Design Leader Insights - Meredith Black

January 16, 2023

Alex Smith: Hi, Meredith. Thanks so much for coming on the show today.

Meredith Black: Hi, Alex. Thanks for having me.

Alex Smith: Yeah, for sure. And to get started, can you tell the audience a little bit about your background in design ops and then we can move into what design ops is as well?

Meredith Black: Yeah, of course. So basically about, I don't know, 10 years ago, I was working for a design firm called Hot Studio.  And I'd worked at IDEO prior and both of my roles there were kind of account management, being a producer, managing clients, managing designers. Kind of helping them get their projects through to the client. And things changed in 2014, when Facebook bought Hot Studio. Facebook bought a design firm, as there were a bunch of other companies doing the same thing, because design suddenly became important in their eyes, thank God. And they couldn't, they couldn't get talent fast enough. So the fastest way they could do that wasby by scooping up design firms. And so that studio was one of them. And myself and my boss, Courtney Kaplan, and a few other people who are on the producer side, the design program management side, were also asked to join Facebook. And so we introduced design program management into Facebook, which was pretty cool. And my role, specifically at that time, was to integrate all of the designers from Hot Studio into Facebook, get them on the right teams on the right projects, meeting with the right people, getting them set up and help them acclimate to kind of an entirely different world than they've worked on. So fast forward a couple years after that. Bob Baxley, who was the Head of Design at Pinterest at the time, wanted somebody to come in and help run the studio, so to speak, and he's like, I need a studio manager. And I was like, I don't care what you call me, I just want to go work at Pinterest. And so he brought me in, and he's like, hey, I have this team of 10 designers right now I just need help. I need help with all things ops. And so I started out with him with 10 designers. And fast forward five years after that, I helped grow the design team to over 100 designers. I grew a design program management team, which was a lot of fun. A design systems team. And then just you know, helped out with a ton of different aspects of Pinterest. But that was, that's what I did. And so then I started advocating for design ops, across not only Pinterest, but across all of the different other companies that were out there, starting to find people who were kind of doing things like me, which was great.  And then as a result, built a community off of it. So that's where I am right now is continuing to build this community called DesignOps Assembly.

Alex Smith: You know, one of the things I think I've seen, I don't know if this is true, so I definitely want to ask is like, you have to be a bigger company to have this, right? I mean, there's, that's kind of the assumption out there. I was talking to a few design leaders in Denver, who were saying, oh, we don't have design ops, we can't afford that. How should people think about design ops? And do you need like one person running that or multiple people running that? Or can people take it on as a part of their role?

Meredith Black: I think designers are kind of forced to take this on as part of their role right now. And right now, like within in the past 6-12 months, I have seen, like a great amount of people wanting to transition from design into design ops, because they're already like, oh, hey, I'm already doing this as part of my job. Which they didn't realize was kind of like a different path that they could take, which is, which is really cool and we can talk about more. But to go back to your first point about do you need to be a big company to have design ops? The answer is actually no, I would start a design, I would, I would at least have one design ops person in there as early as you can maybe with like, you know, eight to 12 designers to help get everything up and started and running from the beginning, versus having to catch up way later on. And I think, you know, the point of design ops is that when you are working with a design leader, that design leader has to, has so much on their plate, right? They're expected to do all the hiring, they're expected to, you know, make sure that the design looks good, they're expected for the overall look and feel of the design of a platform or the company or whatnot. And so, at the end of the day, like, they're, they're expected to take on so many jobs. And so an ops person can come in and kind of be that right hand person to that design leader, and they can help with, you know, hey, I'll help you start hiring. I'll help you with the budgets, I'll help you with project or program management, you know, I'll help with team culture. And so you're taking all of this stuff off of the design leaders plate, maybe not like 100%, but you're helping them and you're helping them and you're helping scale a team faster. You're helping build a culture better, and you're helping the designers focus on design instead of all of this other stuff that always gets in the way. And I think design ops is also a really great buffer for other parts of an organization, right? So I think it plays a lot of different roles. So what I would say is, if you are a Design Leader, I would say, if you have, and granted, I'm very biased. But if you have the opportunity to hire a headcount, for a designer or an ops person, hire the ops person first because they're going to be able to expedite things so quick, get things in line, and just help with efficiency and help like really run the team a lot faster. So that way, you can hire more people in the future, and you have it set up from the beginning. 

Alex Smith: Let's talk about like other branches of this. I mean, there's research ops as well, is that,  is that something that design ops should be working directly with? Or how do they interface with each other?

Meredith Black: So I would say historically, research ops wasn't a thing. This is, this is kind of like the new thing that has come up within design ops. As I would say, research ops and design systems have been all of the rage in the last year, which I think is really exciting. And I think it gives people another opportunity or another branch to kind of like jump into versus just being design ops focused. Design, or research ops, I would say is newish, more newer in the field. And so I don't have as much solid data on that other than I know that a lot of companies are like, we need a research ops person now! And I think it's the same thing that was happening with designers, as you've got these researchers who are doing their main jobs and you know, 10-20 things beyond that, and they need support, and they need somebody who's going to be in a strategic role to help them like, look ahead and see what's important, and what's not important, again, filter out, you know, like, all the other stuff and just let them do their job. Where I see things a little different is in Europe, whereas they call design ops, what they call design ops is very similar to design systems. So it's kind of where you are globally right now, like what the definitions are, and things are still murky. And that's because this is just such a new field. And I think there's so many people excited, and so many people who want to contribute, and who want to be a part of this. And we're like thinking of all this stuff all the time. But like, we're not at a place where we can like systematize things yet. And maybe we shouldn't be right? Like, maybe we should see, kind of throw, throw, throw something against the wall and see if it sticks. And then if it doesn't, it doesn't. So I think, yeah, we're kind of in our own ideation stage at this point.

Alex Smith: Yeah, I think it's good to be flexible. You know, there's like the Agile Manifesto, and every company I see doing Agile, which has been around for a while, does it differently. So I think like, yeah, some guidelines are great, but like, there's probably not ever going to be one right way to do it.

Meredith Black: And it's different in every company to be honest. That's what I keep trying to tell folks is, just because you're in design ops doesn't mean you're doing the exact same role. 

You know, if you're in a larger organization, Meta, for example, like you could be working on a very specific program, right? Like, you could be working on learning and development for all of designers or for designers in a specific area. Whereas if you were at a Pinterest or an Instacart, or Dropbox, you could be working on all of the things right? Like you could be working on like project management, HR, finance, you know, like space planning, like, timing, you know, what I'm saying? So, I think the smaller companies are a great place to start because I think you kind of it's like the agency roles a little bit, right? Where like, you kind of get to dabble in a bunch of different things, and see what you like and what you don't like. And then once you're like, huh, I really like learning and development or I really like people on culture. I really really like working on the projects with, you know, design managers and you know, product people and engineers, like, you can have those paths. But if you're just starting out, and especially if you're just hiring someone in design ops, like you kind of want the jack of all trades. You want somebody who's going to be the Swiss Army knife and who's going to be you know, the chameleon. I'm using all the buzzwords so people know them. To get somebody in and you know, see what sticks at your company and what doesn't.

Alex Smith: Let's switch gears here to a question we always ask, which is what advice you have for new designers entering the field today?

Meredith Black: I think it's actually a really exciting time. I'm like I said, like, within the last six months, I have seen an explosion of designers wanting to go into design ops, because they didn't know that they were already doing that as part of their job. And so, like I said, I think there are some designers who really liked doing those aspects of it, who really like the planning and the organization. And, you know, like in running things, and being efficient and roadmaps, and all of that stuff. So I actually think this is a really exciting time for designers who want to get into this because  you have such a step up and an advantage that other folks don't have, which is you are the designer's mind, right? You have an empathy that a lot of other people don't have, and have to learn, right? Like, I had to learn that when I was at IDEO, and that studio, whereas if you're a designer, like you know what it's like day in and day out to be a designer. And so if you can help advocate for other designers, and you could help explain the process to other cross functional partners, then you're five steps ahead of everybody else, right?

Alex Smith: Meredith, where should people go to learn more?

If you're interested in joining the Slack channel, just go to And there's a section that you can fill out and request to be added. And we usually add people within 24 to 48 hours. And then you can come into the world of design ops assembly and see what it's all about and check in. We've got meetups. We've got 14 chapters worldwide. We've got events happening pretty much monthly. We have chit chats. So there's a bunch of different ways to get involved. And you know, if you want to chat with me, feel free, reach out on Slack, and I'd be happy to chat with you.

Alex Smith: Meredith, thanks so much for coming on the show today.

Yeah, thank you so much for having me. Go Buffs!

Alex Smith: Yeah Go Buffs!