Herding Cats

When I joined Ei this year, I knew I wanted to improve as a designer. One of my main goals this year is to not only get better at developing ideas, but also be able to express and communicate them in ways that others can clearly understand.  A lot of excellent designs or solutions to current problems already exist, but they sometimes fail just because of the way the product is presented to clients rather than the product itself.

So for my first term, I ended up at Doejo, an awesome digital design agency in Chicago. They’re a creative team of designers and developers that produce amazing websites and applications. However, I came on as a project manager, to learn how to better communicate with clients and manage the design process.

“Managing designers is like herding cats.”

So this what someone told me when I was starting out, slightly paraphrased. As anyone who’s tried to herd cats can tell you, it’s not an easy task. No two cats are alike, and cats just want to do their own thing. They can’t really be herded, but they can be led.

As a PM during my three-month term at Doejo, I guided the launch of two WordPress sites, helped with the discovery sessions for a mobile application and site redesign, and helped with the new client on-boarding process. So not only was I was entering this new world of web design and development, but also this new role, going from “designer cat” to “cat herder.” Here are a couple distinctions I learned along the way.

Empathy Work. When you do empathy work as a designer for a user, you have to focus on asking the right questions and generating insights from both their answers and what they’re not telling you. This process often involves a lot of questions and sticky notes.

Hearding Cats post-it notes
Hearding Cats post-it notes

As a manager, you have to do empathy work both for your clients and your team on a day to day basis. You ask members of your team what they’re working on each day, to check in and make sure they’re on track. You handle a lot of communication with the clients, to give your talent time and room to work. You also gain insights from what they’re not telling you, and you have to be attentive to meet their needs.

Designers make stuff.Managers make sure stuff gets done. I’m a very hands-on person, but I learned how to trust my team. They’re experts, and they know what they’re doing. Honestly, I’d be the most comfortable sitting quietly doing my R&D, but here I had to be in the front. I couldn’t write lines of code, but I learned how to take charge of calls, lead a WordPress training session, and get people back on track.

As a bit of an interlude: In a previous life, I used to be a musician. Piano was my main solo instrument, but I played percussion in orchestra and marching band. The way an ensemble is organized is that each individual musician gets the sheet music for his or her own part, and they learn how to play it extremely well.

The person in front is the conductor, who guides the orchestra. They look at the score for the entire piece of music, which includes all the parts for every single performer. The conductor never plays a single note, but he (or she) knows the entire score with all the parts, including all the cues and changes for each performer. This is how they are able to keep the ensemble going.

(I’m in the front row, in pink)
(I’m in the front row, in pink)

It’s nearly impossible to play an instrument and lead an orchestra at the same time. That’s why teams have different roles, and why individuals with different skills come together to make something even better.

This next term I’ll be working for NBBJ’s Studio 07 in Seattle, which is the experience design division of a fantastic architecture firm. I’ll be working on projects and installations involving sound, architecture, and technology. I’ll be back to work on hands-on creating and developing ideas, but I’ll be using the skills I learned at Doejo about standing up and taking charge in the months ahead.

Student BlogsEi Contributor