From A Communications Primer by Charles and Ray Eames

A new stop on the road to better collaboration

My journey with Abstract began one year ago this month — first as a member of the board, and then in my current role as CEO. If time has taught me anything, it’s that a year is both a considerable milestone and feels like no time at all, or at least that’s been my experience so far.

I did not expect to be here doing this work, honestly. I’m a marketer by trade, which is arguably one of the least common paths to CEO. But when I trace the lines of my career from GitHub to Slack and now Abstract, a common thread appears. I seem to keep coming back to the same question:

How can teams collaborate and make better decisions?

If your eyes are glazing over at my use of the word “collaborate” here, I get it. Corporate-speak has rendered it practically meaningless. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, work today doesn’t happen without other people. We depend on their feedback and input at nearly every stage of the process.

The necessity of working with others doesn’t mean that it’s easy though. In fact, how we work makes collaboration really hard. We have hundreds of software tools yet little hope of finding the context we need across them. Projects rarely happen without plans changing, and sometimes they change so frequently that we are perpetually behind. Working in the open can invite strong but unhelpful opinions that derail our progress. And the list goes on and on…

During my years at GitHub and Slack, we thought about these dynamics frequently and built products to help people from different disciplines and functions actually work together. These experiences also afforded me a number of lessons personally.

GitHub taught me that working well with other people requires:

  • Shared context — reducing errors and wasted effort
  • A link for everything — making it easy to track the latest project updates and decisions
  • A living archive of past decisions — allowing team members, old and new, to understand the wider context and scope of a project or task

These lessons were magnified tenfold by my time at Slack. There I saw that we also need:

  • Dedicated space for transparent, non-hierarchical, and open communication — because collaborating is so much easier when everyone has the same information
  • Integrations with a wide variety of functional tools and services — to automate the work around the work
  • Permission to be human — because people need to feel empowered to bring creativity to their work and take pride in their craft

Joining Abstract, I was curious how these insights might apply in the world of design.

During my first several months as CEO at Abstract I spoke with dozens of design teams and design leaders. A set of key themes emerged from these conversations (all of which were echoed in our State of Design in 2021 report):

  • Design work is scattered — there’s no one place to manage work from end-to-end
  • There’s a shift from outputs to outcomes — businesses expect design to be about more than pixels and aesthetics
  • The impact of design work is recognized, but it’s incredibly hard to measure — everyone wants to point to real impact, but how?

Designers are facing a collaboration challenge, and as you dig into design, you quickly see why. The majority of a designer’s job is orchestrating the team, updating stakeholders, documenting decisions, interpreting feedback, and delivering work for implementation — all of which involve other people. When you look at it this way, it becomes clear: designers need a platform that is purpose-built for the collaborative aspects of the job: gathering requirements, reviewing designs, and continuously measuring what works.

Design played a critical role in the successes of GitHub and Slack because it was seen as a strategic asset. Very few companies see design solely as a service function anymore, but many still don’t know how to get what they need from their design teams. I believe part of the answer lies in creating better tools to facilitate how design teams work. When designers are equipped with more intelligent platforms for collaboration, especially ones that complement the tools they already use for screen design, more businesses will benefit from everything design has to offer.

Abstract has been centered in design collaboration from the beginning, and in 2021 we’ll continue this focus. A number of core beliefs will guide how and what we do:

  • Designers should be recognized for all the work they do in the design process, not just the visuals they create
  • Good product design is inclusive — involving designers, engineers, and product managers at all stages of the process
  • Like other teams responsible for mission-critical work, designers should be able to clearly point to their business impact

I can’t wait to show you what our team has been building.

Follow along with Abstract on Twitter for more updates, or email me at kelly.w@abstract.com for a sneak peak.

now: CEO @abstract | then: marketing VP @SlackHQ, @github & more | | finding the bright places where boom bands are playing