How to build, inspire and keep a successful design team – Julie Kennedy, Saint Gobain – Nottingham Digital Summit

Posted on 03/07/2019 by Team Hallam

The Nottingham Digital Summit is well underway now and following the lunch break, accomplished designer Julie Kennedy from Saint Gobain and a wide range of other industries has taken to the stage to give a wonderful talk about how to build a successful design team and how to inspire and keep them happy.

Why design teams

The first thing Julie highlights is the importance of having a successful design team. She quotes author Brian Solis who claimed that “Right now all companies must prioritise UX, design thinking and experiencer architecture to compete for the future. This is a trend that’s only going to advance”. To give a further example of this, Julie asks the audience how long they would be willing to wait for an Uber. The need for effective, efficient UX is demonstrated when nobody raised their hand when asked if they would wait for 20 minutes.

Types of teams

Julie highlights a number of design team types with their own pros and cons. She starts with a centralised model. This is good for smaller companies with small design teams where all designers are brought together, work on a range of projects, and can create consistent user experiences. On the other hand, workers can become disempowered and may feel like they have become nothing but a design delivery service.

The next design type is a decentralised design team. This is the opposite of the previous type and can leave workers feeling empowered and engaged, product development can be faster with a feeling of greater ownership among employees. A decentralised team is good for a growing team as the amount of design work grows. On the contrary, Julie recognises that employees working in design teams of this type can become lonely and disconnected and the user experience can become fractured due to having teams split 

The best design type is a centralised partnership design team, which brings together the best of the previous two types and allows for employees to have a single point of leadership but also feel the flexibility to move around within the team. 

Building the right team

After this, Julie moves on to explaining the structure of teams changes over time. These steps are as follows.

Step 1: Become the designer 

Step 2: Hire another designer, then you become Head of Design

Step 3: The team is growing, hire a UX Designer, Visual Designer and User Researcher 

Step 4: Replicate the roles made in the previous step so you have more than 1, and bring in content strategy

Step 5: Your design team is growing so much that it’s hard to manage all tasks alone. Therefore, bring in team leaders to split the responsibility

Step 6: Replace Team leaders with design managers and bring in design strategists to analyse opportunities for business and begin explorative options 


Julie proudly informs the audience that during her long career she has seen 1000s of portfolios and carried out hundreds of interviews. Furthermore, she has worked with over 300 designers. By experiencing all of this, she has realised that UX Unicorns don’t exist. Somebody who claims they can do everything in the design industry all at once by themselves is lying because it is not possible. Therefore, it’s important to have a solid hiring process. 

Hiring process

  1. Write a clear and complete job description
  2. Review CV’s and portfolios very carefully and read LinkedIn
  3. Phone/video call or face to face meet up, ask what they want in their next role and ask about salary expectations
  4. Interview Candidates (Portfolio review, design task and behavioural and team-fit questions) 
  5. Check references
  6. Make an offer

For Julie, as is the case for many of our other speakers today, diversity is very important in the industry. This doesn’t only apply to race, gender or sexuality but also a range of backgrounds and experiences as well, as people from different backgrounds can bring vastly different points of view. Similarly, she praises young talent, suggesting that organisations should build links with universities, visit degree shows and set up internships and graduate programmes. The benefits of this are that it brings in fresh ideas, cost-effective and fosters a mentoring mentality among current staff. 

Foundation, Output and Management

The next item of Julie’s talk is to look at 10 key qualities that any organisation should look for to ensure team success. These qualities can be split into 3 self-explanatory categories which are foundation, output and management. Foundation refers to the initial building blocks of the organisation, output refers to the work that comes out of the organisation and management refers to how the organisation is managed. Below is a list of the qualities outlined by Julie:


  1. Shared sense of purpose – our mission 
  2. Authentic user empathy – our principles
  3. Understand, articulate, and create value 
  4. Focused Leadership


  1. Support the entire journey
  2. Establish and maintain standards of quality
  3. Value delivery over 


  1. Create a culture to thrive in
  2. Foster collaboration 
  3. Manage operations effectively

Team Measurement

After understanding what makes a successful team, Julie highlights the importance of measuring performance and making improvements. She recommends these steps below.

  1. Have all team members score the team 
  2. Identify the areas to improve
  3. Develop a plan 
  4. Regularly review and feedback
  5. Survey other areas of business for feedback


To summarise, it’s important to start small and scale as you need to. Small design teams can have a great impact. Secondly, it’s important to develop and apply design principles and guidelines and hire specific skills as the team grows. Furthermore, an organisation should build relationships with universities and set up internships or graduate schemes. Finally, the importance of design culture and collaboration is emphasised.


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How to build, inspire and keep a successful design team – Julie Kennedy, Saint Gobain – Nottingham Digital Summit

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