Aug 01

The 5 Degrees of Design Separation

…and how to communicate across them.


There are many parts about being a designer that are important to the role. Most of which are about the tasks at hand: balancing this variable, deducing the best way to implement that feature, drafting a 1 pager for the other thing, but most critically it’s communication with others. There are 5 degrees of communication. There may be some hazy crossovers depending on specifics, but as a general rule you’ll interact with these groups of people and this post looks at how distant they are from the design process, from your day-to-day.


First Degree

Other designers. Be it on this project or another but they have awareness of your project.


Second Degree

Other front line colleagues involved in the same project. Artists, Animators, Audio technicians, coders, QA,  producers.


Third Degree

Internal managers. Managers, Directors and Execs and to some extent Leads of other depts.


Fourth Degree

External managers. Similar to the above, however you have a more limited history of interaction.


Fifth Degree

Outsiders. People outside the industry/studio such as spouse, brothers, mothers, dogs, friends. (ok, not dogs… they give lousy feedback). A group with near absolute zero connection to the work.



It shouldn’t come as a great shock to you that you should communicate with these disparate groups differently. Here’s what you should keep in mind – and do remember that although you may be good friends to other person X, they will still be viewing the conversation through the perspective of their world.


Words, tone and information

Now, communication with other designers is usually a breeze, they’ll pick up the thread of your train of thought and chime in. Sometimes they’ll run completely in the wrong direction but will do so in a reasoned, practical manner. So let’s skip right along to the second degree.


This group of people are working on the project based on their knowledge of the of where it is now and direction from their lead. It’s all too easy to have just worked out a new direction or twist on a currently known feature and to offhandedly mention it over the water cooler to this group before you’ve even got the new plan on paper. Such comments are usually thrown back and forth between front line comrades as a manner of heads-up and/or mild ‘look what I know’ but can be received with concern and trepidation – which is the opposite to your intent.


The biggest take-away from this whole piece should be ‘put yourself in their shoes’. With the 2nd degree group, their concerns are going to be “How does this impact the work I’ve done / am doing now?”, “How does this change the game? I hope it’s for the better”. So be shrewd with your words and if you’ve not got all the details exactly figured out then don’t mention it at all as you’ll start to look like a fool when you can’t fully answer their questions on the change and generally instill worry.


Group 3 & 4 brings us to the other take-away from this: History.


Whilst you’ve been brainstorming, documenting, tuning and iterating you’ve also been in your own little designer world :) . From group 3 upwards, the memory of what has happened to date with the project can range from perfect recollection to completely forgotten about – both extremes are completely understandable. In the first case it may be an aspect they are passionate about and at the other end of the spectrum you have people out of the day-to-day development who are busy working on a plethora of other tasks of in differing flavors.


Knowing that your review audience will be composed of people not in the same head-space as you is vital:

  • You: Got in. Updated design with thoughts from off-hours musing. Met with lead to discuss upcoming feather spec. reviewed build. Wrote new spec doc.  4pm: review meeting with build.
  • Them: Directors meeting, conference call to Zurich, business lunch, read pitch doc for new project, operations meeting with COO, write feedback for other game X, legal meeting conference call, read last emailed version of design (which didn’t include your morning updates). 4pm: review meeting with build.

Your goal here is to discuss openly and smartly and try not to be to beholden to work you’ve done just because you did it and it’s done.

Remember; they don’t need to remember all the history of the projects, that’s what they pay you for.


Group 5 is where designers use those completely out of the loop as a sounding board, to test ideas to see if they sink or swim and to receive feedback on topic perception. [NDA not-withstanding of course.]


As you can see, each degree of separation away from the core designers on a project increases the skill with which you have to deliver your reasoning as well as be able to concisely iterate the decisions that were made to get there, even if it’s been told before. It’s here that having a strong vision and solid pillars design will help you again and again.


Keep calm always. Vector your prose to remind, update and inform. You’re all looking for a result that’s for the best play experience, whilst fitting in time and budget.



image by Kevin Dooley

As always, the thoughts on this whole site (unless credited otherwise) are from me and me alone and not of my current or former employers (If they were, they probably wouldn’t let me use the word ‘vector’ back there. :) ) and represent no specific incidences, personnel, companies or projects. The material on this site is intended to make you a better designer.


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  1. Designer Weekly Aug3 » Live. Play. Design

    [...] « The 5 Degrees of Design Separation [...]

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