Starting in 2016, Whisk evolved into a distributed company and I started working less and less in a physical office space with team members around me. While I greatly value the freedom and flexibility that distributed working offers, I do miss the magic of in-person design collaboration. Being distributed naturally introduces friction and forces us to adopt new ways of working together.
Since Whisk went fully distributed, I’ve always been experimenting with ways to create a digital version of the ‘open office’ of yesteryear, where you can stroll over to another designer’s desk to see what they are working on, using the technology at our disposal and the benefits of asynchronous collaboration.
1. Ensure all work is transparent and accessible
This might sound like a no-brainer: when designers are spread across the world working within their own documents/files, collaboration is filled with friction. Google Docs default to private. Figma files end up in your personal (not team) project. No one can lean over your shoulder and take a peek at your work.
It takes a conscious effort to make sure ideas, documents, designs, etc… are easily accessible for others to jump in, see progress, and contribute.
To achieve this kind of open digital studio you need two things:
- A culture that deeply understands and appreciates early collaboration. To be truly open you need to remove the stigma of “not ready to share” work. The team needs to be willing to show work at early stages. And it’s crucial to be sensitive in nurturing early ideas. Trust within the team plays an important role.
- Systems and processes that default to shared and accessible for all those within the organisation. Creating a new Figma design file should end up in a team-accessible project and be cross-linked to Notion/GoogleDocs/etc so others immediately know where to find it.
2. Clearly define standards and process around file organisation
After defaulting to transparent and accessible, the next step is aligning the team around how to organise design work. Creativity is a naturally messy process, but a guiding framework for how Figma files are setup makes it easier for other designers to dive in, navigate, contribute, and borrow ideas for their own projects. It makes all our work modular, interconnected, and intuitive to work with.
Some of the processes that help us stay aligned:
- A readme page — every file needs to have a readme page that sets the context (objective) of the project, shows it’s status, who owns it, and links to other relevant documents (such as Notion for a detailed PRD).
- Project folders — putting your file in the right project means that, by default, the right people have access to it. Simple!
- Shared style and component libraries — all our work is connected to common style and pattern libraries so we’re always working from the same source of truth: our design system.
- Common page and layer structures — conventions around page organisation makes navigating files easier. Designers know where to drop their feedback and engineers know where to find the production-ready designs.
3. Develop habitual asynchronous communication
Making all work open and accessible by default reduces some of the typical “communication” needed to collaborate, but building a strong muscle for quick, async communication is even more powerful (and necessary) to have strong collaboration between team members spread across timezones.
Through thoughtful and timely async communication, our design engine keeps projects moving day and night — ideas are constantly being built upon and improved by team members around the globe.
Some ways we’re doing this:
Slack updates — designers share short updates that signal progress and focuses attention on a specific area of the work. A quick message a few times per week with some context + links to design goes a long way to having an open and collaborative culture.
Showing thought process in Figma —capturing design thinking next to the designs helps others get up to speed faster and give more valuable feedback. Give context on constraints, directions explored, and where you really need feedback.
Commenting within Figma —using the built-in comment feature is the standard/easy way to share ideas and feedback. It works really well because it’s in context (right on top of the designs) and actionable (it’s can be treated as a to-do).
Video messages — showing and speaking to the work is the highest bandwidth way to transfer ideas. We use Loom.com. We try to keep our video messages to less than 5 minutes (and of course encourage liberal use of the 2x playback option).
4. Default to visual feedback (the designer’s superpower)
All the above methods have a time and place, but the most effective tactic we use across all of them is visual feedback.
Instead of writing or explaining feedback we strive to show ideas (in any medium: from crude google slides boxes-and-arrows to ipad sketches to high-fidelity prototypes). Anything other than words will get the idea across more quickly and more clearly. Defaulting to visual rather than written or spoken feedback catalyses the entire design and development process. It also immediately reveals if it’s bad feedback (for example: it looks worse, it can’t be executed, it’s too half-baked).
This is an often under-utilised superpower of designers and helps supercharge every day situations, it helps other designers take the next step faster. Learning to communicate visually quickly is something we’re actively training within the design team here.
Figma makes visual ideation so easy with component libraries. It’s easy to create prototypes at lightning speed. But high-fidelity isn’t always appropriate or accessible so another tactic I’ve been exploring recently (especially for ideas that are more early stage and abstract), is using my iPad and Pencil to create “napkin” sketches in real-time. It’s surprisingly fun, creative, and collaborative on otherwise mundane video calls.
5. Maintain regular real-time collaboration moments
Great design work cannot sustain on asynchronous communication alone. That’s why we do weekly Design Syncs (a quick round robin of updates and peeks into the work) and Design Reviews (deep dive discussions into the user experience and visual design work). These moments allow us to have real-time discussions about the work, but also give us the chance to enjoy fun/random/personal discussions! I’ve seen it build trust and relationships within the team and bring energy to the work, even if the discussions themselves don’t always result in the best ideas.