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Designing in a state of flux

10 rules to help you thrive when your design foundation is missing or moving.

Remember the good old days when you’d get a stable design brief, have the luxury of “big design up front”, and the time to produce a consistent, well-considered design system in a non-changing, pre-dev vacuum state?


Neither do I. It’s been a while.

The design world has moved past that waterfall process because shipping, testing, and validation have superseded planning and prediction. As a result, our job has become a lot more challenging.

The struggle is real

One of my current clients is a multi-national corporation. But within that corporation is a small team that essentially runs like an agile startup inside the larger organisation. This innovative team is my true client.

Their work (and mine) is isolated from the rest of the organisation — and for good reason. They are trying to disrupt and reinvent everything about the company from the inside.

The change is so large, it will necessitate business re-naming, re-branding, and re-positioning. They are throwing out the old and replacing it with something better. Sounds great! Yay for innovation. But here’s the problem.

Ask any seasoned designer what the fundamental pillars of a visual design system are, and they’ll always mention these two things: Branding and Content.

We can’t design without them. It would be like trying to design a house without first knowing where it’s to be built or who’s going to live in it. The result: a cookie-cutter McMansion that doesn’t serve its inhabitants or its neighbourhood well. That’s not the kind of design we aspire to produce.

Anyone who’s designed for startups knows that things rarely happen in the right sequence. Everything moves too quickly to plan thoroughly. You have to make do with what you’ve got and push ahead despite the lack of preparation. That’s the nature of working in an agile environment.

This team within my client’s organisation is no different. They’re moving fast to build and apply a brand new design system across all their digital projects, and it’s up to me to design it.

The problem? My foundation is missing. The underlying context is fuzzy and shifting. Everything about the brand will change, but we don’t know yet what it will look like. Most of the old content is obsolete, but its replacement is still in progress. We can’t wait for those things. They need to start building flows with the new design patterns right now.

I’ve been tasked with building a design system when none of its underpinnings have been created yet. Everything that should come first has barely started, while urgent needs are pushing the project forward prematurely. It feels like flying blind. No, even worse, it’s flying blind and backwards.

How do you design when your foundational context is missing or constantly moving?

Hell if I know. I’m still figuring this stuff out too. But the more I encounter these situations — which seem to be getting more frequent of late — the more confidence I grow in handling them.

Here are 10 key lessons I’ve learned that help me keep my sanity and deliver great design results even under this pressure.

  1. Accept that nothing you do will be perfect. Perfect is the enemy of good. We’re aiming to get things 80% right, with full knowledge that we’ll have to backtrack and revise what we’ve done once more of the business fundamentals and strategy have been finalised.
  2. Realise that what you’re creating is temporary — even more ephemeral than most digital design. It’s a starting place, not an end-goal. It may be replaced before it’s even finished, and that’s OK.
  3. Understand that everyone wants the best possible outcome. No one has intentionally done things backwards to make your job more difficult. You’re all on the same team, working together to overcome these challenges the best way you know how.
  4. Don’t get attached to any of your ideas. Embrace the death of your darlings.
  5. Take feedback even less personally than usual. Everyone will be frustrated by the imperfect timing, and some of that frustration may wrongly bounce back on you. Shed it like water off a duck’s back and keep going. (Also, try not to take your own frustrations out on others).
  6. Be proactive and confidently autonomous. This environment is no place for timidness. Politely demand that your needs are addressed, but be prepared to work — with little support — even when those needs aren’t met, or come too slowly. Take the driver’s seat and the responsibilities that go with it.
  7. Don’t let external processes hold you back. If the brand direction is lacking, suggest your own. Propose a colour pallet, and investigate fonts that work for your digital design needs. Then here’s the key: you have to get your stakeholders on board with incorporating these suggestions up into the branding strategy, rather than the usual downward dictation. This has the added benefit of ensuring a digital-first brand evaluation, and means your work won’t get entirely overridden later.
  8. Show your UX writing skills and take the lead on content. When you don’t have the content you need, suggest a structure that works to the user’s needs in the design — and let that become a template for your client or team members to work towards. Hassle them about generating that content — even if temporary — as quickly as possible, because you simply can’t do your job without it.
  9. Design multiple solutions, knowing that you don’t yet know enough to know which is better. When your background context starts to catch up, integrate those learning into your design decisions to narrow down the options. Knowing what you don’t know is key.
  10. Ask questions that help clarify the direction. Literally ask, but also ask through your design work. Show through your work how certain decisions cannot be made (or they’ll be made poorly) without that foundation in place. Demonstrate the quality of solutions you’re capable of making now vs. a potential vision of what it could become once your foundation is solid. This reduces your assumptions, and also motivates other parties to catch up to your needs so they don’t become roadblocks.

This is the new reality, and it’s only getting worse

Modern designers have no choice but to juggle many spinning plates. We’re expected to be expert project managers, content strategists, system designer, and brand consultants because nothing happens in sequence or isolation anymore.

The client I’ve discussed is just one of many similar scenarios I’ve faced in the past year alone. Time-to-market usually takes precedence over ideal processes, and we’re the ones who have to slosh through the pieces to make the best of a backwards journey.

The upside is that when you succeed in this task you are seen as a design saviour with tremendous value. You’ve produced something great where you had no right to — when the foundations you rely on worked against you instead of supporting you. You’re a rare class of designer who will be forever in demand.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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