Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological tool proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In short, it shows how people focus their energies in a cascading series of needs. The idea is that you can’t really focus on self-esteem when you are dying of thirst. The diagram looks like this:
I often think about this construct when building a design team. I have my own pyramid, but I have never written it down, until now!
It’s all about the ratios. Designer-to-PM staffing should be one-to-one. Engineers (who work on features) should be roughly between seven and ten to one. If you don’t have enough people, you can’t very well build a design department. Additionally, do you have people in the right places? You want your designers to be as close to the engineers and PMs as possible.
Lastly, you want a team of people with different energy levels, backgrounds, and approaches. You don’t want a team of clones. A mixture will ensure you have diverse solutions and ideas.
Before I can really get going on a team, they need basic skills. Figma skills are a must. How can anyone design if you don’t know how to use Figma properly? Additionally, I work on communication skills, interaction design, information architecture, and other skills of the craft.
Once I have people with some skills, it’s time to provide structure. Who manages whom and who is on what project is a decent start, but you also need a good Figma library and design system too. The information architecture and components provide guard rails to keep everyone in bounds.
Design principles are great to give the team guidelines and a path to design. Principles are not rules. They are more like “values” where you write down what matters to you and the team. Without principles, a team is rudderless. All of your designs will be inconsistent as if different design teams made them.
Now that we have some structure, we can get to the details. How exactly should designers do their jobs? What rituals and meetings are standard? I usually start with my Acceptance Process and the Changelog. I also train people on Pair Designing. Each step of the process requires training. It’s not just doing the steps, the method and style makes a difference. If it feels a boring bureaucracy, then it’s missing the point.
Finally, once you have all of the parts of the pyramid, you can really lean into a teams leadership practice. A great designer, even one that is early in their career, will display leadership within the team. The best designers I have known leaned into this part of the job. Everyone should be a leader, especially the designers. If you can get to this stage, you are doing a good job as the design leader.
From Start to Finish
At Treasure Data, I went step-by-step through the pyramid. It took about 18 months total. In the beginning, I was very hands-on, training everyone from Figma hygiene to how to present your work. At this stage, I would actively tell everyone what project to work on. In every meeting, I took the lead. Then after a six months, I started asking the designers to lead the meetings and I would chip in if needed. After 9 months, I started skipping the meetings all together. After a year, I told the team to pick their own projects and figure it out themselves. By 18 months, I was just coaching people on leadership techniques and dealing HR, trying to get them raises and promotions. The whole process was slow and steady, little by little. I even explained the process to them as it was happening. I told them that one day, (hopefully) they would do the same for their own teams.
At SentinelOne, the situation is similar, but complicated by the time zones. Most of the team is scattered around the world. It just means I need to travel more. I am excited to begin the process anew and build a team of creative, productive, leaders.