Experiments in Building a Design Team Over Distance

We have a great team of six designers at Atomic Object with decades of professional experience. Collectively, We have a broad skill set ranging from branding, illustration, iconography, branding, interaction design, information architecture, product management and front-end development.

Having so many skilled individuals on our team is a necessity rather than a luxury because the projects that come through Atomic are widely varied. In the last year, we’ve had design projects that involved dishwashers, fitness trackers, server farms, alternative augmentative communication (the type of device Stephen Hawking uses to communicate), and massive educational portals.

The Challenge of Collaboration

With this variety, we need ways to put the right people with the right skills on the right projects rather than put people on projects because of their location. As an organization, how do we effectively leverage our poly-skilled team of six across locations separated by over 100 miles?

Collaboration is a big undertaking. Honestly, it feels easier to just keep your head down and go it alone. Collaborative design is hard to quantify quickly because it doesn’t add 2x speed, it only adds 2x quality. And quality is hard to gauge in the short term. The utility of pair programming is easily measured because we have burn rates to measure quantity and unit tests to measure quality. The value of collaborative design can take months and sometimes years to really be evaluated accurately. Therefore, it can feel like design collaboration is a waste of time and money.

Remote collaboration tends to magnify what is already in place. If your team has difficulty communicating, that’s only going to get worse when you aren’t co-located. In our case, if our designers aren’t prone to collaboration, it isn’t going to get better by being separated by distance.

Gathering Some Data

If we are going to improve design collaboration at Atomic, we are going to do it together. Back in May, we gathered as a design team to look at our design culture as a holistic team in two separate locations.

We wanted to analyze what we have done, what we’re currently doing, and what we wanted to continue doing. We also brainstormed some things we’d like to try out in the future. We catalogued all of these as either rituals, practices, or processes:

  • Rituals are things that we do habitually and repetitively because we know they will improve design.
  • Practices are activities we undertake as needed because they fit a specific context.
  • Processes are a series of activities we chain together to achieve a desired result.


Our intention wasn’t just to spitball activities and organize them, but rather look at what sort of value these activities add to the design work we do. We not only need to look at the “how” of design activities, but also the “why.” At Atomic, we measure the why by looking at the value a certain activity adds to individual Atoms, the organization as a whole, and to our clients.

To apply this measurement to our stipulated exercises, we all took part in dot voting. We each got 3 sets of colored dots to represent what we thought added value to our lives as designers, to Atomic as a design organization and to our clients’ businesses.

As we collated our results from both locations, it became clear that there are some experiments we’d like to run over the next couple of years that we believe will lend further clarity to the challenge and offer some solutions.

Experiments We’re Planning

Here are some highlights.

1. We want to continue to meet as an entire team on a regular basis.

We can’t afford to meet together in the same location often enough, so we connect virtually using Google Hangouts. However, meetings across locations have distinct challenges. Even with modern web technologies, we all know that concentrating in a virtual meeting is more difficult than when we are all together in a room. To mitigate this, we are looking for ways to enhance the virtual experience. We are also hoping to gather together in the same location on an annual rhythm to supplement our virtual meetings.

By meeting regularly, we build confidence in one another and become more acquainted with each others’ strengths and weaknesses. The more we are aware of that, the better able we are to work together as a cohesive team.

2. We want to participate in education that builds bonds between Atoms.

We can and should go to conferences. We can read broadly, teach widely and polish our skills. But we also have a huge amount to learn from those within our team. The amazing thing about our team isn’t just that we’re poly-skilled individuals. We also have a wide variety of areas of expertise. Within Atomic, we could easily organize a design retreat and fill a schedule with excellent content just by sourcing it from teammates.

We are going to look for ways to educate one another over the miles that separate us. An annual design retreat is something we are pondering. We also like the idea of “design lunches” where we go as a team (in our respective locations) to a cultural center, have lunch, consume something fun and interesting outside our field, and spend time together. These sorts of activities give us natural moments to mentor and teach one another.

3. We want to take a further step to represent Atomic in the design community at local, national, and international levels.

In addition to holding positions of leadership in AIGA, IxDA, Ladies That UX, and Creative Mornings, we are doing incredibly varied, challenging work that brings important solutions to distinct verticals. Our communities should know about that work. We’re also looking for opportunities to submit some of the work we’ve been doing to different design contests.

The nice part about living in separate cities is that there is plenty of room for all of us to get involved in our professional communities and spread the word about the great work happening at AO widely and broadly.

4. We want to take more time to engage in pair design.

At Atomic, we have yet to be convinced that assigning a pair of designers to every project delivers the best value to our clients. But we do agree there are times and places that call for more than one designerly mind and soul.

Design pairing is a way of filling the fuel tank. It’s also a super-charged tool to help get you through a tough problem. So we call on this tool when it is appropriate and necessary. We believe in it so much that we all have a portion of our week allotted to being available to pair with other designers on their own projects. We have to make a concerted effort to count on our teammates when needed.

5. We want to investigate the possibility of instituting design exchanges.

At Atomic, many developers have the opportunity to go on a design exchange with a close partner organization in Sweden. We would like to explore the idea of finding a design organization we can partner with to engage in a similar type of activity. We believe that this sort of cross-pollination opportunity would be a win/win situation for Atomic, another organization, and our design team. We could send cross-office pairs on exchanges to increase the effectiveness of this type of activity by increasing trust and friendship between Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids Atoms.

As we progress through these experiments over the next year or so, we will report back with our findings. Our hope is that as we experiment and adapt, we’ll uncover new rituals, practices, and processes that will be useful to other organizations within our industry.