Greg Owen


An introduction to some lessons learnt from building design capacity as a design team of one

Last year, after a solid decade of self-employment, freelancing then running a small digital product studio, I ventured into the charity sector for an individual contributor role that I was pretty excited about. I was exiting a long period of self-employment and looking for a new challenge. I was pretty unsure about what direction to take my career in next, so when this opportunity came along I was pretty intrigued by the underlying challenge of scaling design in a brand new sector and context.

On the surface, the role was just that, an individual contributor role; join a team, make stuff better, standard bread and butter designer role stuff. But there was a more exciting agenda at the heart of it which was the real draw for me.

This particular charity, like many organisations navigating their way through digital transformation agendas, are desperately looking for ways to shift from old to new ways creating a Digital Product Design role as an essential ingredient to build on that effort. I’ve found that often, the thought of allocating, or even adding head count for designers is seen as a risk and not that high on the priority list (digital transformation is about technology right?) And that was what interested me the most. I would be entering an organisation to prove that Digital Product Design and UX is integral to being successful in today’s digital landscape. Could I be a catalyst for change? Could I elevate and highlight digital design practices, scale it and play my part sparking some change not just to user experiences, but to processes, mindsets and ways of working?

To me, the idea of putting the practice of design to the test in this way is as meaty and complex a design challenge one can tackle. It’s not just about screens and flows, or users and experiences. It’s largely about people, processes, hearts and minds. So I dived in head first, full of ambition for what could be achieved, but also confident how all my experiences to date would equip me for the challenge that lay ahead.

That was September 2021.

Fast forward 15 months and I had come to a ‘stick or twist’ moment (I’ll fill in the gaps of what I actually did in subsequent posts). As a UX design team of one I felt I had done as much as I could to sufficiently start the journey of UX maturity, albeit foundational stuff, and demonstrate the value of growing the capacity and culture of design. Unfortunately, that didn’t really come to fruition, and I can understand why. Knowing what I know now, it was always going to be a hard sell given the current economic and political environment; covid, wars, famines, cost of living crisis, the list goes on.

In the end I decided not to ‘stick’ but ‘twist’. Not because I didn’t believe it was doable or worthy a cause, or that I didn’t have buy-in. But more because it was becoming increasingly clear that to achieve the organisational shift that I (we) first envisaged before taking the role, I would have to be really patient and buckle up for the 3-5 year slog of banging on doors and waiting for things to happen – slowly. It was time to gather up all the learnings and take them into something new.

I do largely believe I was successful despite the role not playing out how I had imagined. I believe I managed to have an impact and bring a big group of people along on a journey with me. Lots of people now see what design can do beyond just pushing pixels and understand the value of design and designers where they might not have fully understood it before. That, on reflection, is a huge win, and dare I say, achievement?!.

So what did I learn?

Since leaving this role I’ve been reflecting and thinking about what lessons I learnt, attempting to deconstruct the experience into some principles that I believe to have given me success. Maybe they’ll benefit others that find themselves in a similar situation.

If you’re a designer who finds yourself in a similar situation and you’re engulfed by people and processes that look very different to ones that help you flourish as a designer then perhaps at least some of this will be useful to you as you continue to influence others to walk to the beat of your drum.

Now to the good stuff.

(Three subsequent posts coming soon)