Opinion: Bridging the gap between design and development

Opinion: Bridging the gap between design and development
Stewart is a technical director at Cohaesus. Previous to this role, he was head of front-end development at Tribal Worldwide.

(Image Credit: iStockPhoto/AlexAndrews)

Stereotypically, design and development teams within any agency are like warring factions. Design, led by creativity and optimism; development, grounded in reality and pragmatism. Surely it’s no surprise that, on paper, these two polar opposites clash so badly.

Except that they’re not polar opposites at all. The two are completely interlinked disciplines that should, by their very nature, work more closely than any other teams within the business. They should not – as is often the case – be kept at arm’s length.

Taking a silo approach causes both teams to see each other as a hindrance to their own success. Designers feel that their creativity is hampered by restraints of development; developers think design teams have their head in the clouds when it comes to what’s viable.

Getting clued up on the facts

If we’re going to make headway in creating a joined-up approach, we need a change in attitude from both sides. Much of the mystique surrounding the work of each team could be reduced by simply learning a little more about what each actually do.

Speaking as a developer myself, I think it’s fair to say we should all be a little more appreciative of the challenges designers face in complying within stringent brand guidelines and exchanging huge reams of information and communication with the client.

Likewise, designers need to be more understanding of the technical difficulties involved in realising a creative project. It’s no mean feat trying to work out problems and work in functionality within the challenging deadlines expected by clients.

Creating a culture of transparency

A big part of the problem is a lack of collaboration throughout the whole process. I’m a big believer that teams should start communicating as soon as the project comes in. The earlier this conversation happens, the more likely it is that problems can be ironed out.

No developer is a stranger to being landed with a project after it has spent weeks in the hands of management and designers – and having to break it to them that there simply isn’t enough time to turn it around. Don’t get me wrong, working in this sector, you’ll always have to meet tight deadlines – the key here is working together to make the situation as easy as possible.

Lead from the front

But all of these attitudinal changes have to be instigated by management. Of the many leaders I’ve spoken to in my time, only a small percentage are keen on being involved with the people actually making their project a reality. Why is this the case?

Adopting this ‘them and us’ mentality at management level really does permeate through the organisation. It creates division, adds stress and ultimately gets in the way of achieving more within the allotted time. Employees should feel encouraged to interact with their colleagues.

Some developers won’t want to be in meetings all the time – but it’s important that you give them that choice. Involving them in decisions, using their insights to influence design and discussing potential problems sooner all sounds pretty sensible, right?

Creating opportunities

I recently took one of our junior developer apprentices to a client meeting where he met their designers, in-house devs, project managers and the MD. He emerged from the meeting eager and enthused – and it clearly shows in his work. We take the attitude that delegation of tasks shouldn’t be a case of simply throwing a job over the wall to a junior – it should be a two-way process where both sides can learn from each other.

What can we do to bridge the gap?

The ultimate goal is to nurture a cross-pollinating, multi disciplinary, project-based team with all parties being aware of the work of all others. I’ve put together my top recommendations on how to make this happen:

  • Get many different eyes on the project. From devs to designers, you should be getting everyone on the job involved right from the get-go. Not only does it encourage that valuable cross-team discipline, but getting insight from different perspectives is hugely important in the early stages. Learn what can and can’t work at the beginning and you’ve got more scope to produce problem-solving solutions by the end.
  • Project managers need to be organised and strong-willed, ensuring that regular catch ups do actually happen between everyone involved on the project. It’s so easy to let these slide as work and pressure build up, but staff need it – and want it. Make sure everyone’s on task and on time. Keeping designers working to time can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s important in order to allow devs to make their ideas a reality.
  • Instil a respect for each other in your team. Devs and designers should be encouraged right from day one to speak and work closely together to foster better relationships. Both disciplines have their challenges, and it’s very easy for both sides to be cynical. Getting them to recognise and acknowledge the difficulties of each other’s jobs is vital when it comes to handing over the project between teams.

Do you have any other tips for getting design and development teams working closer together? Share them in the comments.

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