. People who know a lot more about design than me. So my goal is to set it up so that we have a shared set of principles, that if everybody follows, we can trust the outcome will be something that we would be happy with.

A lot of design directors go for this—we talk about pixel perfect. And I think that’s just crazy. I think that slows you down so much from what the real goal is. Which is to learn, did this work or not? Do users find value in it? To your end user, what matters is that we shipped something that they like to use. And that they want to read.

And so, again, optimizing around a set of principles means that the outcomes aren’t always what I would do, necessarily. I’m a different person. We’re all unique snowflakes on this design team. But they are things we are comfortable shipping, or that we think are good, holistically.

We think about the whole system. Because it’s also not reasonable, or scalable, for me to try to control it. To push my actual opinion on top of every project would be insane. I don’t have time to do that. And that will only get worse. It’s just not possible.

If you have a core principle set, it makes it a lot simpler to be say, “These are our design principles. This is what we believe to be true. And we measure design against this. And the outcomes may be different, but they will all be acceptable outcomes.”