What’s the Difference Between Creative Ops and Design Ops Anyway?

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There is a shift happening within the design culture of your organization. With the specialization of the creative and design ops roles, the structure of teams is changing, and it has significant implications for your business. Brands like Grammarly and DocuSign are already shifting the way they work to accommodate this trend. Why are they creating new positions?

Truly understanding the answer to this question begins with acknowledging the pressures designers and creatives face today as the industry becomes more integrated, specialized, and digitized. With the digitization of design, automation of manual tasks became necessary. Advances in creative automation and new tooling have finally allowed the design role to shift away from a production-line mentality towards more strategic thinking. So much of marketing is already driven by automation: email, customer relationship management, programmatic advertising and more, but what about creative and design? Shouldn’t they get a slice of the automation pie as well? Still, an organizational process change needs to occur, too, and it comes to fruition by understanding the differences and overlaps between creative ops and design ops roles. But what are creative ops and design ops exactly?

Understanding design ops

Design ops roles manage everything a designer does in a day that is *not* design. But why, you might ask, would a designer be doing anything except design? Exactly. The fact is that most designers are spending a large portion of the workday on administrative tasks such as system and tooling management, project coordination, client relations, and even recruitment.

As the number of digital channels grows, so does the volume of content needed to support marketing execution on said channels. A request for a single piece of creative is rare. How will it look on LinkedIn? On Insty? On YouTube? The need for many variations and minor adjustments is now standard practice. Once, a designer might have created a static design in one program for one platform, but now they develop responsively for multitudes. Not only do they have to consider the design, but they must also manage version control, rights management, and the archiving of assets, among other concerns.

While the designer’s world has changed dramatically, our organizations, processes, and team structures have not kept pace, especially in the team hierarchy. And finally, the way people view the creative production process has remained linear, while content demands have escalated. These demands for content have always been growing over time, but over the last year, there’s been a rapid increase in content demand due to digital initiatives and digital transformation. Now, businesses and organizations are seeing massive payoffs from their foray into transformative digital design. As companies are transitioning into a digital-first culture, a spotlight has been turned onto design teams, and what we see looks like chaos. As the industry has changed, designers have been pulled in many directions. They are often called upon to create budgets, timelines, schedules and even evaluate new tools or respond to proposals.

What I like the least about my job is the admin work or doing jobs of other titles like being a project manager, a product manager, or a content strategist.
Tracy Gabrys
Senior Interaction Designer with more than 12 years of experience

Historically, some organizations expected designers to also function as project managers and agency design leaders. Still, while they’re doing these things, they’re not doing the very, highly skilled work that only they can do.

We’ve incorporated some automation, but someone still has to design the form of automation and edit it when it does not fit the needs of the team. That role still falls on the designers as they are the ones producing the work that would need the automation.
Tracy Gabrys
Senior Interaction Designer with more than 12 years of experience

With demand for digital design at an all-time high, savvy organizations realize it may be time to have someone else manage the tools, budgets, and timeline questions while designers manage the digital product design.

Understanding creative ops

The same thing that happened in design has happened in creative, with the brunt of the operational work falling onto creative directors. In partnership with sales and marketing teams, these directors found themselves spending an increasing amount of time working in or evaluating tools, infrastructure, workflow, people, and governance and less time on creative projects. While creative directors may be performing more operational roles, their positions have not been backfilled. Additionally, as creatives, they are often not the best choice for the functional roles they now find themselves through no fault of their own.

The history here is similar to what we see with design ops. Where creative designers were once only creating for one platform or concept, they are now creating multi-platform concepts that must integrate across channels and systems and come to life in various UX environments. What’s more, many of these creatives haven’t been able to upskill from analog to digital and are being quickly outdated by new tech as it races ahead and requires them to create in ways they’d never considered. Like many others, they have to do these jobs with fewer people while the demands are growing and digital requirements are increasing at a pace never before imagined. Demand for faster, smarter, better creative digital design is outpacing the ability to provide it.

Training and development

Aside from the increased demand for more digital design and designers, there is also a skill set gap to overcome. Design, like any creative pursuit, takes time and requires ongoing skill-building. Unfortunately, the increasing demands of our always-on digital world have left little time for learning the many new tools and platforms modern marketing execution requires. Meanwhile, the crossover between designers, coders, creatives, and design engineers are beginning to blur.

Gone are the days when a creative designer could concept beautiful layouts, and a coder could bring them to life. Now, integration, or at the very least, a collaboration between these skill sets, is paramount in successful programs. There are many different types of specialists within the design field – from UX designers, researchers, motion or visual designers, and many others; it may not be practical or beneficial to expect them to learn or know multiple disciplines. The need, too, for professional development and continual learning in the digital design field is persistent and too often, due to lack of process, overlooked.

Production, strategy, or something else?

Designers who create tangible assets have a production role, whereas those who develop the strategy work more on concepts. There’s also design research, development, and various UX designers and creatives depending on the project. Typically, these groups work in a fragmented structure to the detriment of the project, each other, the company, and possibly, the client. “I just had a discussion today asking why do we have individual documents tracking all the same information? Because people didn’t collaborate or delegate work, so individuals were tracking their work in Excel,” Gabrys said. “You can have all the software in the world, but if processes and appropriate people aren’t there, then you just have tools not being used or overworked employees wearing too many hats.”

Role specialization + creative automation = competitive advantage

It was inevitable that the operational gaps would happen when you think about the prolific growth of technology and the rising demand for content to fuel digital channels. But the best organizations are also bridging those gaps with creative automation so their talent can focus on the work they do best that will help advance their organizations ahead of the competition. Creative and design ops team members help to stem the tide of demand and ensure the supply of content doesn’t run out by enabling a structured workflow to allow employees to move as fast as they need while maintaining high-quality work.

This addition can help bring structure, process, and order to teams to optimize timeliness, capacity, and costs. These positions manage the creative process like a supply chain and eliminate roadblocks, time-wasting tasks, and keep the trains running efficiently, effectively, and on time with the same (or fewer) number of people. These team members help maintain a smooth and timely flow of work and information throughout the organization that takes the pressure off content creators while managing communication with leadership. Their knowledge and expertise allow them to make quick decisions and reallocate resources to meet changing strategies.

The difference between creative and design ops

The difference between these two roles is a matter of form over function. What they will do for your organization is the same – it’s the specialized experience – either in creative or design where they differ. And further, design ops is dedicated to the design strategy for your organization, where creative ops may or may not be. While project managers ensure the smooth flow of individual projects, creative and design ops roles enable the smooth functioning of entire creative and design departments. Depending on the organization’s size, the role could be just one person or a team that ensures efficiency, top-quality, speedy output, and promotes design through the company. Because these roles are high profile, action-oriented, problem solvers, the best have various skills and experience. In addition to the requisite creative or design background, they’re also relationship builders who can evangelize the department throughout the company while also managing tools, infrastructure, workflow, people, and governance.

Creative and design ops job skills

It’s easy to see that designers are pulled in far too many directions that have nothing to do with their core skill set, and equally easy to see how the investment in creative and design ops teams could be an immediate benefit. They’ll help:

    • Define the creative and or design process
    • Develop process efficiency
    • Streamline potential bottlenecks
    • Identify technology gaps
    • Evaluate tools and solutions
    • Ensure high-quality output
    • Manage training and development
    • Analyse project workflow
    • Facilitate recruitment process
    • Coordinate review and approval process

With roles and tools to manage creative and design ops, organizations will achieve more timeliness, increased collaboration, higher capacity, more accurate forecasts, and assured compliance. Creative and design ops roles, however, can’t do everything. Automation is still necessary.

The role of automation for design ops and creative ops

Despite the best creative and design ops teams, for every project that creative and design teams work on, there are still potentially hundreds of digital files that must be created, transferred, delivered, and stored. To manage the volume that modern creative design requires, automation is no longer optional.

Processes and programs that speed production are necessary to meet customer needs in a fast-paced market. Slow delivery means lost opportunity.
Dorthea Kemp
Web UI/UX Designer with over ten years of experience

Automation isn’t replacing creative workers, though. It’s supporting them by alleviating a new, repetitive, low-skill technical task that must be completed as part of every creative project today. “Processes and programs that speed production are necessary to meet customer needs in a fast-paced market. Slow delivery means lost opportunity,” said Dorthea Kemp, a Web UI/UX Designer with over ten years of experience. “Design automation allows us the ability to focus on the product while using programs for repetitive tasks.”

Creative automation tools can save hours when launching variations for campaigns across multiple tactics and markets, each requiring its minor specification of text, size, format, or delivery. Without automation, designers must manually hand-adjust, store, and transfer each asset to multiple sources taking hours and leaving room for error and lapses in quality control. With automation, one asset yields limitless variations and saves dozens of hours per project, shorter production cycles, and provides a faster time-to-market in a fast-paced, high volume, competitive marketplace without sacrificing quality. With the importance of segmentation and digital advertising ad variants, automation makes it much easier and faster to provide multiple asset variations for A/B tests or minor changes in language, copy, CTAs, or other design elements. Having these tools saves time, increases output, and enhances quality control, competitive advantage, and added value to clients and customers. As technology becomes more and more specialized, so too, do the roles and responsibilities of the marketers using these tools.

The real difference between creative ops and design ops? Depends on how you (wire)frame it. 

DesignOps are not a revolution in the design industry; they're evolution. As the design process becomes more and more complex, it requires a shift in the way design teams work.
Nick Babich
Developer, tech enthusiast, and UX lover