Why brand designers make great product designers
Issue 133: The intangibles brand designers bring to product design
Happy Sunday on this rainy (and at times snowy) weekend in California. I’m using the cold and wet weather as an excuse to channel my early career Seattle days and stay indoors to noodle and doodle. Brand designers have been top of mind as a few have reached out to me about making the switch to product design. Here’s a recap of some of my thoughts—enjoy!
I’ll be fully honest that I don’t love the separation of Brand and Product Design organizations. Every place I've been eventually moved Brand Design into Sales and Marketing (S&M) and Product Design in Research and Development (R&D)—how most businesses conventionally structure departments. Though it has a lot of benefits, you miss on unique ways to innovate on design.
Brand designers and product designers need to work closely together to ensure a continuity of experience across all customer channels, including the product itself. I’ve had the pleasure twice of having both functions in my org, and it was a great time! There’ve been 8-10 product designers in my career in my org who started in graphic design, communications design, or brand design. As we look at the journey of moving from brand to product design, let’s also explore the myths they face, why switching to product design is a natural fit, and how to invest in switching to product design.
Brand Design: fact or fiction
One of my favorite shows growing up was Beyond Belief hosted by Jonathan Frakes (AKA Commander William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Let’s play fact or fiction with brand design.
Websites aren't complex as apps
Fiction. For many companies, especially consumer experiences, the website is a product. Let’s not assume apps are more complex than web experience as many are basically fancy form submissions. Of course, there are apps that are super sophisticated and complex, but so are websites. Global websites have to consider localization, and different content and can present very complex information architecture.
They only make cool things
Well, Fact and Fiction. Brand designers have a strong sense of craft in visual design and have great taste, which makes them typically elevate product design teams. However, the job isn’t only to make cool things. Brand design is a lot about defining success through performance marketing, thinking about content, and messaging.
Brand designers aren't technical
Fiction. This continues to be further from the truth as brand design becomes full-stack as a generalist role. With tools like Webflow, Brand Designers are building brand experiences end-to-end with more agency. You’d be blown away by what Corey, Gabi, Jenna, Johnnie, and Mike can do on our brand design team in Webflow—truly a technical feat.
The intangibles of brand designers
Like many great things, the switch can’t happen overnight. That said, brand designers have skills that translate well to product design. When I encourage early career designers to try to break into the field, I tell them to focus on their strengths. At the early point in your career, you need to leverage what you have the most experience with to stand out. I will always hire someone if I feel they can be better than everyone on the current team at something so designers can learn from each other.
I suggest to people in their early career or switching to double down on the skills they're good at to make it abundantly clear how you'd level up the team. By having that differentiator, you can add immediate value while learning from other designers the craft of product design. The four areas I see as intangibles in brand design are visual design, storytelling, customer experience, and concept development.
Most product designers are not experts in visual design. It’s not a knock as there is such a large scope of work product designers have to cover already. This is why having a product designer who comes from a brand design background is powerful. They bring such a deep level of craft that’s beneficial for all experiences, especially in consumer products, where the brand itself is expressed prominently.
Brand designers are exceptional storytellers. It’s rooted in much of the work being campaign-driven. When you’re launching a marketing campaign, there is much consideration of the personas, narrative, and messaging before you even open up Figma. Like other design functions, brand designers have to articulate their work a lot in presentations, and most brand designers are exceptional at conveying the narrative.
At the heart of brand design is customer experience. In the aforementioned point, understanding of the brand’s identity and persona requires understanding the customer. In addition to understanding the existing customer, the focus on awareness and market research puts brand designers at the forefront of people who the product wants to cultivate in becoming customers. Having a former brand designer on your product design team brings a wider aperture to the customer experience.
One of the fun aspects of being a brand designer is campaigns might vary in style and intention—something product designers don’t experience as much on a production level. This makes brand designers exceptional in being generative in exploration and concept development.
Where brand designers can invest in product design
Again, this post isn’t trying to convert brand designers for the sake of it. The world needs great brand designers working in brand design. However, if you’re product-curious, here are a few ideas on how to invest in that path.
Skill swap with a product designer as peer mentors
Set up a coffee chat with a product designer at your company and skill swap. I believe most of the up-skilling and career development happens through osmosis when collaborating with peers. Meet on a recurring basis and invest in each other.
Understand software systems
This isn’t a “learn to code” suggestion, it’s understanding the material and medium. Though systems thinking covers a wide range of topics, brand designers might not get deep exposure to the systems of software. Taking time to learn foundational software concepts like Model/View/Controller (MVC) will help develop acumen on the pieces of a system you need to consider. Websites and other digital experiences might not have the varying edge cases of a CRUD app.
Join product meetings and rituals
The biggest difference between brand design and product design is how work gets created, delivered, and who you work with. Ask to join a product design crit or a squad's backlog grooming. Observe how product teams approach their iteration cycles, and how a product gets reviewed, put in beta, and finally released. Product designers need to heavily consider sequencing and how functionality is shipped.
For those discerning, I hope this helps you spark an idea or two. I loved working with brand designers. If you need more inspiration, some amazing product designers who started in brand design are Arlen McClusky, Christine Chang, Landon Larsen, Matilda Dackevall, Mikaela Couch, Meredith Fay, and Vince de Asis.
They have a high bar for craft, are customer-centric, and are great storytellers—important factors in product design. They also bring the best vibes to any team!
Tweet of the week
One of my favorite lines from Cassian Andor from the Star Wars show is, “Power does not panic.”
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Jess Rosenberg doubleheader on The Great Design Lead Podcast
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Hey David, this was a great read. Was curious if you had any more readings or links on skillsharing? Would love to learn more, sounds interesting.