The importance of having a designer on staff 10 Aug 2005

53 comments Latest by Adam Landrum

A significant percentage of the clients we’ve worked with in the past 6 years have healthy engineering teams in-house, but they lack a single designer. Flush with programmers, devoid of designers. That’s not a healthy ratio.

The interface is the product. It’s the touchpoint between you and your customers. It’s the translator between two parties that often speak different languages. If you’re unable to control that touchpoint to a significant degree on your own then you’re putting your business in someone else’s hands.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating bringing all design in-house. It’s very important to be open to working with outside firms with loads of experience, fresh eyes, and a deep understanding of what works on the web, but you really shouldn’t rely on the outside 100% for something that is so critical to the inside, to the core of your business.

This is most evident when it comes to updating a site that’s already launched. Yes, a talented web design firm such as silverorange or Adaptive Path, or some top-of-their-game freelancers such as D. Keith Robinson, Dan Cederholm, or Dave Shea can get you quite far and put you in a beautiful launch position, but what happens 3 months down the road? What if you need to make a change tomorrow? What if you need to launch a new section today? Sure, you can call them up and hope they’re free, but the real answer is that you should have a competent designer on staff to help grow the site. Design needs daily tweaking just like programming needs daily tweaking to squash bugs and optimize the code. Relying 100% on outsourcing for updates is a sure way to slow down your progress. Having to go outside all the time makes change expensive and we should all strive to bring the cost of change down, not up.

So the point is this: If you’re building a team, make sure a designer is in the cards. Don’t skimp — or skip — on in-house design talent. Work with experts on the outside, but do your best to mirror that expertise on the inside.

53 comments so far (Jump to latest)

David E. 10 Aug 05

Amen. As an in-house designer, I can run circles around any outside agency when it comes to knowing our application and our users. And I can pour hours into a projects and new ideas that I would never get to do as an hourly consultant.

Too nitpicky fer sure 10 Aug 05

I’m gonna be a downer here…
No doubt that doc, dan and dave are excellent with xhtml/css, but top-of-their-game designers? Sure they’ve got clean stuff, but nobody is pushing any design limits; they’re pushing xhtml/css, but absolutely not on a straight visual level.

dmr 10 Aug 05

David makes a fine point, in-house folks can concentrate time on learning some new tricks (and get paid for that) while the freelancers might have moved on since the last project. Yay in-house. The sad trend is to axe the in-house staff, boy I hope doesn’t become too trendy. Who else knows the workings of an org better than the in-house guys? That often shows thru in projects.

Melanie 10 Aug 05

I have been begging my company to bring in a designer for ages.

I am a programmer, not a designer, and while I can build basic structures that do the job, they are just not nice things to look at.

But they keep saying, oh, what you do is fine.

dmr 10 Aug 05

Thinking about it, I’m on the flip-side. We’ve got in-house designers and no programmer support; so i’m left to fake it with my php/mysql hackery. Where can I find some good freelance php kids? I have trust concerns with folks on rentacoder and sites like that and a search for php freelance is mostly garbage…

James 10 Aug 05

It’s just one requirement of many for a good team. Mostly I’ve found that a full time Designer is not required because although the Designers can advice, - the implementation is left up to the engineers. The hard part IMHO is the implementation. Anyone can design..

Mathew Patterson 10 Aug 05

“The hard part IMHO is the implementation. Anyone can design..”

Only 7 posts in! You wouldn’t be an engineer by any chance James? Hopefully the engineers derive their coding specifications from what is required on the front end. That is where the designer is, working out what is needed.

James 10 Aug 05

Maybe I should clarify. In my last job we had a list of about 1000 issues. All known. Adding more designers doesn’t solve a thing. We just needed good enginneers to fix and implement, fix and implement.

Mathew Patterson 10 Aug 05

In my last job we had a list of about 1000 issues. All known. Adding more designers doesn�t solve a thing.

Sure, if there is no front-end impact of any of the issues. If there is, maybe designers could help you prioritise the most important ones, and solve them in the most effective way for the end user.

James 10 Aug 05

Well, I consider myself both a designer and an engineer. I’m not trying to start some kind of flame fest.

I think part of my problem with this post is what is meant by the term ‘Designer’. Someone who creates functional specs? Well, that’s a Business Analyst. Someone who structures data and page flow? Well that’s more Information Architect. Designer to me reaks of photoshop mockups and font choice.

In a team of 6 people I wouldn’t be adding a designer as my 7th.

Mathew Patterson 10 Aug 05

It may well be a definition problem with ‘designer’. In any case, even with only 6 people, somebody is going to be doing the design.

I’m sure many of us have used websites that work like they were designed by a programmer for other programmers.

Darrel 10 Aug 05

I got lucky getting my current gig. They weren’t necessarily looking for someone with visual design skills, but they saw I had a portfolio and realized their would be some value to that.

If for no other reason, I think hiring an in-house designer can save a company a HUGE amount of money by making them the contact point for choosing and hiring other design vendors.

“The hard part IMHO is the implementation. Anyone can design.”

Implementation is design. Yes, anyone can design. Anyone can implement. Some folks are better at it than others.

Darrel 10 Aug 05

Yes, the definition is usually a huge hurdle.

Information Architects, Copywriters, Business Analysts, PHP coders, DB admins, interface designers, graphic designers etc. They all are part of the design team, focusing on different aspects of the overall project.

There are many, many design professions. I’ve always found it odd that only Graphic, Fashion, Interior and Industrial designers actually slap the ‘designer’ on the end. And between those four professions, they all refer to themselves indivdiually as ‘designers’

8500 10 Aug 05

“In a team of 6 people I wouldn�t be adding a designer as my 7th.”

Interesting. I would consider a visual designer as a key role in a small team, especially given the fact that quality design creates credibility for a new application.

Related study:How Do People Evaluate a Web Site’s Credibility?

My Ideal Six Man Team for a Web Project:
Project Manager (customer contact)
Visual Designer
Usability Architect
Technical Writer
Middle-ware Programmer
Database Engineer

Dan Boland 10 Aug 05

I�ve always found it odd that only Graphic, Fashion, Interior and Industrial designers actually slap the �designer� on the end.

Don’t forget “web.” =)

Anyway, I don’t think it’s really necessary to bring in a full-time designer for “daily tweaking.” As long as you have someone with a decent eye for color and positioning, that should suffice.

Mathew Patterson 10 Aug 05

Let’s not forget the original post here either - Jason’s specific reference was to having someone internal to do the daily bits, and not get stuck outsourcing them.

The time cost alone is a killer if you want to be an agile business.

Scott Trudeau 10 Aug 05

“Absolutely - I�ve worked in-house and also as an external consultant, and the really interesting work is always in the follow-up to the big designs�”

Mathew, this statement (and this conversation, generally) reminds me of Stewart Brand’s book “How Buildings Learn” (highly recommended). One of the central ideas to the book is his criticism of the values of the architecture community. The focus tends to be on the final product immediately before a building actually becomes occupied by actual humans — at which point the architect disappears. He advocates that architects need to spend much more time worrying about the much more interesting phase of a buildings life, as the inhabitants adapt it to their needs.

What I get from this conversation is that there is certainly value to having an “architect” around after an initial design comes in to being to help guide the evolution of the design of a site (just like we keep coders around for the same reason). There’re many parallels between Brand’s thoughts on how to think about buildings and the whole “Getting Real” 37s approach to building software…

MH 10 Aug 05


> In my last job we had a list of about 1000 issues.

Taking only the UI-impacting issues out of those, who decided how to fix them (or WHETHER to fix them)? Often times I see bugs written up that include directions for how to fix them, while misstating the real problem.

A problem with teams that have no designers (and no design-saavy developers) is that bugs get fixed just as they are reported, with little or no triage.

Chris S 10 Aug 05

A good designer solves user interaction problems and a great designer solves them in advance.

Unless you’re lucky, the programmers/developers/engineers don’t have that as their first priority.

JR 10 Aug 05

But how do you find a good designer to be on staff? We decided to follow JF’s advice and add a person to our team. I’ve been through dozens of CareerBuilder resumes without finding anyone 37signals would ever consider hiring.

Faruk Ateş 10 Aug 05

As much as it may be true what you’re saying here, for a lot of companies there’s just not enough work to do for an in-house fulltime designer, and finding parttimers for it is quite a challenge. Most of them are either fulltime workers or freelancers such as the ones you’ve mentioned.

Designers tend to cost a lot of money (rightly so, mind you), and for companies who have all but their own single corporate website, they’re just not worth the cost. Most of the time, they’d sit by idly, reading blogs and the like, rarely doing actual design work on the website.

You say that a design needs daily tweaking; I disagree. A good design should not need tweaking for at least quite some time. Fiddling with a design constantly will confuse end-users, as everything they’re used to keeps changing. Fine nuances in designs wouldn’t have that problem as much, but a good design really should have most, if not all, of the fine nuances in place already upon delivery.

If interfaces change on a weekly basis, we’d all get lost. Name me one big succesful website, product or program that has very regular design changes. The most regular I can come up with myself is yearly — hiring a designer for a full year only to have them do valuable work one month in the year is just not cost-efficient.

Mathew Patterson 10 Aug 05

Name me one big succesful website, product or program that has very regular design changes.… constantly testing small variations on various groups of users. You do raise a good point about finding someone if you can’t use them full-time.

I think there must be a lot of companies that would rather have a more experienced person part time than a junior or multi-tasker full time.

How can those companies find somebody - I’m not sure.

dmr 10 Aug 05

I’m saddened by how many here are devaluing design. Does anyone here look at Print magazine? People are equating type & color selection to good design. I thought the svn community were Mac lovers who understood and appreciated good design.

“As long as you have someone with a decent eye for color and positioning, that should suffice.”

Yikes, maybe anyone with a copy of Photoshop will suffice.

“Anyone can design”

Wow; there’s an insight. Let’s add:
Anyone can write.
Anyone can make art.
Anyone can engineer.
And anyone can critique!

A "Designer" 10 Aug 05

Where was your designer when basecamp was built? on holiday?

Did Google have “designers” when they designed their search engine?

Microsoft does have designers, a whole team of them, and it shows.

That is why “designers” are a bad idea!

Kevin Gerich 10 Aug 05

Big succesful websites don’t redesign often, but they constantly evolve by adding new content, sections, products, advertising.

If a designer not part of that evolution, the site will be a pile of crap before long. Does the cost of a total redesign to fix the broken site outweigh the cost of a competent full-time designer?

Darrel 10 Aug 05

A designer (ANY type of designer, really, but let’s just assume graphic or visual or interface designer) can always be kept busy. There’s plenty of documentation design that needs to be done, always interface polishing, exploring new ideas, beta projects, experimenting, user interviewing, user testing, etc, etc.

Dan Boland 10 Aug 05

dmr: Hey, thanks for taking me out of context. I was clearly referring to “daily tweaking,” per Jason’s original post. My definition of tweaking is making a minor adjustment. And I certainly wasn’t devaluing design. I was devaluing the absolute necessity of hiring a full-time designer for tweaks.

Mike Rundle 10 Aug 05

James - are you thinking that designers are all one-dimensional?

Just because someone is a great designer, doesn’t mean they can’t write code, think logically, implement solutions, squash bugs, and help on the architecture and infrastructure side.

Faruk Ateş 10 Aug 05

Mathew: yeah, but I don’t see Amazon change weekly either, and they’re really quite big enough to be able to afford a few dozen designers full-time, too. Not many companies (like… most ;-)) are as big as Amazon.

JF 10 Aug 05

Mathew: yeah, but I don�t see Amazon change weekly either, and they�re really quite big enough to be able to afford a few dozen designers full-time, too. Not many companies (like� most ;-)) are as big as Amazon.

Actually, changes almost daily. They’re A/B testing, tweaking, modifying, trying, and experimenting all the time.

Steven Manes 10 Aug 05

JF/37Sers — do you guys have any tips for finding these guys? Seriously, I’ve been pulling my hair out trying to find a designer who will work on staff at a software company. The problem doesn’t seem to be pay, benefits, etc. Good designers seem to think working day in and day out at the same software company just isn’t that cool. If you guys start a ‘Jobs’ section ala Joel Spolsky, we’ll post in it. Host the conversation, be cluetrain-ified, etc. Especially if you’re not really courting new design business.

On preread - Faruk: are you crazy? Amazon changes its interface almost every day.

Darrel 10 Aug 05

Good designers seem to think working day in and day out at the same software company just isn�t that cool.

Target local interactive organizations. They tend to attrack the more tech-orientated designer (at least moreso than org’s like AIGA).

Faruk: are you crazy? Amazon changes its interface almost every day.

I don’t think Faruk is crazy, just typical. To many people equate ‘design’ solely with ‘did the font/color/clip art change?’

Sean 10 Aug 05


I have to agree with Mr. Manes, how do we programmers looking to start a project/team/company find really good designers since we appear to travel in separate circles?

I know I could post on the job sites and in newspapers — but there must be some place where kick ass designers hang-out online (besides the forum sites like DesignOutput where you post a job for mercenary designers to tackle).


ed 10 Aug 05

An interesting discussion, especially as relating to software design and dev… One point to consider - if you haven’t already - is a visual designer either enhances or diminishes the user�s perception of a product. While the IA and code may be exquisitely implemented, successful visual design relies on far more esoteric principles: is it attractive, is it pleasing to view numerous times, does it place the product in the proper context? A competent designer addresses all of these principles.

Sally Carson 10 Aug 05

Something to consider for the company that already has an in-house web team and is thinking about outsourcing:

I, too, am an in-house Web Designer for a large e-commerce site. We recently outsourced the visual design (by that, I mean photoshop mockups) for a redesign that we just launched and it’s had an interesting effect on the in-house web design team. I find that it has suddenly shifted our roles from being expert interface designers (we do tons of usability testing, A/B testing, etc) to basically being a maintenance team, fixing broken images and the like.

We had to outsource because our team is understaffed (there’s me, one intern, and one temporary contractor). We’re having the same problem that others in this thread have had with finding good in-house designers to add to their teams! But, this predicament does not create a rewarding in-house design experience, you know?

Geoffrey 10 Aug 05

I find it interesting how a lot of people think that the Google Web site wasn’t “designed.” Do people honestly think design didn’t play a huge role in deciding not to add the extra 200 functions people didn’t need? That decision had everything to do with design.

B. Adam 10 Aug 05

Sally: Mind if I ask why Crutchfield isn’t accepting applications from telecommuters? I know you probably don’t have anything to do with that decision, but my guess is that the reason you’re not getting resumes from quality designers is, at least in part, because they don’t want to move to Virginia.

With email, IM, video conferencing and apps like Basecamp, I’ve been asking myself quite a lot lately why more businesses aren’t willing to hire more fulltime, offsite web designers and developers. Especially if they won’t actually be meeting with clients face-to-face.

Wesley Walser 10 Aug 05

Having a designer on staff is useful to more industries than just software development. Every business could stand to have one around. You know that awful word art on last months ‘whatever’ that everyone got a copy of. Yeah, guess why thats there.

Faruk Ateş 11 Aug 05

Darrel, Steven, JF:

Okay, so amazon changes it daily. I probably don’t visit Amazon sites more than once a month, which would explain why I don’t notice such things. Each time I get back there, I don’t remember what it looked like exactly the last time I visited…

Rimantas 11 Aug 05

So, Faruk, you illustrate two things:
a) good design is invisible
b) people tend not to notice small changes (


Anders M 11 Aug 05

So where do I find a talented freelance interface designer with CSS programming skills suitable for web application project ? Here ?

Shawn 11 Aug 05

The only real drawback to being an in-house designer is that “other duties as needed” clause in the job description. I didn’t remember signing up for Powerpoint duty… that’s not in my list of skills… how the?!? …what the?!?
Another thing is that as an in-house designer you’ve got to watch the outsourced crew very closely. We recently did a design overhaul of the company image which we outsourced and I matched our website redesign to the designs that the outside company did for all our printed collateral.
Well, I didn’t watch close enough. We’d gone to great pains to get fonts tested and approved for our terminal services environment (I’m one of few on a real computer) and worked on getting everyone to use these fonts, set up templates, etc… When I wasn’t looking the designers felt it necessary to replace Myriad with Trebuchet and make our headline font a protected version of Futura. We ended up with a stupid common body font with no variations (I had the full family of Myriad including expanded and condensed to work with) and a headline font that can’t be embedded in PDF files.
So, watch them closely. While they do good work they might not tell you straight up that they ignored your font usage requirements and slip something through while the boss is out and the in-house designer is buried in code.

Geof Harries 11 Aug 05

Ooh, no closing tag on the blockquote. So much for my XHTML skills :)

When is SvN going to update with a Preview tool?


David Geller 11 Aug 05

I’d like to hire someone to work on internal HTML/CSS and site-oriented JavaScript asap. They’ll have a major role in shaping updates to our user interface and helping us develop a cohesive plan for building online training programs (with Flash Video).

Anyone have leads on folks that might be looking for something like this in the Seattle area? We’re a small but profitable firm of really nice people located in Pioneer Square. Pet and kid friendly office! Developers are all cool folks that work on Macs programming Java. Our clients are really cool too.

BTW - great thread!

Mathew Patterson 12 Aug 05

Get these visually-oriented people into regular engineering, requirements analysis and IA discussions throughout the lifecycle. The good designers, the ones you want to keep around in the long term, will step up and offer a unique and important perspective on the work.

Precisely! Hopefully you will combine them with programmers who are interested in usability testing and feedback too.

Tim Storm 14 Aug 05

You can put my company on the “in search of a designer” list.

I know that the 37s way is to “say no by default”, but hey… how about it… host the conversation. (oh wait… I guess you already are in this topic?)

Daniel Schutzsmith 16 Aug 05

I am completely surprised the way some people are talking in this post. If we took away the dates you’d think this was still 1999 and we were all getting paid 100k to sit and do html slicing all day!

One thing that I don’t see anyone really commenting on here is the hybrid of designer and developer. There is no reason that a developer shouldn’t understand and have a healthy respect for the design of a project and vice versa.

However, I am seeing that many of you are in deep need of finding a part-time or inhouse designer that isn’t afraid to work with projects that may not be deemed “Rock Star”. My answer to that is that everyone has to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you truly enjoy the project you are working on, what matters is that you provide a logical and well planned solution to the problem.

I mean, am I going nuts? I know most of you are IA’s and Developers but don’t knock the design process.

Scott M 19 Aug 05

Have to agree with the importance of the in-house designer. However don’t neglect the different views an external designer can bring to a project.

I work in-house full time for a fairly large company. In most cases when a new project starts, the project managers will give both the in-house design team as well as an external team a chance to produce some prototypes.

This creates some really interesting results. In mose cases the in-house team hit’s the mark in terms of a following the functional spec and creating a nice to-the-point set of designs. The external teams often produce ideas in the prototypes that haven’t been thought of, and it’s down to the fact they’re not as heavily involed in the project, they have an outside view.

We then take the best bits from both in-house and external. Once the project is created, the in-house team constantly works on keeping everything in tune.

Kind of went off on a tangent here. But I really feel there should be more in-house designers.

Justin Morton 22 Aug 05

I am surprised to see that no one has yet mentioned a “designer” as a user interface specialist, and, even more specifically, the role that a bonified UI specialist plays within an enterprise.

Take a paradigm shift from the land of the Photoshop designer and understand that the UI is a conduit between the customer and the application. Client facing skills are inherent — project management, communications, understanding of middleware, design components, etc.

A good UI specialist is a programmer, a designer; one who first understands the end user, secondly understands the proposed platform, and thirdly builds an interface between the two.

An outsourced UI specialist or designer can not meet the above criteria.

A UI of any value will be developed by someone who first understands the USER who will be INTERFACING with your companies PRODUCT.

It is about people, and products. Not Photoshop.

Adam Landrum 25 Aug 05

My web development company has done it both ways — we’ve had a fulltime designer and we’ve had a part time/freelance designer. Depending on the size of your company (we’re small) both scenarios have their benefits.

If cash flow wasn’t an issue (unfortunately, with small web shops it is!) a fulltime designer is great. However, you can tend to get stuck with one look and feel, so therefore, using freelancers has its advantage. Right now my ex-fulltime designer is working part time—one to two days per week. It’s great. Helps cash flow, but kills the timeliness of getting things done.

Who doesn’t want a fulltime designer if you can afford one? But even better, having a fulltime, all-purpose designer (with HTML coding and CSS skills) and using freelance specialists would be my blend of choice.