The Sky Ain’t the Limit

A welcome end of the rock star era gives way to the dawn of great design teams. With it comes the need for visionary leadership to help people see that which does not yet exist.

It was 1940, and the Allied forces supply lines were heavily under attack—losing ships, men, and thousands of tons of vital supplies to enemy submarines each month. A man named Henry J. Kaiser won a contract to build cargo vessels for the British war effort.

Less than a year after Kaiser secured the contract, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, devastating the naval fleet stationed there. Suddenly the United States found itself at war. The immediate need for ships that could power the US war effort was critical. Kaiser stepped forward at just the right moment and achieved the impossible.

Kaiser was an industrial visionary who had helped build Hoover Dam, one of the greatest Public Works projects in US history; the Grand Coulee Dam, which stripped the Great Pyramid of Egypt of its title of Greatest Man-Made Structure on Earth; and the Oakland Bay Bridge, whose great span carried hundreds of thousands of people each day to the shining city of San Francisco. All were constructed in record-breaking time. Incredibly, whenever he seized an opportunity that was supposedly beyond what he had the experience to tackle, he achieved results that far surpassed what anyone expected.

Despite knowing nothing about shipbuilding, Kaiser was able to keep the US war effort afloat and simultaneously change the entire shipbuilding industry. In just three months, Kaiser’s crew had everything in place required to produce the nearly 1,500 vessels necessary to assure victory and the protection of the nation. Kaiser the dam builder had the beginnings of what would become one of the most successful shipyards in naval history.

Kaiser was a leader with purpose, vision, and commitment. He was the driving force behind enormous projects and monuments that stand to this day. He changed lives, industries, and even had a hand in the fate of our nation. But he didn’t do it alone.

Kaiser won the shipbuilding contract because he had a proven and trusted team that had conquered insurmountable challenges in the past. These were men who shared Kaiser’s belief that anything was possible and who, under his guidance and direction, were given the freedom to experiment, invent, and establish new systems needed to overcome the challenges before them.

This time, he focused his team on innovating the shipbuilding process. They eagerly took advantage of the latest technology available and created an entirely new process that transformed a previously slow, manual practice into one that enabled thousands of people (skilled and unskilled) to help construct the vessels that played a part in the Allied victory.

For example, Kaiser did away with the current pattern of using rivets to join all the seams on a vessel, which required pairs of skilled laborers to accomplish all the work. Instead, he found that welding the joints and seams produced as strong a ship—if not stronger—and cut the finish time from twelve months to approximately five days. By changing one specific step in the process (welding seams), Kaiser and his team were able to set a world record for fastest ship built. Kaiser did more than assemble ships; he revolutionized an industry.

Kaiser earned the trust and respect of industry giants throughout his career. More importantly, he knew how to instill his vision in his teams, which motivated and inspired them to do far more than they believed they were capable of achieving.

What if a design team applied these kinds of principles? How can a leader—a creative director, art director, or anyone responsible for design in an organization—help a team be more efficient, passionate, and capable of greatness?

The era of the Rockstar Designer is waning. How many of us cringe at this notion already? The era of great design teams is dawning. We need to change our attitudes and approach projects with much less me and much more we if our industry is to help lead and shape the future of business, commerce, and society. Unfortunately, the notion that designers are divas—who are difficult to work with and who care nothing for business goals—continues to undermine our industry as it attempts to mature.

A design team must be well versed in the business and product goals of the company, understand the basics of the technology powering the product, and be able to both visually and verbally articulate answers to the problems they are presented with. As such, we cannot be content with simply pushing pixels around, writing perfectly semantic markup, or delivering copious IA wireframes.

How many designers and teams aren’t really doing due diligence: researching, examining branding and business goals, learning the intricacies of their client’s product or service, unearthing the desires and experiences of the people the client wants to reach? Too often, the same design style—beautiful and finessed as it may be—is churned out whether the client is a baby boomer health-and-fitness service, a sewing machine manufacturer, or a start-up with a new gizmo for collaborating on projects within organizations. Regurgitated style over slim substance is the opposite of design and certainly the enemy of innovation.

If we take a cue from Kaiser’s approach to achieving the impossible and his facility with team organization, we would turn loose the talented, passionate people we hired to do what they do best. We would do everything possible to remove the friction around process and move past these clichés about design (and clichés within our designs) once and for all.

As we can see with Kaiser, our design teams need the type of strong leadership that provides just the right amount of freedom, original vision, and structure for people to shine.

Miles Davis, one of the most influential jazz musicians in the last sixty years, was a man with an unwavering vision. Through a lifetime of dedication and a relentless pursuit of his passion, he ushered in whole eras in jazz music. In 1959, Miles assembled a group of some of the most talented musicians in the industry—including saxophonists John Coltrane and “Cannonball” Adderly, pianist Bill Evans, and others—to record what would become one of the most important and critically acclaimed works of jazz of all time, the album Kind of Blue.

Miles’s vision for what he intended to elicit out of these men was clear and direct. He provided a new musical framework that allowed them unprecedented freedom of expression. He was intent on creating a new form of expression that broke away from bebop’s dense, complex style of jazz, which had evolved during the previous decade. His vision—and the talent and ability to think in new ways backing it up—changed the landscape of jazz forever and launched most of his sidemen into jazz stardom.

Another visionary, Steve Jobs, once said, “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” When leaders hold themselves to a higher standard of accountability, the team will also rise and hold one another to a higher standard. Miles Davis was revered for his mastery of the trumpet and was known for his exacting standards of musicianship. He was an innovator. He pushed those around him to greater and greater heights and was relentless in his demand for excellence. Sometimes, these words from Jobs and stories of other people who make magnificent things happen rush by us but are not taken to heart. Are we actually stopping to examine precisely how we fail and succeed at this in our work?

Great leaders do not tolerate an environment where people belittle, demean, or humiliate each other. Rather, they promote and provide honest criticism (constructive, objective, and useful) and challenge people to reach beyond what they believe they can achieve. Great leaders also guard against a sense of entitlement among team members and within themselves—that irrational expectation of favorable treatment and unquestioned compliance with one’s expectations—as it can be cancerous to the team and potentially to the entire organization.

It is essential to keep an eye on all these facets of leadership and often equally important that we not take ourselves too seriously. Kaiser was known for having painted his cement trucks bright pink simply because he thought it was a happy color. As ridiculous as it seems, little acts of playfulness like this provide a respite from the mundane and encourage a team to have fun.

Both Kaiser and Davis were known for being playful, and yet they demanded a great deal out of those working closely with them. Kaiser in particular focused on cultivating a diligent management process that was—in his mind—the key component in ensuring the speedy completion of any project. So playfulness must know its place. Too much process can cause a design team to get lost in a quagmire of rules and regulations, ultimately stunting creativity. People like Kaiser know that process must have a purpose; it doesn’t exist for its own sake. However, with too little process, you end up with each designer doing what is right in his or her own eyes, a design free-for-all that loses sight of challenge and purpose.

Discipline is a set of self-imposed rules, parameters within which we operate. It is a bag of tools that allows us to design in a consistent manner from beginning to end. Discipline is also an attitude that provides us with the capacity of controlling our creative work so that it has continuity of intent throughout rather than fragmentation. Design without discipline is anarchy, an exercise of irresponsibility.

— Massimo Vignelli1

Designers are notorious for allowing themselves more latitude than they should for the sake of creativity. The result can lead to a visual language that lacks consistency and meanders in purpose. Yes, a rigid process can lead to a rigid product. However, eschewing process in favor of “flexibility” or “creativity” will only perpetuate the notion that designers are unpredictable and lack a sense of accountability.

Research has shown that children function best and are most secure when they have structure and clearly defined boundaries. Designers are no different. Ask yourself when the last time was that you and your team put your process under the microscope? We all know how design and development companies describe their process on their websites. But let’s be honest, that description often does not reflect the day-to-day reality of the life of a project.

Even a semi-defined structure will reduce the tendency to fixate, over-think, and over-iterate on a problem. Involving the entire team in the process of developing this system helps you reduce general confusion and allows the team to work quickly and iteratively within those constraints, producing a higher quality product in the end.

Standardizing a basic set of tools that are used by the whole team will also radically improve the way the team operates and the methods by which they deliver results. Standardization, then, helps everyone to feel a greater sense of ownership of the final product. Using the same set of tools is a big step toward ensuring consistency in design patterns, allowing for iteration, and the speedy propagation of design changes across the team.

When some designers are using Photoshop® and Illustrator®, some are using Fireworks®, and still others are spending their day in OmniGraffle®, expect a fair amount of friction around the sharing of files, assets, and overall comprehension of the project. A smaller set of common tools will help to decrease friction and also allow the design team to talk about the designs in a consistent manner. And that, invariably, will lead to more credibility with other teams (or clients).

Credibility also comes when a design team creates a culture that fosters and rewards the ability to rethink standard practices that may not be best practices. The ability to deliver a solution that was clearly the result of thinking outside of conventional methods will continually attract talented people who refuse to be limited by the way things are done today.

Kaiser said, “The fundamental assumption is that there is nothing that reasonable men undertake which cannot be accomplished.” Some called this positive ignorance, but to others it was simply vision mixed with audacity and entrepreneurial prowess. His spirit and optimism could be seen in the astonishing techniques the Kaiser engineers were able to invent. How do you quickly yet safely build a dam so gigantic that it would normally take two hundred years for its concrete to cool and, therefore, dry? They embedded water pipes into the concrete itself, to carry away the heat. Now, that is innovative design thinking that ignored conventional best practices of the day.

The people who have helped define what it means to design in this era of the web pushed forward, confident they could challenge conventional wisdom and uncover new ways to do things. Men and women like Zeldman, Holzschlag, Clarke, Veen, and Bowman helped lead the Web Standards movement at the turn of this century. More recently we have designers like Marcotte, who challenges us to think responsively, and Wroblewski, who urges us to take a mobile first approach. These people and others like them are the living proof of the positive ignorance in our field, an irrepressible optimism that there is nothing that we can’t do, even if we can’t do it quite yet.

It is the implementation of all of these concepts together as a system that will allow a design team to have the time, space, and resources to do what it does best—articulate, refine, and solve problems beautifully. Design can be most powerful when it helps people to see that which does not yet exist.

Now, more than ever, design teams are being given the chance to help lead and shape the future of businesses. The day may be coming soon when corporations and institutions respect the opinions and contributions of design teams as much as they do the engineering and financial divisions of their organizations.

If you want to create things that people love, if you want to cultivate a team that can accomplish the impossible, it is essential to find the kind of leaders who are driven to find ways to change the behavior, process, and thinking of their teams.

The era of great design teams is upon us. It will be led by men and women who challenge what we think is possible, inspire us to do more than we believe we can, and encourage us to be even greater than they are.

These leaders free us as teams to reach inside ourselves and create what has never been seen or done before.

When you’re creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain’t the limit.

— Miles Davis

  1. Massimo Vignelli, The Vignelli Cannon, (Lars Muller Publishers, 2010).

Josh brewer

Josh Brewer is a husband and father who spends his time thinking about, designing, and building things that live at the intersection of form, function, and aesthetic. Formerly Principal Designer at Twitter, he lives in San Francisco and co-created the usability blog 52 Weeks of UX.

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Illustration by Mike Lemanski · Portrait by Paul Blow