This is not a tutorial on Figma, it's not a "Figma 101" listing out its features or anything like that; it's a story about my previous digital agency, Tundra, and how I came to introduce Figma as a tool that we could use at our agency. This article also has a "Notorious B.I.G" themed structure, so each section will just riff off a Biggie Smalls track title.
For those who don't know me, I was "officially" the Lead Front End Developer at Tundra, but I changed my title all the time on Slack. At one point I was "Editor In Chimp", so you can see we didn't take job titles too seriously. Even our Technical Director of the agency had his client-facing role as "Junior Front End Developer". We really didn't take them too seriously and I think that just made it easier for us to be more adaptive to work on things outside of our disciplines and actually take on parts of the job that may not be in the official job description.
Kick in the door
My workplace is shit... how do I change things?
This is the question that I received quite a lot at the DesignOps Melbourne meetup I used to co-run. I was getting people from big companies, big agencies, product companies and so on; and it was effectively a version of this: "Things aren't that great in my workplace, but I don't even know where to start to change them".
This is seems to be a really common problem, and I want to try and hopefully address that a little. I don't have all the answers, but I'm going to be talking about a period of a few months (back in early 2018) from my perspective, where I made it my mission to introduce Figma into our agency.
The design workflow is broken in most workplaces, almost in every workplace actually, it's broken in one way or another. Even in workplaces that seem to have a pretty good workflow, there are probably one or two areas it's not totally perfect and it will probably never be perfect; but there's degrees of that, and a lot of companies are more perfect than others, and some are just on the other extreme and are truly awful, too.
I think we do have this everyday struggle as designers and developers, and it's when both are combined or overlap where it's the most obvious that it's totally broken, but it's not as obvious how we get past those things that are broken. The most common outcome is that people get complacent and start learning to live with those imperfections, like the "20 folder deep" manual versioning of project folders and files on a crappy server. There does seem to be more of a tendency to get comfortable with these problems rather than putting things in place to try and leap over them, and I think that's a huge problem.
Things done changed
We are in a spot now where things have slowly started changing for designers and developers. There are a few trends that have been happening for a little while, and they will continue to happen. Some of these are pretty obvious to me; the first one is quite a big one: collaboration. If you look at the tooling that is coming out, they're building in collaboration to many of our tools, so this is something that is being more widely used and more widely requested for on projects. This is getting built in now across the board, everything from other tools like Google Docs to Slack is very collaborative, and Figma is clearly very collaborative, too.
There is a trend where things are getting more collaborative rather than this "siloed" workflow that a lot of people are used to, so decentralization is another important trend. Lots of us don't work next to the developers or designers on our projects, so we have to be able to work in decentralized way, whether developer is in Canada or Australia, and still be able to have a really good workflow. So, decentralization is another really important one.
The third one would be: iteration. We need to be able to make iterations quickly that don't go through this crazy process of generating those designs with 40 pages, getting those to "95% done" and then presenting it to the client as a finished product, then being so shocked when they don't like some of it. You thought you've perfected this design, but you're actually back to square one now. I had this joke where I would ask a designer how the design was going, and they would say "it's 90 percent done", to which I would say "cool, so about halfway then?" - because you know like it's going to come back - it's not done. Whether it's from client feedback or internal feedback, it just doesn't really work that way, so the fundamental way of how we need to work needs to change. It has already been changing and it will continue to change. This is not something that's just a little "blip" and we kind of like this idea of collaborating and being able to make fast iterations, this is something that will only increase with time, so I think acknowledging that is quite important.
Somebody's got to die
With that being said - somebody's got to die. In our case, we were big fans of Sketch, we had been using it for a couple years full time after we got off Photoshop quite a while ago (back in 2016).
Ironically, that the switch from Photoshop to Sketch was fairly similar to what I'm going to be writing about now, so I could basically take this process and apply it to how we did it back then.
I vividly remember a walk like back from a local cafe with one of our designers back in 2016, and he said "Man, I can't wait until we can use Sketch...", and I stopped him and said "What are you waiting for? You're probably the most senior designer here". Even these designers who are very senior and very knowledgeable still feel like they're being held back or they don't feel like they're the ones who can make that decision, and I just think that's so sad, because it's holding back very smart people who have really good ideas or want to change things.
Going back to Cali
So, I looked into a new tool called "Figma" that could clearly resolve a lot of these problems that I think everyone's familiar with. I'm not going to go down the laundry list of all the problems that we had with something like Sketch or Adobe products, but Figma immediately just jumped out to me.
At first glance, it's effectively a "Google Docs" version of a design tool. It's really based on this collaborative idea that's that's built-in to the product, it it's not like an "add-on" you need to install; they've built it from the ground up that way.
For me, the most important feature of Figma is that it is built using web technologies. Unlike Sketch or Adobe products, it's not a native Mac or Windows app. With Sketch, you can't install it on Windows or Linux, so the fact that they've built Figma from the ground up in the web,using web technologies, it seems like not many people acknowledge that as being such a huge deal. I believe Figma is two to three years ahead of any other design tool just based on that fact alone. It's such a big deal.
At the DesignOps Melbourne meetup, our mission was to "reduce the distance between design and development to zero", and I truly believe Figma (and how it's built) will be pivotal in helping us do that.
Ready to die
You have to be ready to die for this stuff.
If you truly believe in something, let's say you're still on Photoshop and if you know that Figma is better alternative to Photoshop, it may or may not be an "easy sell", but if you really believe that it is the better alternative, and you know you're ready to die for that idea, I think that's a really good place to start.
You have to be willing to stand up for what you think.
"To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That's what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul - would you understand why that's much harder?"
I really like this quote from a book called "The Fountainhead". This is said by the main character, Howard Roark. He maintains this extreme level of integrity, because he knows that on a long enough timeline you're going regret it if you if you just sell out every single time and don't stand up for what you think is the right thing to do.
You can get some help so you don't have to do this on your own. There are other smart people in your company or your agency who probably has similar thoughts. They might not be obvious at first, but you can find them just by talking to them.
You want to find a few smart "mavericks" who are willing to put themselves out there a little bit and help you with this mission of implementing change. I had this at my agency, where I reached out to a few designers who I knew would be interested in making a change to our design tooling. They were really supportive of helping me try out Figma as a design tool.
I wasn't a designer at work anymore (I used to be a designer), I was not on the design tools, but these guys were, and I really valued their opinion of Figma as a design tool; so I wanted to work with them as a developer to see how that integrated into my workflow as well.
It was really a bit of a back-and-forth to see how we both could work together with this new software.
To get this to work out, you really have to build in a "20% expected failure rate" from the start, and by "failure", I don't mean this in a bad sense at all.
I think there's a level of fear, where designer will say (or think to themselves) "if I do this, am I going to lose my job? Am I going to get in trouble?", so I think you need to build that expected failure rate in from the very start, because switching to any new tool is going have some speed bumps, whether it's from the software itself or the onboarding process, or maybe you're not as fast with it straight away; and that's okay.
So, I think building in that failure right from the start and letting people know that it's truly safe to try these things, and re-assure them that they're not going to get in "trouble" for it; and in fact maybe a better company-wide message is that they're more likely to get in trouble for not trying new things.
I can't emphasize this enough: talk with your team.
I think a lot of people just internalize this stuff, and have self-talk where it's like: "oh boy, I wish I could use Figma... when will someone change things here so we can use it?" They start getting really worked up internally, but it helps to just talk to your team about and see if they've been thinking about the same things; there's a good chance that they probably have. Not even just the designers or the "discipline specific" person, talk to the producers, the copywriters, the account managers, leadership etc.
Every single day I was posting something about Figma in our agency Slack channel. I was doing this for about two months so they were consistently aware of it and thinking about it, and we had really good discussions about it. I think it's often about educating people in your team/company as often as possible and really just keeping that communication going every single day. When I was in the kitchen downstairs making breakfast at work, I would talk to the designers and we would have like a ten minute chat right there, and I think that was really critical.
When it comes to management, leaders or "senior" people in the team or agency, this of course becomes a very easy excuse to make: "oh, you know, my boss won't let me...", but it's really self-defeating and again, you're internalizing all this and chances are you probably haven't even talked to them about it (if you're being honest with yourself).
My approach to this (affecting change or bringing in things that you believe into a team), which doesn't have a hundred percent success rate, but it has proven to be the most effective way I've found to convey value is something liek this: you really want to make whatever you're doing or whatever you're proposing ten times better ( not ten percent better, ten times better), and a 10x improvement of anything, any metric, is very, very hard to argue with, or ignore completely.
You might get some push back, which is great, that means you're having a conversation about it, but if you can put that initial work in yourself, and you've shown that you've taken the initiative to go above and beyond in your own time or at work, or researching at home and actually demonstrated it to someone, and showed that it is ten times better (in whatever metric you're measuring), I think that's going to give you a really really good shot at at least getting approval for that initial trial with the "built-in failure rate" from your design manager or your your "higher-ups" as well, so I really recommend this approach.
This has come out of my own discussions with designers from lots of different companies and agencies that I've talked to. It's a really common theme where there's a very self-defeating attitude, that feeling like "nothing is ever going to change" or you're waiting for something to happen or you're waiting for someone else to make that change. I just never really understood that, because no one else is going to do it.
No one is going to save you, and as soon as you realize that, and you realize it's actually up to you, then that's probably a good frame of mind to have. And to anyone who's "stopping" these things from happening, or stopping all these discussions from happening; that the sad truth is the best people in your company or agency will quit. The best people won't put it up with it for too long, they'll quit and they'll find somewhere else that that will offer what they're after. I know a bunch of people who have literally quit their job in the last six months because their company was a still on Photoshop, or maybe it was just something that they couldn't see changing in the near future. So, the best will quit, but what's even worse is that the rest will stay and they'll be dead inside.
The people who really don't feel like they have any power to change anything will be the ones who stay at the agency, and they'll be learning to live with those subpar processes or subpar tools, and they'll just be dead inside and won't actually say anything. Because of that, all of their work is going to suffer, their creative souls are going to suffer and their integrity goes at the window. The real-life implications of not being able to have these discussions, or not being able to try new tools actually has way bigger impact than just "this little tool is something one of our designers wants to try but we're not gonna let them and they'll get over it" - it's mostly fatal in the long term.
tl;dr - Try Figma and save your designers souls.
(This article was adapted from a talk I gave at DesignOps Melbourne back in 2018 called Life After Sketch – Featuring The Notorious F.I.G..)