Becoming a Lean Designer: A Startup Approach to Adding Value

Want to learn how to work lean? The Expert’s Guide Becoming a Lean Designer: A Startup Approach to Adding Value, will teach you how to modify your workflow for increased efficiency and less wasted time. 


When most of us hear the term “lean,” as it relates to business, we tend to think of startup companies with nimble staff members following an ambitious leader. We imagine long hours of work, stress over the details and a whole lot of striving to manifest a vision.

“Make no expense but to do good to yourself or others: i.e. Waste nothing.”               - Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue Five, Frugality

This scenario is absolutely the case, but lean also signifies more. The idea of lean dates back to the 1900s, when Frederick Winslow Taylor observed how time and motion impacted management and production. Henry Ford applied some of Taylor’s findings and applied it to Ford’s assembly-line production during the 1910s. When viewed through the lens of manufacturing as Ford professed, value comes first, and anything that gets in the way should be cut out of the equation.

With Ford’s success and the openness with which he shared his process, others followed suit. Although many of the lean practices that businesses have grown to accept as standards have their roots in 20th century innovations from the likes of Ford, Toyoda and Ohno, the idea of being lean actually harkens back to the 1700s.

lean designer; startup

“Lose no Time; Be always employ’d in something useful: Cut off all unnecessary Actions.” - Virtue Six, Industry

Living in the digital world, many of us have a hard time cutting off or cutting out unnecessary actions. We’ve become multitaskers. Plenty of arguments are in circulation about why and how this happened. But sometimes the tasks we take on, such as the day-to-day chores around the house or our on-the-job responsibilities, can get in the way of our production, whether we’re producing our morning coffee or a two-minute video in Adobe After Effects.

It’s widely believed that doing many little things over the course of a day—or minutes or hours, for that matter—impedes progress, production and quality. And, if that’s the case, then multitasking would be frowned upon by Benjamin Franklin. Arguments can be made for and against multitasking, and at this point it’s a subjective matter. But sometimes you have no choice: You need to multitask.

Being a Lean Designer in the 21st Century

So how can be successful in a multitasking world and effectively operate with a lean approach? If we consider how manufacturing evolved—putting an emphasis on efficiency, lessening waste, increasing quality—and if we also seek to understand the working methods in our manufacturing capacity as designers, then we will begin to see that lean is a state of mind. It means being nimble, flexible and efficient in undertaking the design projects we have in front of us.

lean designer; start up

Whether we’re dealing with hard or soft goods, printed or digital design, products, services or solutions, lean will become an increasingly important mindset in the years to come—especially for those of us in the creative sector. By drawing correlations among practices found in Benjamin Franklin’s virtues, at startup businesses and in lean manufacturing—during a time when designers are manufacturing with computer processors and pixels, paper and pen, illustration and photography, typography and color—this guide will provide the tools to help you, your team and clients see the value of being lean.

The Lean Designer: On Flexibility

Being lean means befriending uncertainty, which is risky. This begs a question: Are you a risk taker? Or, a planner? The question might force you to self-assess how you go about your day, your business and perhaps even your life.

In terms of your life as a designer, most of us fall into one of two categories: the risk-taker or the planner. How do you undertake your design jobs? If you’re a freelancer, you’re likely taking on a large risk because you are solely accountable for any work. And while you may outsource things here and there—printing, HTML development, copy proofing, account management—chances are that you are doing a lot, if not all of the tasks.

If you’ve started up your own studio—either on your own or with one or more partners—you’ve also taken on risk. One could argue that your risk is greater because you’re accountable for your staff members: people who are married, have kids, pets and bills of their own. Whether you’re a lone freelancer or a studio head, you’re taking on risk daily, managing it and in some cases, mitigating it.

If you want to become a digital designer, you’ll need to build a portfolio that reflects digital proficiency and creativity in the interactive space. In essence, operating “like a startup,” channeling your entrepreneurial self, and being lean have a lot in common: They all involve seizing opportunity and producing quality goods, while minimizing risk and waste.

  • Create and work on the most important items first.
  • Establish a process that demonstrates quality outcomes.
  • Add value consistently.
  • Innovate when possible.
  • Check in with clients, stakeholders. Check in with team members.

Assessing needs and discerning “when to work on what” project (or aspect of a project) are key components to tilting the scale in your favor. Do you get to the office and check email first thing in the morning? And before you know it, 10:00 a.m. has rolled around and you’ve not accomplished anything beyond inbox zero? Textbook mistake. You’ve delayed your progress, and sidetracked your morning when you could be your most productive working on projects that matter. Of course, email is important, but so are deliverables—especially if they’re for paying clients.

The inefficiency of getting lost in the sea of email for two or more hours is tempting, so consider setting a limit for yourself when it comes to this temptation. If available, consider having another staff member manage your email in order for you to focus on the more important—and more profitable tasks—so you can work more efficiently.

As you start each day, set design goals and manage your entire workflow, remember the management and production problems as identified by Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno: avoid overproduction, delays, faulty work processes, excess materials, unnecessary transportation and wasted motions.

Be mindful of startup and lean principles to avoid wasted motions and problems Ohno identified. Your production and workflow will thank you.


Get more tips on becoming lean and relevant in the ever-evolving digital landscape at the 2014 HOW Interactive Design Conference. Check out our one-day pass options and online education bonus deal when you register now. 

Go deeper into lean design in the complete Expert’s Guide, Becoming a Lean Designer.T5488

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