Productizing Design Projects or "How I went from visual designer to product leader"

Dear Reader,

Today, I have a simple question:

What part of your work can you productize?

I want to tell you a story of how I went from designing pretty visuals to designing leadership with a simple concept known as "productization."

Definition: Productizing is making a design, service, or concept into a product. It's a great way to "work smarter, not harder."

As you'll see, it was a pretty big part of my career.

From UI Designer to Product Designer

When I started my career in 2011, my role looked more like UI design.

I was an intern in charge of designing visuals for sales pitches. I turned our company's software capabilities into something slick and polished for the web so that brands like Pepsi and the Olympics would give us their marketing budget. It didn't pay much for me ($10/hour), but my portfolio was filled with the world's top brands, so I didn't care.

Here's an example that I did for the Grammys. This Photoshop file almost blew up my laptop:

A concept visual I did early in my career for a project pitch to the Grammys

I would design a pitch visual for a festival and then use it again for a movie launch. Templates started to emerge as clients began to ask for the same thing.

After we started getting $50k deals, people in the office started saying words like "subscription," "monthly recurring revenue," and "white labeled."

Someone advised the CEO to start acting like a software company and get subscriptions instead of trading money for time like an agency.

Why not design the same thing once and sell it to many clients?

We needed to "productize." the client work we had been doing. We started to design white label versions of successful client projects.

A white-label product is a product or service produced by one company that other companies rebrand to make it appear as if they had made it. -Wikipedia

Here's what the strategy looked like from the big picture. It's a pretty common one in tech:

The beauty is that it allows you to get paid while working out solutions to problems. If you're a freelance designer or a consultant, you can use this strategy to build one-off client work into repeatable products.

The work started to change when we changed strategies from project to product. Suddenly, I had to design an experience for Pepsi and Coca-Cola (both clients at the time). Here's an example of the project to product evolution based on a project I did for ABC Family:

How do you make an area for the logo that works for any size and shape? How can we make it work on a phone and a jumbo screen? Which elements should have color customization, and which shouldn't?

I was starting to think like a product designer.

Productization wasn't just happening to my company. It was happening to me.

From Product Designer to Product Leader

After several years of product design, I suddenly found myself with the title of Head of Design.

I said yes to the position without any idea what the work would look like. Then the real tasks started rolling into my Slack DMs:

  • "Marketing is making too many changes. Can you help?"
  • "Can you schedule some user testing? I don't have time before this dev handoff."
  • "______ doesn't like the photo on this page; where do I get better photos?"

At first, I took the project approach I had as an intern. I tried to solve the issue with detailed attention. I went for complex, step-by-step solutions for every problem that came my way.

But if you take a project approach to management, you solve things with a very narrow scope of use. Prescriptive details keep you from designing broadly applicable solutions. That isn't a great use of your time.

What I needed was a white-label version of these highly detailed solutions. To scale my impact, I needed to "productize the managing" that took all my time.

I needed a way to move the team in the right direction without giving them detailed directions.

Policy = Productized Leadership

What I needed was policy. Policy is a way to productize leadership.

Policy is a way of leading without controlling. Policy works because nobody likes being ordered around, but everybody needs direction.

Policy provides direction with providing directions. That allows you to design something once and benefit multiple times.

Policy provides guardrails, not telling people how to do their jobs. Think of policy as actionable principles, not rules.

The power of policy lies in its intentional vagueness.

When you design policy, your goal is to move people in a direction. Your goal is not to get people to a specific place. The important thing is to push in the right direction.

Example: You get an insight that an emerging type of customer is highly engaged in your product. This is surprising to everyone. What do you do? You could create a detailed persona for this new type and add it to the wall. OR you could design a policy that says, "Focus on the customer segment that is the most engaged." If this policy has momentum, the resulting action should create focus on this new persona. But it's a way to lead without giving detailed directions. It provides focus, direction, and guardrails. It's memorable and straightforward enough that it can be shaped and applied by anyone.

This kind of leadership isn't just for managers. Good policy should have an element of emergence to it, which means you should involve everyone.

What does that look like?

It's a bit like Yoda...

Policy & Action is a bit like Yoda & Luke Skywalker. Curious? Watch the full video:

Until next week!

Jeff Humble
Designer & Co-Founder
The Fountain Institute

P.S. In case you missed last week's meetup on Initiating Innovation Projects, watch the video here

The Fountain Institute

The Fountain Institute is an independent online school that teaches advanced UX & product skills.

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