On Design Evangelism
Key things evangelists do for design
This article dissects the concept of Design Evangelism, which has been relatively quiet in comparison to the developer evangelist movement. In essence, Design Evangelism involves advocating for the importance of design, educating others on design principles, collaborating with different stakeholders, and inspiring teams by visualizing future possibilities. It’s all about empowering others to recognize and embrace the value of design in product development.
The developer world has seen a recent upsurge in roles and titles such as Developer Advocate or Developer Evangelist. The vagueness of these titles has prompted questions such as “What does a developer evangelist/advocate do?” and “What in the world is a developer evangelist?” Champions of this advocacy movement have rushed to provide an answer to these burning questions, even going as far as writing The Developer Evangelist Handbook.
Yet on the design side of this spectrum, things have been remarkably quiet. While Design Operations — DesignOps for short — has enjoyed a spot in the limelight for some time now, it’s not a true design counterpart to this developer evangelist movement. Design evangelism remains relatively underexplored and underexplained. So it still begs the question:
What in the world is Design Evangelism?
The title of Design Evangelist might sound like one of those startup-only titles that don’t really describe anything about this role and still leave us wondering what these people actually do. Even for those who might be familiar or have met someone with the title of Developer or Designer Evangelist, it might still be hard to truly understand what someone who calls themselves an evangelist actually does.
To clear up the confusion around the concept of Design Evangelism, let’s start from the bottom — the foundations of what evangelism means in tech — and work our way up to evangelism in the context of design.
Chris Heilmann, writer of the aforementioned Developer Evangelist Handbook, describes the concept of an evangelist as follows:
A developer evangelist is a spokesperson, mediator, and translator between a company and both its technical staff and outside developers.
While Heilmann specifically refers to developer evangelists, I’d argue this definition stretches beyond the confines of developer roles and could apply to any evangelist. What that means is that an evangelist, regardless of their trade, is a spokesperson, mediator, translator, and advocate for their respective division. They champion the cause of their discipline to both the internal stakeholders of a company as well as the outside world.
Evangelism at its core, within both its original religious context and the modern-day tech world, is a fundamentally human-centric endeavor. It’s about communicating and projecting the thoughts, ideas, practices, and principles of a specific group of people.
Being an evangelist requires a relatively uncommon combination of abilities. It necessitates having the social skills to communicate with stakeholders at various levels and feel comfortable doing so. Evangelists are usually natural communicators, and they radiate an almost tangible passion for their craft. Not only do they want to communicate their ideas, they’re eager to educate and share their knowledge with the masses.
Communication is only one side of the coin though. Aside from their ability to convey their thoughts and advocate for their area of expertise, evangelists need to be great at what they do. Developer Evangelists need to be great developers. Design Evangelists need to be great designers — both in creating and explaining their designs.
The four cornerstones of evangelism
If pressed, I’d articulate “design evangelism” is the passionate advocacy, education, and coordination of people/principles/practices throughout an organization, using various levers and switches (social, political, economic, technological, etc.), while respecting people’s needs and goals. It’s a human-centric thing, naturally. (Uday Gajendar, “What is ‘design evangelism’?“)
Here, Uday Gajendar identified three core principles — a trifecta, if you will — that form the foundation of this concept. In my framing of what constitutes evangelism for designers, I’ve aimed to reword and expand these principles in order to cover the extremely large field that is design.
This effort has lead to defining the four cornerstones of design evangelism. They form the foundations of what the term encompasses and what a design evangelist actually does. These are:
Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these four domains.
An evangelist is first and foremost a spokesperson for their craft, a cheerleader. In order to do this right, an evangelist needs to love what they do and love what they’re advocating for. It doesn’t matter whether that’s a product, a service, or a craft.
If you don’t love it, don’t evangelize it. (Guy Kawasaki, “The Art of Evangelism”)
For design, that means being passionate about everything that design touches upon. It means advocating for not just the role of designers in the product development process, but also emphasizing the role of design within the organization. Ensuring the organization understands why good design matters is a key aspect of the job.
Advocacy is where these efforts come closest to the more traditional meaning of evangelism. As an advocate for the efforts of the design craft, evangelists are zealously promoting the purpose of design and the impact it can make. It’s a means to convert those who are skeptical about what designers bring to the table and to get nondesigners to understand how design influences both the process and the outcome.
A key aspect of this advocacy is empathy. There will be people who tend to only see the world from their own perspective and are hesitant or even intimidated by anything that appears different. Relentlessly jamming information down that person’s throat is most definitely not the answer. Evangelists need to be able to empathize with or even adopt the other person’s point of view, in order to figure out what it takes to align this view with their own. This way, they can build meaningful connections, built on mutual understanding.
Advocating for what designers do and why it matters does not quite cover it. Just because you’re saying the right things, in the right order, to the right person, does not mean they fully grasp and understand the extent of why good design is tremendously important.
Like a teacher, an evangelist needs to be able to help others understand what exactly it means to be a designer, and what design, as a craft, actually entails. Simply preaching loudly to every passerby is not enough. To advocate for design, evangelists have to be able to break the entirety of their discipline down into manageable, easily digestible chunks of information.
This includes teaching developers how to critique a design, or working with stakeholders to break down any artifacts that designers create, like wireframes or mockups. Helping others to learn, understand, and appreciate the various processes, deliverables, practices, and patterns that make up the field of design is essential.
And this doesn’t just extend to external stakeholders who operate outside of the domain. It is equally important for an evangelist to be able to educate other designers, to be a guide and a mentor to help them evolve, become better designers, and perhaps even grow to become evangelists in their own right.
The path to becoming a […] evangelist can vary from person to person and company to company, but a desire to mentor and help people is a defining part of the role. […] Evangelists don’t necessarily thrive on being the smartest the person in the room, but rather on being the most empathetic and open to questions. (Clubhouse Blog, “What in the world is a developer evangelist?”)
Moreover, it’s not just about the craft and the processes, or the output of a designer. Design is as much about the user as it is about the product. Building a solid understanding of what the users of a product or service need is an integral part of being an evangelist. Great evangelists help an organization and its employees understand and empathize with their users.
Evangelists have to be able to break the entirety of their discipline down into manageable, easily digestible chunks of information.
Evangelism is not a solitary effort. Establishing design as a positive force within the lives of those around you requires lending a hand and actively contributing to the efforts of others.
Whether this means facilitating meetings or workshops, taking notes, or organizing and researching tools and resources, evangelists are as much supporters as they are facilitators.
Being an evangelist gives me the ability to do something different. I can do support tickets, blog posts, write docs, go to a meetup and sit down with people to talk about their job. (Ricardo Feliciano, Developer Evangelist at CircleCI)
A great evangelist is able to take the backseat, let someone else drive the conversation, and only jump in whenever necessary. Great evangelists place the other person’s interests above their own. Offering to help the other person out will help build a connection and open them up to whatever it is you might have to say.
The ability to inspire others and rally them to your cause is an incredibly important aspect of evangelism. For design evangelists, this is likely to be even more prevalent than in other disciplines.
Establishing design as a positive force within the lives of those around you requires lending a hand and actively contributing to the efforts of others.
Designers have the ability to paint a picture of the future, whether it’s an industrial designer’s CAD drawing of the newest smartphone or a UI designer’s mockup for the latest innovation in social media.
Ultimately, designers are (likely) not the ones building the final product. While there are some unicorns out there who are both developer and designer, the outcome of the product development process is a combined effort, involving many different stakeholders. Being able to create and visualize what that outcome might look like before it’s actually out there allows designers to rally others around their cause and their ideas.
“Evangelist who cannot give a great demo” is an oxymoron. If you can’t give a great demo of your product or service, you cannot be an evangelist for it. Demoing should be as second nature, even involuntary, like breathing. (Guy Kawasaki, “The Art of Evangelism”)
At the heart of this ability to inspire lies the skill to give a great demo. Creating a visual representation of what will be built and sticking it on the wall like a ’90s boy band poster won’t necessarily get people excited to build a great product. Explaining your thought process, helping others understand how the finalized product would work, and walking them through this vision step by step is more likely to rouse them.
More than anything else, these four cornerstones can be boiled down to what design evangelism is truly about: empowerment. Advocating for good design. Educating others on what design is and why it matters. Collaborating to build upon that understanding. And inspiring others to build the future. All of these things are fundamentally about empowering those around you to do the best job they can and reduce friction along the way.