Designers are friends (not food). Say it again with me, designers are friends (not food).

While at times it might feel like we, as designers, are swimming around in a tank full of circling sharks, we have to remember that everyone we work with is also trying to fulfill our organization’s purpose. We’re not enemies; we’re friends.

The mindset of a Friend is critical to being successful as a designer. Hardly any great design is produced alone. As designers, we are part of a team. That team includes other people dedicated to the role of design as well as others in your organization. Even if they’re not actively coming up with the plans for the experience you’re designing, others in your organization are vital to its success. Whether they’re tasked with marketing, supporting, or building, all of these people have a role to play in the success of your design. Without them, you’d be sunk. Even if your design is “perfect,” if the rest of your organization doesn’t buy into it, your design will never make it into the lives of the people we’re designing for.

And then there’s your fellow designers, your core team. We can’t say enough about the importance of getting on the same page, playing from the same sheet of music, and firing on all cylinders. There’re so many idioms about effective teamwork that we could keep going until the cows come home (see what we did there?). But rather than regale you with trite truisms, we think it’d be more interesting to get into the why and how. Because despite the silly nature of some of these phrases, being tight with your design team and interacting with each other with the mindset of a Friend is critical to your shared success.

Friendly Communicator.png
Photo by Helena Lopes via Pexels

So how do you become the bestest of friends with everyone? Well if you think about the relationships you have with your closest friends, it’s all about communication. Your best friends are able to tell you what no one else is. And being good friends requires constant communication. After all, what good is a friend who never calls or writes (or texts?)? Someone who is purportedly your friend, but never takes the time of day to ask how you’re doing won’t stay your best friend for very long.

So in order to develop the mindset of a Friend, you have to become an elite communicator. If you don’t understand what other people are saying and where they’re coming from, and if they can’t understand what you’re trying to get across, your design will fail. Every time. As a designer, you need to make it your personal mission to be the best communicator in your organization. You should assume the title (if only in your head) of Chief Communications Officer. If there’s someone doing a better job communicating than you, seek them out. Learn from them. Crib their style and make it your own.

Embracing the mindset of Friend to become the CCO (Chief Communications Officer) requires us to strike the right balance between empathy with your team and your users and candidly offering critical feedback. This article (part 1 of 2) will cover the five simple practices to improve your empathetic side. While part 2 (coming soon!) will cover how we can embrace our candid side with proper feedback.

#1 Emotional Intelligence

Real friends care. For you, someone who’s working on developing the mindset of a Friend, this means you need to practice caring. But this doesn’t mean just telling yourself that you do, in fact, care about other people. It means actually demonstrating that caring attitude in a way that other people will notice. That’s the part that requires practice. Expressing a caring attitude requires being clued into other people's emotions as well as the overall context of the situation. The key is to turn it into a little game with yourself. Notice the body language and the tone of voice, and then play “Guess the Feeling.” If you play this game often enough, you will find yourself better able to read others.

Understand Feelings
Photo by Raw Pixel via Unsplash

#2 Social Butterfly

Once you’re better attuned to the emotions of others you’ll be able to gauge the status of your relationships with your colleagues through a little something we like to call the friend-o-meter. The friend-o-meter, a scientific instrument of the highest caliber, rates your level of friendship with others on a scale of 1 to 10. The higher the score, the better friends the two of you are. High scores are important (#winning) in the world of design, because conflicts and disagreements are going to happen. The better the relationship you have, the more likely you are to work out your disagreement in a productive way. This is why it's so important to identify relationships that are in the 1 to 3 range on the friend-o-meter and work to improve them.

Improving your relationships with everyone isn’t just a good idea so that you have someone to go out to lunch with. Your entire organization and all the people in it are all working towards the same purpose. They’re here to help. It’d be crazy to pass that up. You’ve got people who are working towards the same thing as you but have an entirely different perspective, set of experiences, and skill sets. That’s amazing! Fresh perspectives mean the opportunity for new insights, new creative breakthroughs that you wouldn’t have come up with when only working through the limited lens of your own team’s experiences. This means the more friends we have, the more valuable information we get.

#3 Get Out of Your Cubicle Comfort Zone

Improving your work relationships isn’t always easy; it’s going to take some extra legwork on your part — literally. That’s because, in most organizations, other teams are in other spaces. If you just stick to your own area, you won’t have an opportunity to run up the score on your friend-o-meter with those folks could miss out on their perspectives. So you’re going to have to make a very conscious effort to go to places in your organization outside of your norm. People talk a lot about comfort zones, but they’re usually using the term figuratively. But when it comes to spreading your wings in your organization, we think it’s helpful to get very literal about comfort zones. Visualize your workspace in your head or through a drawing if you’re so inclined. Now picture a blue bubble around the places where you’re most comfortable: your desk, the meeting rooms you always go to, the lunch area. Now that you’ve made explicit to yourself where exactly your comfort zone is, you can make a plan to expand it. Now, don’t get overzealous and plan to immediately expand it from your team's space all the way to your entire organization at once. That’s not realistic. It takes awhile to get comfortable with new spaces, so you need to take it slow. Start with the spaces adjacent to your already established comfort zone and work outwards from there.

Office Hiding
Photo by Marc Mueller via Pexels

Developing a Friend mindset in the context of your organization as a whole takes more effort than doing so within your core team. Your organization won’t have as many norms to facilitate cross-team interactions. But these interactions are valuable. The cross-pollination of experiences will spark new ideas that will help you serve your users. So walk around more, and be a friend to all those working to advance your organization’s purpose.

#4 MeetUp With Other Designers

While it’s great to be friendly with all of your teammates, you need to develop the mindset of a Friend outside of your organization entirely. Just as your team doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas and relevant experiences, neither does your organization. Designers fostering their Friend mindset are always looking for new opportunities to network, to meet new and interesting people. First, actively seek out meetups and conferences. These are great places to find people interested in striking up a conversation. But don’t just look for gatherings in your line of work or your industry. There’s also tremendous value in meeting with groups of people who have nothing to do with what you’re working on. This (again) involves stepping outside of your comfort zone. But, hey, if you can be friends with complete strangers, and find ways to form connections between their work and your own, anything else should be cake.

#5 Hola | Ciao | Hallo | Bonjour | Olá | Aloha

The fifth and final way to improve your empathic side is to take vacations (an idea we can all get behind). Traveling the world not only takes you out of your comfort zone but also exposes you to new ideas and cultures. And it’s a great opportunity to exercise your friend mindset. If you’re up for a real challenge, try making friends with someone from another culture. You’ll need to set your empathy on overdrive because you can’t just rely on your normal assumptions to help you understand the other person’s point of view. And, you’ve got to kick your communication skills into high gear as well. You’ll be lacking common frames of reference, and you may even be lacking a common language!

Take Vacations
Photo by Follow Alice via Pexels

Not only is going to meetups, conferences, and far away places a great way to spark new ideas, but it’s also a great way to develop empathy, especially with our users. Our users live out there in the world, not within the walls of our organizations. Sometimes we can lose sight of that. It’s easy to think that the world inside of our family, friends, and coworkers, is the only world that exists. But there’s a lot more going on outside of our everyday experience than within. The more up we stick our head up and experience life outside of our bubbles, the less likely we are to get caught in the rut of thinking that everyone acts and feels exactly the same way we do. Avoiding this rut is vitally important to design. Our users are different from us. Heck, they’re different from one other. By embracing the mindset of a Friend, we can look for and appreciate those differences as we work to make their lives better.

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Part 2 of this series goes over the other skill your empathetic side has to balance: being candid.

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