Design is a growing field that continues to segment itself into ever smaller, more specialized niches.

It used to be that a single person could take a design from concept to completion with nothing more than a mediocre knowledge of Photoshop and a text editor. Now, design firms have roles for information architects, content strategists, user experience experts, brand designers, illustrators, front-end developers — and that’s not even the half of it. There are a dozen more roles on the development side of things, and more seem to pop up all the time.

But I question this pattern of growth because when segments of the design industry separate and specialize, the project as a whole is in danger of becoming disjointed. Specialists focus intently on their own role while its in front of them and fail to follow through after they hand it off, so that the project as a whole suffers.

Teamwork and Versatility

At The Phuse, we look for versatile individuals that are able to put on different hats during the design process and work together to maintain cohesion. When everyone works together there is no disconnect in the design process between roles. Their work seamlessly becomes our work.

That doesn’t mean that everyone on our team has abilities that run the gamut from brand designer to content strategy to web/print development, but it is vital to our work as a team that everyone understands how their work affects the entire process—not just their part of it.

When Erik designs a brand, he not only thinks about what will fit the image that the client is trying to project, but also how the logo can be modified for print and screen devices without sacrificing quality. When Jenna writes line after line of gorgeous HTML5 and CSS3 code, she not only thinks about how to code more semantically, but how developers will be using that code to display specific functions, whether the site ends up as a WordPress theme or a Rails app.

Part of that versatility comes with experience, both in how to create a product and how to work as a team. It’s vital that each member of the team understands how their actions have consequences, positive or negative, throughout the rest of the project.

The Disconnected Reality of the Design Industry

The way our team works can be interpreted as a microcosm of the ideal design industry. Each segment understands how their work affects the whole, and they all work together with the big picture firmly in sight.

At the end of the project, the website or mobile app, having been passed from one capable set of hands to another so that each member can apply their special skill set, should come together seamlessly, without any disconnect between the visions of each specialist.

In theory it works. Everyone is on the same page and the project doesn’t suffer because it is passed off. But theory and reality are often as disconnected as the segments of the design industry seem to be.

The Hazards of Handoffs

In a running play in American football, the handoff is a clutch move. Without a successful handoff, the play is a flop. If the runningback fumbles and drops the ball, the play is a waste of a down. If the runner doesn’t know where he’s supposed to run, the team could lose yards, lose the ball, or lose the game.

Fortunately, on a good professional football team that rarely happens. Each player knows his role, the whole team has the same goal, and the quarterback and the runningback have done that handoff so many times in practice that it’s completely natural, expected, and easy. The errors are more frequently encountered later, when the defense closes on him too fast, or his blockers let an opponent through the line.

There are handoffs in the design industry, too. For example, at The Phuse, Erik hands the logo off to Mike, who puts it into a web design, then Mike hands the design off to Jenna, who codes it in HTML and CSS. With applications, we then hand the entire thing off to a development team, like Highgroove, who builds a customized back end for the client. The difference between a successful handoff and an unsuccessful one is that we don’t forget about the work after we hand it off. We continue to work together until the project is completed. And we always follow through.

But that microcosm doesn’t always translate in the design industry as a whole. For a company that spends so much time following through and smoothing out the seams in our own projects, it’s repulsive to hear of other companies that don’t follow through after the handoff. Too often we hear of development teams getting handed static HTML/CSS files for five main pages of the application without any explanation regarding the details of the remaining pages. What if development necessitates a crucial design alteration? What if there are additional pages or content that need to be created later?

The development firm is hung out to dry in much the same way as if a runningback completed a perfect handoff only to turn down field and discover that his blockers were nowhere to be found. Are they having a waterbreak? Or are they playing another game altogether?

To take the analogy a step farther, pretend that your client is the owner of the football team. He invested a boatload of money in his team only to watch his blockers wander off in the middle of the game.

Imagine his fury.

No Excuses

If you’ve experienced the hazard of handoffs first-hand, you’ve no need to imagine his fury. In fact, you may have felt it yourself, on the hot breath of your client or in your disgust for design firms that have no conception of the big picture or the importance of following through.

A “specialist studio” has no excuse, either. We’ve got to get out of the mentality of handing things off and moving on to the next project. With no follow through, the big picture suffers. The design becomes disjointed, development lacks cohesion, and, worst of all, the project falls short of the client’s vision. Isn’t that what the big picture is? To create a product that realizes a client’s vision in every sense of the word?

The design industry is expanding rapidly. Segments are separating and specializing, but we can’t let that keep us from creating good work. Teamwork and follow through are the keys. Look to older industries or professional sports for role models if you have to, but don’t let your clients or your work fall short because you can’t figure out how to work as a team.

Additional Advice

  1. Budget for follow through. Explain to clients that some changes may need to be made post-development to smooth out the seams and ensure that everything is up to your impeccable standards.
  1. Sync up. Don’t do this after you’re done, do it before you start. What does the next person need? Do you need to use SASS or Compass, or can you get away with using plain ol’ HTML and CSS? Find out what will make everyone else’s life easier, and make sure you do it. Sometimes it means learning something new. That can be a challenge, but that’s how we grow.
  1. Sync up again. I don’t like handoff documents. Put simply, they suck to read and 90% of the time you’re not going to remember even a fraction of what was on it while you’re working on your part. Make sure you talk to the person you’re handing off to, whether it be a kickoff meeting or a continual process as they hit milestones.

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