What you didn’t learn in design school

How to combine business smarts with lean sensibility to win in a big company

My entrepreneurial friend told me that normal jobs are easy because you only have to make your boss happy. But when you are an entrepreneur, you have to make a lot of people happy: customers, employees, suppliers, lenders, investors, partners, and more.

I thought about this and realized that the more successful I become as an in-house designer, the more people I have to make happy. This is something I did not learn in design school.

Which got me thinking even further: what else do I wish I had learned coming out of school? I listed out the non-design things that I do to keep my team successful. That list became this article.

What follows will not help you design anything better; I am assuming that you already know how to do that. Instead, this is a catalog of the non-design things — mainly business fundamentals and lean methodologies — that can turbo boost your career as a designer in a big company.

To summarize: you will need to pick the right projects, help important people solve important problems, create bold goals, incessantly and fearlessly build things, and celebrate your successes. Along the way you will need to make strong allies with good workers who have skills complementary to design, and find ways to help these allies win alongside you.

Phase I: Set Up Projects to Win

Even the best designers have to be solving the right types of problems in order to have the biggest impact. And in large organizations you’ll need the support of important resource owners to get your projects built right. The following sections explain project prep in more detail.

Identify projects that contain:

  • Clear deliverables and defined objectives. For example, a clear objective is to get patients to take their medicine at least 98 percent of the time. Or to make it easier and faster for nurses to remotely monitor their patients. If the project doesn’t have goals like this, create them with the project sponsor. If you can’t create them, consider passing on the project. Once you have established these goals, focus on them throughout the entire process.
  • End users with whom you can quickly connect, and who will directly benefit from your project’s results. Without end users you can learn from, you will be at a disadvantage. You don’t want to be in a position where decisions are being made because of company culture or orthodoxies. Keep decisions based on hard user data so the project stays focused on what really matters — your customers. Testing with end users, mentioned below in more detail, is a secret weapon for designers.
  • A project sponsor who embraces and understands the value of design. The more advocates you have connected to a project, the better chance you have of succeeding. IDEO strategist and Stanford University design lecturer Bryan Zmijewski said this during a 2006 interview:
“What’s the most important skill of business decision making? Knowing what drives people to make decisions. Getting groups of people excited about an idea requires understanding what motivates them. You might have the best idea in the world, but if you fail to understand the dynamics of the room, you may never get past your first idea.”
  • Close alignment with organizational priorities and objectives. What will your company need to succeed now and in the future? Where are the biggest pain points in your industry? That is where you should be focusing your design projects. Are you in healthcare? You should probably be doing work in preventive care or in making nurse’s lives easier. Are you in finance? Your projects should be focusing on helping customers save money, get better deals, or get out of debt.

Make connections with resource owners and IT:

  • Create an environment where your project sets up important people to win. Who controls the resources? Meet them early in the process and gain their input, perspectives and insight. Ask them what keeps them up at night, and what it would take for them to achieve their professional goals. By doing so, you can then tailor design projects that also assist them in attaining those goals. Tell them up front how your design concept will help them, and the entire team, hit their goals.
  • Solidify working relationships with IT developmental teams. These critical folks will likely end up building your designs. You may need to learn to speak IT: get familiar with translating your designs into major features and functional requirements. It is in these nitty gritty details that your suggestions and plans become reality. Without the three pillars of technology, viability and design working closely together, your project will have a greatly diminished likelihood for success.

Phase II: Identify and Measure Wins Along the Way

You’ve laid the groundwork for your project. Now it’s time to make it happen.

  • Create a long-term, ambitious vision for success. The focus should be several years down-the-road, and substantial enough that it would noticeably improve the way things are done, while also driving the growth of your overall organization. The best I’ve found is the BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals) concept popularized by well-known business strategists James Collins and Jerry Porras.
  • Quickly build artifacts that move you in the direction of the desired, and larger, objective. One mantra that has helped me build fast: you don’t need permission if you’re right. Do you need to train nurses? Mock up a website with some how-to videos. Do you need to enroll people into your program? Create some forms that work on an iPad. It is often better to sacrifice perfection for speed and tangibility. A well-worn quote from Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings is: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” Because you are a designer, you have been trained to build things that solve people’s problems. That is a superpower at a big company, and you need to harness it at every opportunity.
  • Constantly test what you build with real people, preferably your end customers. Nothing will provide you with better ammunition than hard data about how people are actually using the things you designed and built. Record all the usage data you can and report on it.
  • Come to meetings with an artifact and a perspective on what victory looks like for that specific forum. It is better to have people react to something real than to ask open-ended questions about what should happen next. Do not ‘work’ during meetings; make decisions and then end the meeting — on a positive note — so that people can get back to work.
  • Document important recommendations in a report. Writing is unpopular, tedious, and sometimes difficult. But it is still one of the best methods to crystallize your reasoning and share the end product with others. Team members should be able to read a three-page report, containing zero bullet points, outlining your next course-of-action, and respond with their comments and input. This modality is harder to create, and digest, than a PowerPoint presentation, but it is through this effort and discipline that true understanding arises. Our lives are busy, and we want everything to be completed faster. But sometimes it’s best to slow down and carefully think through what our next plan-of-attack should be. Here are recent examples of long form writing being used at some of the most successful companies in the world:
  1. Berkshire Hathaway’s founder Warren Buffet publishes shareholder letters every year.
  2. Prior to important meetings, Amazon employees compose, and read, six page narratives.
  3. Yale Professor Emeritus Edward Tufte’s explains what is wrong with PowerPoint presentations.
  • Shape best practices into tools or artifacts that can be used not only for your current project, but also for future ones, and by other teams. Create resources that can assist others in solving their problems. Examples include decks of cards, resource websites, how-to instruction manuals, and check lists for complicated tasks.
  • Consider that the people who became the wealthiest during the California Gold Rush were merchants who sold items like pick axes and Levi’s jeans to prospectors. Theme: Making things that help others succeed will help you succeed.
  • Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation tactics books and cards can assist in processing innovation into doable chunks.
  • Dr. Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto has applications for many industries beyond surgical medicine.

Partner with ‘movers and shakers’ who complement your skills and passion. For instance:

  • Identify key players, across departments, that design almost always needs to partner with so that our solutions come to life. These would normally include legal, digital and — especially — IT assets. Make your project the best one that they have ever worked on by, for example, taking these folks with you into the field when you interview end users.
  • Build your design team and establish relationships with builders. Identify and recruit people who make things and get things done. Look for innovators who are not afraid to take reasonable chances in order to see their concepts brought to life. I have discovered that the most valuable individuals in this process are those who are both managers and creators. They will be probably be your closest allies for the design projects. Seek them out, make them close partners, and help them win.
  • Follow through with the build. Design work does not end with a portfolio piece, a series of nice looking images, or experience diagrams. In reality, these are suggestions that most good external design firms could produce. The real value, and importance, of being in-house is creating the things that solve your end-user’s problems. Your initial designs may look great on paper, but they will be flawed in some key areas. You — the designer — will want to be there when the deficiencies are exposed so you can fix them.

Phase III: Share Your Results

Once your project is up and running, you have some iterations under your belt, and things begin to stabilize, consider sharing your success with the design community. This will help your team attract more and better talent, will help you connect with thought leaders in your area of focus, and will start to build a nucleus of well known capabilities inside and outside your company. Here are several ways to share your work with the outside world:

  • Speaking engagements at seminars, conventions and forums outside of the company; but only after gaining consent from your employer’s legal and internal publishing bodies.
  • Design awards outside of the organization. The best known include IDEA Awards, DMI Awards, Core77, and Red Dot.
  • Patent and trademark applications. Your legal department should have folks who can help you apply.
  • Opportunities to be involved in conferences, job fairs, and universities; all in an effort to spread the word about your work.

Erik Van Crimmin is an experience designer at Humana. He creates solutions that keep people out of the hospital.

Like what you read? Give Erik Van Crimmin a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.