Sophie Shepherd

Switch Design

Originally posted on Cognition

On almost all projects at Happy Cog, there is usually one design lead who oversees the work from the initial concept to the QA’d, browser-tested, final product. Other designers may step in to help with production or provide guidance, but for the most part, one designer owns it.

This provides consistency throughout the process and gives the client a single person to whom they can direct questions. For the most part this approach works out, but can be a lot for that one designer to carry.

Recently, my coworker Aura and I started the graphic design phase of a project together rather than assigning one of us as the lead position. We did this mostly out of necessity, because the project had short timelines and several types of deliverables needed to be created simultaneously. Aura and I work well together, so I knew it would be fine, however the experience has been so much more rewarding than I ever could have predicted.

Here’s what we did. First, I focused on creating two different aesthetic directions in the form of style boards. Then, Aura took those and put her own spin on the designs. The client chose a direction, we refined further, and we used that board to inform the design of two interior pages. I did one, Aura did one, and then we switched and worked to improve each others’. Once we felt good about both, we assessed the strengths of each, and discussed how we could merge them into one design system. Since we were both referencing the same styleboard, we didn’t run into any problems that often come up in “design by committee” situations. By the time we were done, both pages were solid. We had each contributed so much to each of them that they no longer felt like “her page” and “my page.”

Our fellow Cogs Anthony and Mark have written about the benefits of “Switch Programming,” in which they threw code back and forth to each other, while keeping within time limits for iteration. Like Anthony and Mark, we found that our work improved, that we were able to learn from each other, and most importantly, we had fun. I had never thought this format would work so well for design, but it did. Beyond what I’m sure will be a stronger finished product than if we had been working alone, there were some additional benefits:

Fresh eyes.

I’m sure all designers know that feeling of looking at something for too long and then not being able to see anything objectively or make a decision. By working on something that someone else had started, it was easier for me to see things that Aura hadn’t noticed. And since we both had limited history with each other’s designs, we were less attached to specific pieces. If I thought something wasn’t working in the design that Aura started, I had no problem scrapping it and starting over.

Less talking, more doing.

We’re adept at critiquing designs and being critiqued, but words can only do so much. In this process, we could explain what we thought would be a good change, and then immediately act on it. It was a lot easier to show what we thought would improve the work rather than provide suggestions and hope that the other would interpret them correctly.

Vicarious learning.

Photoshop is equal parts frustrating and wonderful, because there are a million ways to do most things. I’ve always learned a ton by working in other people’s files, and the same is still true. I loved getting a peek into Aura’s files to see how she organized things, how she manages her type styles, how she masks images, etc. We were both able to learn techniques from each other as we worked.

Shared history.

Unlike with our usual projects, where the design system lives mostly in one person’s head, a dual project means that we both have a solid understanding of the design and all its components. Even if Aura was to work on this design for the next two months straight, she could always ping me to help me out since we share the same foundation.

Of course, this type of close collaboration wouldn’t work for everyone. You need a coworker you trust and with whom you can have open, frank conversations. Neither participant can be too precious about the work. It helps if you work at a similar pace and are on the same page when it comes to project goals. If you have these ingredients with one of your coworkers, as I do with Aura, I recommend giving Switch Designing a shot.