The New Hire Blueprint: how to succeed at your new design job

You’ve got three months to make an impression. Here’s how.

So you just took a new design role. Congratulations! 

Whether this is your first design job or your fiftieth, the next few months are going to be incredibly exciting and challenging. You’ll be meeting lots of new people and drinking from the firehose of knowledge. It will be a lot of fun but also very overwhelming.

Whenever a new designer joins our team, I tell them:

Your first three months will set the tone for the next three years.

Over the course of your time at a job, you will no doubt learn, grow, and change a lot. But those first three months are a critical period to learn as much as you can (you can only play the “new person” card for so long) and to form that first impression of who you are and how you’ll fit into the team.

While this may sound stressful, it doesn’t have to be. With a little bit of planning, you’ll be able to get up to speed, build relationships, deliver results, and demonstrate that you’re a valuable member of the team.

Blueprints are essential to building for success.

Blueprints are essential to building for success.

The New Hire Blueprint

On the PlanGrid design team, we use a tool called the New Hire Blueprint to help new teammates build a solid foundation in their first three months.

Sample New Hire Blueprint

Sample New Hire Blueprint

It’s broken into areas of focus and divided up by month. Each cell contains specific tasks to be completed in that month. The status of each task is tracked using color-coding.

Each new designer works with her manager to make sure the blueprint is specific to her specific role and goals. This ensures the designer and manager are both aligned on expectations. It also helps the designer to feel confident that the work she’s doing at any given time is part of a bigger plan to ensure success.

In those moments where there are a hundred things you could be doing, it’s helpful to have a reminder of what you really should be doing. Taking the time to think through the bigger picture of the knowledge, customer empathy, and relationships you need to build early on in your new job will help you get fully onboard before getting sucked into delivering tactically.

Key themes for designers

When it comes to filling out the New Hire Blueprint, I encourage people to think about their first three months as building the foundation for their future success. What must they learn or accomplish in order to be successful going forward? 

There is no single definitive list. In order to be successful, a senior user researcher at a 8,000 person global company will have a different plan from a junior designer at a 20-person startup. However I recommend starting with these four themes:

  • Company onboarding
  • Building strong relationships
  • Building customer empathy and understanding
  • Your first project

Let’s dive into each of these.

1. Company onboarding

Many companies offer some sort of new hire training aimed at helping you quickly get up to speed in your new organization. For example, at PlanGrid we have a full week training that covers everything from getting your computer and software set up, to selecting your health insurance, to learning more about our customers and products. 

Not every company offers this, so you may need to do a little more work to get up to speed. Ask your manager for resources and training and ask your teammates what they wish they knew when they got started. If you come away having completed all your paperwork, know where the coffee is, and understand how the company talks about itself and its customers, you’re doing well. If you have a good understanding of the company strategy and design’s role in that strategy, you’re doing even better.

2. Building strong relationships

To be successful as a designer, you must have strong, healthy relationships with your teammates, including designers, product managers, engineers, QA, and more.

Plug into existing team mechanics. Ask people on your team to invite you to everything the team is involved in, even if you aren’t sure if you need to be there all the time. 

Get involved in team meetings, critiques, and events.

Get involved in team meetings, critiques, and events.

Here are a few examples of where to embed yourself:

  • Working team meetings, e.g. daily standup, retrospectives, planning sessions
  • Design team meetings and critiques
  • Company meetings, events, and all-hands
  • Email distribution lists and online chat channels
  • Social occasions like lunch or happy hour

Show up, listen, and ask lots of questions. This will give you a better idea of what happens where, who’s involved, and where to focus your time as you’re getting up to speed. It will also communicate that you’re a team player and help people get to know you.

Meet one-on-one with coworkers. A boss once gave me this sage advice:

“Never underestimate the power of breaking bread together.”

Taking someone out for lunch, coffee, or a walk outside works wonders for building strong working relationships.

There are many people you’ll want to meet with, but focus first on the people you’ll work closest with. Then branch out to other teams and departments over time to understand how the broader organization works. 

Nothing brings people together like a good cup of coffee.

Nothing brings people together like a good cup of coffee.

When you have your one-on-one meeting, make the most of your time together by preparing a few topics of conversation ahead of time. This is your chance to make a great first impression, learn more about your teammate, and lay the foundation for your relationship. 

Here are a few questions you might ask:

  • What’s your career journey, and how did you get to where you are today?
  • What’s your role on the team?
  • How’s the team doing? What’s going well, and what’s frustrating?
  • How have you worked with designers in the past? What did you like or dislike about working with them?
  • How do you prefer to work, and what are some potential “triggers” that I should avoid?
  • What should I make sure to learn or do over the next few weeks?

Make the conversation two-sided. Consider sharing the following about yourself:

  • How you got to where you are today, and why you took this role
  • How you’ve worked with [people in their role] in the past, and what you enjoyed about that
  • What it’s like to work with you, both the good and the bad

By starting off your relationship from a place of genuine curiosity, sharing, and goodwill, you’ll establish a solid foundation of trust to build upon in the months ahead.

3. Build customer and product knowledge

As a designer, your work is only as good as your knowledge of the customer and the product. 

The PlanGrid team visits a construction site to build customer and product knowledge.

The PlanGrid team visits a construction site to build customer and product knowledge.

Here are a few suggestions for quickly building your customer and product knowledge:

  • Do a heuristic evaluation of the current product. Note down your first impressions, where you got confused, what seems broken, what’s working really well. Then share this with your team and have a discussion. It’s a good way to start building product knowledge hear what your teammates think about the current experience.
  • Attend training meant for customers. Many companies offer training for their customers. Ask if you can join the training to learn more about the domain, product, and how it’s explained to users. Say hello and ask lots of questions of customers in attendance.
  • Attend your coworkers’ user research sessions. Even if the session isn’t directly related to your team’s projects, this will give you a chance to meet customers and learn about the work that’s currently in-flight. And of course you can run some sessions of your own.
  • Visit customers. If your company doesn’t already organize customer site visits, set some up yourself and observe them using your product. Bonus points if you bring your team along.
  • Shadow support and sales. Most support and sales reps will be happy to have you shadow them while they talk with customers. This is a great way to learn how your company talks about the value it provides and see first-hand what is exciting or confusing to users.
  • Do your own research online. Do some googling, read app reviews, check out the latest PR, or read what people are saying on Twitter. You’ll learn a lot about how your brand is perceived and may even learn a few things that are new to others at the company.

Document all of the interesting and surprising things you learn. Consider sharing your insights with your team — they’ll appreciate you helping them see things through fresh eyes.

4. Your first project

If you’re like most new hires, you’re eager to jump in and start delivering right away. While that ambition is great, think about your first project less as, “design something amazing that completely transforms the user experience,” and more as “learn how to get work done here and put your first few points on the board.”

Getting specific with tasks, mapping them over time, and getting aligned with your manager and team will help. Here’s an example of how you might divide up your first project:

Here’s how you might divide up your first design project.

Here’s how you might divide up your first design project.

This may be different depending on your role, scope, and how your organization works. Try to be a bit conservative on your estimates because training, one-on-ones, and deepening your product/user knowledge will take up more time than you think.

Make sure to review this with your manager and working team to ensure everyone’s on the same page. You can also review this plan periodically to make sure everything’s on track and adjust if necessary.

Creating your own New Hire Blueprint

Ready to create your own New Hire Blueprint? Get started by copying this sample New Hire Blueprint and customizing to your specific situation.

A few more tips for getting started:

  • Talk with your manager about goal setting — do they have a standard new hire goal setting process they prefer? If not, are they open to working with you on using this template? 
  • Take a pass at filling out your New Hire Blueprint, then run it by your manager and team to make sure you’re all aligned.
  • Review your plan regularly to make sure you’re on track and ask others for help where you need it. Check in at least monthly with your manager to give a progress update and ask for feedback.

At your three month anniversary, take some time to reflect. Do you feel like you have a solid understanding of how the company works, your product, and your customers? Did you have a successful first project, and do you have clarity around what’s up next? You can use this to inform future goal setting and areas of focus.

Learn more

For more about starting your new job off on the right foot, check out “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watkins. This book is primarily focused on new managers but has tips that are relevant to anyone taking on a new role.

Design Managers: In a future post, I’ll share how to use the New Hire Blueprint as one of several techniques to set your new hires up for success. Sign up to be notified when it’s available.

The not-so-dark art of design management

As a young designer, I thought managers were like Gandalf: mysterious wizards who spent their days orchestrating important matters in the shadows. Every now and then they’d pop by to check if I needed rescuing, but for the most part I’d slog along on my own.

So when I had the opportunity to take on a management role, I was baffled. What did managers even do? When I asked around, I mostly got vague descriptions like, “You’re unlocking the creative potential of the organization.” Inspiring? Maybe. Helpful? Not at all.

Having now managed design teams at multiple companies, I can confidently say that management is not a dark art. Rather, it’s a role with specific responsibilities.

What is a manager, anyway?

Picture a restaurant during rush hour. If we take a look in the kitchen, we’ll see a bunch of people chopping, stirring, and running about. The chef is the manager of the kitchen and her job is to make sure her crew makes the right food, quickly, with high quality. She does this by hiring the right people and helping them work together to deliver great results.

As Head of Design at PlanGrid, my job is similar to that of a chef. But rather than cooking the perfect meal, we’re crafting great user experiences.

What types of work do managers do?

The work of a chef is different from the work of her crew. Each member of the crew is focused on specific projects, like chopping vegetables or cooking on the grill. The chef plays a different role — she’s hiring, delegating, checking quality, solving problems, and ensuring everything is running smoothly.

Similarly, the work of a design manager is very different from that of a designer. Here are five areas where I spend the most time:

1. Hiring

At the end of the day, I’m responsible for what our team delivers. When things go well, my team gets the credit — but when things go wrong, I’m the one who takes the blame. So it’s incredibly important to build the right team.

One of the first things I did at PlanGrid was to spend time with each team member; both to understand their strengths, and to find out where they wanted to grow. I also looked for broader gaps where we were missing critical skills. For example: I discovered that we didn’t have enough designers to cover all of our projects, and we didn’t have strong user research expertise on the team.

I used that information to create a hiring plan. I worked with my boss to get approval to open several Product Design roles and a UX Researcher role, wrote job descriptions, and trained our recruiting team to look for great candidates.

Today, I spend a lot of time meeting with people across the design community both formally and informally. I genuinely enjoy hearing about people’s journeys, what inspires them, and where they want to grow. One of the hardest things is that I meet so many wonderful and talented people, but they aren’t always the right fit for the current roles and gaps we have on the team. Even when there isn’t that perfect match, I try to help where I can by offering advice or making introductions. That’s not technically part of my job but I see it as part of being a good “design citizen.”

When we do find the right person for our role, I work closely with them and our finance teams to put together a compelling offer. Assuming all goes well, I partner with our HR team to make sure they have a great on-boarding experience and are set up for success from Day One.

2. Coaching

Great managers don’t just hire great people and then sit back and hope everything works out. They create the space and support for their team to succeed. Here are a few ways I approach coaching:

  • Weekly “one-on-ones”: Every week I meet with each teammate for at least 30 minutes. This is a great opportunity to hear what’s on their mind, where they need help, share feedback, and more.
  • Goal setting and growth plans: I’m a big believer in having teammates set their own goals and OKRs. I see goals as a commitment between employer and employee: if my teammate has a goal to speak at a conference this quarter, then she is going to do her darnedest to make that happen, and I’m going to do my darnedest to help support that. When your teammate is working hard to learn and grow, everyone wins.
  • Performance feedback: Everyone, even the most amazingly talented person, has areas where they can grow. As a manager, it’s my responsibility to understand how my teammates are doing and have honest, frank conversations about their performance. Performance reviews are documents that get written a few times a year; performance feedback happens every single day.

In addition to working with teammates one-on-one, I also help to build skills across the team. This might look like bringing in a trainer to run a workshop, or sending people to a conference or class. My favorite approach is to ask a teammate to share their expertise about a topic with the rest of the team. For example, one of our teammates recently led a workshop about OKRs, and another gave a lesson on how to create Windows icons. There is so much that we can learn from one another, and this helps the “teacher” to grow their own coaching skills.

The PlanGrid design team making dope art.

3. Strategy

What separates a good team from a great team is having the right strategy.

A good strategy is a carefully researched and well designed action plan designed to meet a challenge.
— Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

Crafting this requires having organizational awareness, a deep understanding of the team’s strengths and opportunities, and an an inspiring vision of the future.

When I joined PlanGrid, I met with designers, members of other departments, and the leadership team to understand the current strategy and goals. Then we held a design offsite to talk about our team’s strengths, opportunities, and vision. This helped us create a set of initiatives to focus on throughout the year, and to ensure our work is aligned with the bigger picture. We continue to refine our plan as we encounter new challenges along the way.

4. Quality

Designers play a unique role in upholding the quality of the user experience, and as a design manager I am responsible for setting and articulating a certain bar of quality. Fortunately I have a great team to help me do that! Here are a number of things we’ve done at PlanGrid to raise the bar on design quality:

  • Design critiques: The whole design team meets every week to share andcritique one another’s work. This helps each designer strengthen their craft and deliver great designs, while also creating a shared understanding of what we define as high quality.
  • Design QA: When designers are involved in the development process, it helps to raise the quality of the experiences that we ship. At PlanGrid, we are experimenting with different ways to provide design input throughout the development process, from Lean UX to attending QA-led bug bashes.
  • Design system: We are building a design system to help clarify our principles, style guides, components, and more. This makes it easier for us to design high quality experiences and is also a great tool for educating our non-design peers about quality and consistency.

Creating a design system and component library to increase design quality.

As a manager, I also set clear expectations around quality:

Being a successful designer doesn’t just mean delivering great mockups — it means shipping great product.

This expectation is a two-way street. It means that a designer’s performance is tied to the quality of the work that their team ships. It also means that I’m there to support them if they’re pressured to ship 💩 to meet aggressive deadlines.

5. Communication

Communication is one of my most important responsibilities. I’m very much on the manager schedule where much of my day is spent in meetings, one-on-ones, and informal hallway conversations. That’s not time wasted; it’s time spent gathering information, synthesizing it, and using it to inform decisions.

My teammates also need to make informed decisions, so I err on the side of over-communicating. When I’m in meetings, I take copious notes and share highlights with teammates afterward as relevant. I also hold a weekly design team meeting where I share a well-prepared TL;DR of information I’ve collected throughout the week. I encourage people to ask questions, and when I don’t know the answer, I do my best to figure it out.

I also help people outside of the design team understand what we’re doing and why. This includes highlighting projects that we’re working on, talking about staffing, and explaining what designers do and how we fit into the broader organization. This also includes finding opportunities for designers to be able to share their work, such as inviting them to present to executives or at an all-hands event.

How do managers spend their time?

Every team is different

A manager’s areas of focus can vary across teams and organizations.

There have been times when I’ve managed small teams as a “player-coach”: spending part of my time managing, and the other part doing hands-on design work. Given the limited hours, I spent most of my management time on teammate check-ins and reviewing design work. My manager filled many of the gaps around hiring, strategy, and communication across the broader design team. My schedule looked something like this:

A typical player-coach manager schedule

There have been other times where I’ve managed larger teams and spent 100% of my time managing, without personally doing any design delivery. At PlanGrid, my time look more like this:

A typical full-time manager schedule.

As I learn more about my teammates, their skills, and where they want to grow, I also delegate certain responsibilities. For example, I’ve asked our Design Lead to run point on certain Quality projects. This plays to his strengths while giving me more time to focus on hiring and strategy.

Every day is different

The needs of my team are ever-changing, which means I’m constantly monitoring and adjusting my priorities to match. One day I might be focused on hiring and interviews, while another I’m dealing with a tricky HR situation. There’s a seasonality as well: performance reviews, roadmap planning, and budgeting all require attention at different times in the year.

Should I become a manager?

Design management could be for you if:

  • You want to scale your impact beyond yourself
  • You love helping people grow and do their best work
  • You’re deeply empathetic and a strong communicator

Still not sure? Try working with your manager to take on a low-risk opportunity, such as managing an intern or contractor. This is a great way to learn the basics of management while allowing for a graceful exit if you find that managing just isn’t for you.

The reality is: you do give up certain things when you go into management. I haven’t touched Sketch in months, my notebook has more meeting minutes than wireframes, and I can’t remember the last time I ran a user test. However, I find so much joy in managing — helping people grow in their careers, do their best work, and accomplish big things together — that it makes it all worth it.

Learn more

Here are some management resources to help you on your way:

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