Actually, there are a lot of things that go into being on a good design team. But there is One Simple Trick that matters the most.
In August of 2012 I was just over four years into my design career, coming out of a job that I’d had high hopes for but that had ultimately not worked out because they chose to shut down the entire department I was in. I had been fortunate enough to have been working with a very good friend of mine and had loved it. I realized that it was important to me to be sure that my next job had similar potential. You can’t always work with one of your best friends, but you can actively try to put yourself in a situation where you will be working at a place that values teamwork and where you feel that your coworkers could become friends. I knew I would miss the camaraderie and mutual trust we’d had in each other while working, as I had never experienced it in any of my previous design jobs. This weighed heavily on my mind as I geared up for job searching.
Fortunately for me, I’d only been unemployed for a few days when I received an email from Nate Lu. Nate was someone that I had interviewed with more than a year earlier for a different job and had eventually said “no” to – but we had hit it off during that interview process, and now he was at a new company called Wipit and was looking to build the team out. I was excited at the prospect of working with him, and quickly met with him to discuss the job. He seemed to know exactly what I was looking for, and stressed that he was building a strong team in a very collaborative environment, which I was excited for. More so than that, he was explicit in his intentions to mentor me and help me grow my own career.
This is the One Simple Trick to team building: make it clear to your teammates, sometimes with words but always through actions, that you believe in them and want to help them grow in any way that you can. At the time, that wasn’t even something that I knew to be looking for in a job. Now looking back on it, I can say that it is one of the best things that could have happened to my career and is a lesson that I took to heart and will always try to do with any designers that I find myself working with. When you make it clear to a teammate or more junior designer that you want them to succeed and care more about their long term success than you do about whatever the daily deadlines might be, amazing things can happen. If will go a long way if you show them with real actions and time spent that you are willing to teach them the things they might not know. They will work hard for you and with you because they want to, not because it’s a job and they are expected to. The work will be better, often in unexpected ways, even if it is not an inherently exciting project. And, most importantly, I believe that this is how the most true and meaningful types of teams get formed. Things like skill sets and personalities and eating lunch together and so on all matter, but showing through your actions that you believe in somebody and that you are there to help them and teach them is how the real bonds get created. The attitude becomes mutual and doesn’t rely on who is in charge or experience level, because the intentions are clear and will lead to genuine alignment – which, believe me, can feel impossible to achieve in a workplace. You know you are on a good team if you can easily imagine yourself working with all of the same people at an entirely different job, because these are the people that you trust and want to be working with, no matter the silly parameters like “job description.” And, as an aside, a great benefit of this type of teamwork is that these are the people who will try to find ways to work with you for the rest of their career. Being somebody that other people want to work with is the best kind of networking you can do, and will pay dividends for the duration of your design career.
Clearly, Nate lived up to his initial promise to me and did grow me as a person and as a designer, and showed me with his actions how that philosophy can be tremendously rewarding and successful for everyone involved. I have a long career ahead of me still and a lot of things left to experience and learn. I suspect that these lessons will always be true, and will continue to think of them as a type of high-level overarching framework in how I approach any team situation at any job I may find myself in. There were, however, other, smaller lessons about teamwork that I learned at Wipit as well. Here are some other principles that you can be thinking about as you try to improve the team you are on or as you search for a job with a good team.
Trust is critical to a good team, and there are always things you can do to build trust. If you are in a leadership position, put in extra effort wherever it is needed, be encouraging, and be explicit with your expectations. Being as specific as “I want to see five versions of this by 4:00 and will review with you then” will set a clear expectation and will help your team trust you because you have a plan and they now have something to work against. If you are not in a leadership position, you can build trust just by working hard and especially by being willing to be taught and by using those lessons to improve your work. It actually builds trust to ask for help if you need it, as opposed to floundering in silence. It really builds trust if you help your other teammates if you see them struggling. And it will definitely build trust if you are able to explain why you made any decisions in a design, so design with intention and not just arbitrarily. Just trying to constantly be a better designer will shine through in your actions and your work, and will lead to a lot of trust and freedom on a good team.
On a less serious level, another key to a good team is to just genuinely enjoy each other’s company and appreciate each other. This is possible to various levels because people and personalities are all very different, but good team leaders will place as much emphasis on hiring people for chemistry and team fit as they will on hiring people for their capabilities. So, if they are doing their job right, they will have put a team together that is going to get along – which is another reason to put yourself on a team where you trust your boss. In the best case scenario, everyone will get along and the jokes will fly and people will laugh a lot and the other departments will wish they were on the creative team. The creative team will do crazy things like hang out together after work and remain friends even after somebody has had to leave the team for whatever reason. Happily, this was the case at Wipit – it wasn’t always the sexiest design job in the world, but I can honestly say that I stayed there for 2.5 years because I really just liked working with the people I got to work with, in the team environment that I helped to cultivate. I worked with probably 20-25 people on the creative team there through the years and still have good active relationships with almost everybody, and a few of them have gone on to become some of my closest friends. The flip side of this is the worst case scenario, where the team is built of people who are probably good at their jobs but sit in silence while they work and eat alone all the time and can’t wait for 5:00 to come around so they can go home and do stuff with their not-work friends. A lot of jobs are somewhere in the middle, where you feel close to some people and much less so with others – but the key is to make an effort to appreciate them for what they are good at, and to let them know that you appreciate them. You can turn an average work relationship into a really good one with just a little bit of effort and a few sincere compliments. Every time two individuals on a team improve their work relationship, the whole team benefits and the team gets stronger.
If you find yourself on a team where it looks like none of this is happening, you can begin to make a difference all on your own, no matter your experience level in the design field. Lead by example with your actions, don’t be selfish, help other people, be teachable, ask for help, make someone laugh, work hard, improve your work, give a compliment, find some common ground outside of work duties, appreciate your team for what they are. None of these are hard things to do, you just have to put a little effort into doing them – and if you do, you will find yourself enjoying your job more and will probably also notice that your teammates seem to be having a better time as well. The next time you find yourself looking for work, make it a priority to find a good team. And once you’re there, be a good teammate, work will feel a lot less like work, and great things will happen!