At the risk of this sounding like a support group — Hi, my name's Luke and I'm a design advocate. Believe me, telling people you're a design advocate is a quick way to get people to stare blankly at you, or at worst, assume you're some kind of self-aggrandising transformational consultant who is trying to sell you their LinkedIn post on 10 ways you can earn money while doing next to nothing! So, I thought I'd pen this little missive to explain what it is that a design advocate actually does, where it came from and how we do it at zeroheight.
So what the heck is a design advocate?
When it boils down to it, a design advocacy department is part of a marketing department. You're doing activities that should, in the end, promote the business or product you work for, and your end goal is probably going to be about either getting new customers or retaining existing customers. The difference to traditional marketing tactics is that you're specifically doing audience marketing and evangelism marketing. Audience marketing is pretty simple. It's just taking an audience-first approach to the marketing that you do, and thinking about what they need. It's like taking a product design, problem solving approach to marketing. Evangelism marketing is like word-of-mouth marketing, but on steroids, where you invest in people who have knowledge and skills within the area, and build up their authority and trust in relation to the company they work for.
In general, there are usually two ways design advocacy works: by acting as an expert in the particular product you're working for, and helping people with not just the how-tos of the product, but also the areas around your product (eg. knowing zeroheight, but also knowing design systems and how to stand them up within a company), and by doing thought leadership in the space that your product exists in - trying to build trust, authority and awareness of your product via association.
So is this thing new?
In the wider context of tech, advocacy or evangelism is not new. It's gone by many names, including tech evangelism, developer relations, developer advocacy, platform evangelism... the list goes on. Tech companies like Microsoft or Google have huge departments of developer evangelists, as well as community evangelists, who do this kind of things as a volunteer. Because design has only been taken seriously as an integrated product function for the last 10-15 years, it's taken design a little bit longer to catch up, but you'll still find design advocates at most design tooling companies, or product companies who have large designer audiences, such as Adobe, Google, Invision, Microsoft, Figma or Sketch.
So what does a design advocate actually do?
When it comes down to it, design advocates usually do a combination of three things: content creation, community management and consultancy.
First up, content. Content marketing is one of the key arrows in an advocate's quiver. From written content to webinars to podcasts to building plugins to designing resources to speaking at events to just tweeting a whole lot, content is a great way of building up your reputation as a thought leader, educating people around products, processes or just plain ol' knowledge building, and creating a long tail that leads back to your business. It builds word of mouth, reputation and trust, and is a great 'one-to-many' way of doing things.
Next, community management (both online and offline). First off, you want your customers (and potential) to feel taken care of. While you may have customer success teams to do the day-to-day, having somebody who can talk on the same level as your customers (or potential customers) is a great way to build trust. Next, just being present and noticeable is an automatic way of building word of mouth for your company. As long as you've built a good reputation, you (and your company) will be top of mind. Finally, influencer relations. Word of mouth is great coming from one person, but it's more effective if you're getting it from all over, and it's super effective if those people have a large audience. It all sounds very transactional, but actually, a lot of it is actually just having chats with really nice people, helping them out and occasionally giving them resources when they need them.
Finally, consultancy. As I mentioned briefly, design and developer advocates generally need to have experience in the field they're talking about. How else will you build trust if you don't actually know what you're doing? Part of the job of a design advocate is to be a helping hand with customers (and future customers), and to bring a bit of expertise in when needed. This can take the form of actually joining in on success and sales meetings, or working closely with those teams to make sure the content you're creating is helpful to customers and leads. Also, as someone who spends time talking to the community, there's an element of providing internal consultancy to the product teams as well!
So what about zeroheight?
First off, there's the area of expertise that we cover... Design advocates at zeroheight need to be design systems and/or DesignOps nerds. In terms of what design advocates at zeroheight currently do, our big focus at the moment is on content and community - researching and sharing what it takes to build the gosh darn best design system and DesignOps orgs in the world.
We spend most of our time writing for the blog, hanging out and talking on Slack communities, creating podcasts, chatting with influencers and Zooming customers to find out what makes them tick. On top of that we've got more of the same planned, as well as reports, webinars and events in the next six months.
Why would a designer "stop designing" and start avocado-ing?
One of the big questions I get asked, especially from more junior folks, is why someone would stop being a Product Designer, UX Designer or Front-end Developer, and start being a Design Advocate? Especially because they feel it would create a career gap if they ever wanted to get back to 'real designing'.
To begin with, while you may not be putting pixels to screen very often as an advocate, you are solving problems constantly. Writing a piece on where the source of truth with design tokens should be or how to write design principles requires a heck of a lot of research, identifying problems and coming up with solutions. Also, as most senior product designers know, the more senior you get in design, the more your job revolves around consultancy, people-handling and high-level problem solving, which is exactly the space that advocacy sits in.
From my personal experience, being involved with evangelism early on (I was an agency lead, and then a programme manager with Microsoft's developer evangelism department for a while) massively helped my career as a designer. Not only was I learning from the best folks in the industry via conferences, reading, writing and conversations, but I was building a strong network that has helped me ever since in both freelancing and in-house design positions.
Where can I sign up?
Of course, I'm currently hiring another design advocate for my team (4 and growing), albeit in the Bay area and not where I'm based. Otherwise, keep an eye out on the zeroheight careers page, or check out folks like Abstract, Figma, Sketch, Adobe and other design tools. If you want to have a chat about being a design advocate, then you can always drop me an email at luke (at) zeroheight.com.