• The value of a visual designer in human-centred design and design thinking fields.

Assessment 3.1 / RMIT MDF Future Design Clients

A designer’s practice is expanding into new areas in new ways, where we’re providing new forms of value for our clients. Understanding the types of new value to bring requires new skill sets to understand our clients needs, the context those needs sit within, and the way we communicate those needs before we even get to deliverables. These skill sets are different from the skill sets we’ve learnt in our undergraduate degrees; we’re serving a different need now.

I am in the process of analysing and evolving my current designerly practice and reflecting upon the new skills in my kitty to work in this changing landscape. It is this process of adaption I’d like to communicate in this post referencing a key value shift in my design practice: the shift in the role of the senior visual designer.

I will discuss my practice with reference to a paper by Michael R. Falk, Kwanghui Lim and Don O’Sullivan, entitled, ‘Relationship Formation in the Market for Design Services’ (2015), referring to the 3 attributes outlined in their research required for design service relationships: ‘design capability’, ‘character’ and ‘design process’. According to Falk et al, these attributes characterise ‘what clients and providers seek and communicate’ (p. 10, 2015) when engaging in collaboration.

Using these 3 attributes, I’ll look at how my practice of visual design has shifted to serve the service design positions I have held over the past few years with particular focus on the practice of visual design in communicating value through artefacts within the human-centred and design thinking fields.

Why it happened (a brief background)

Listening to my constructive and creative parents, I embarked on undergraduate studies of visual communication, where conceptual thinking and the great philosophic minds led my social life into a fjord of experimentation and my work into a fjord of tumult as I tried to uncover my role in this ‘design’ thing.

So I became a graphic designer. And found myself working in Advertising! Surprise! Adapt, adapt, squirm, and adapt some more. Photoshop? Yep. Logos? Yep. Presentations? Urgh. But that’s about it… Oh wait, I could theorise on a bunch of stuff that left me sitting alone at lunch… So I asked myself:

Where does the conceptual thinking and philosophy go? Where are the fjord’s of wonder? Where are the beacons of light guiding me through those budget and client free, end-of-project critical reflections? Where are those wayfinding indicators aka timetables to follow?

Production queen in a new land

Senior designers, 5 years ago, were mostly production-based. Sure there were client meetings, presentations and pitches, but human-centred design wasn’t a ‘thing’ like it is now. I discovered this new term (and a bunch of others) on my arrival into management consulting. It wasn’t really called service design or user experience design per-se; it was design thinking. Or at least that’s the way it was positioned…

If I look back through the lens of value to my Advertising days, I see the value I brought. There was definitely a role for communicating value in those projects but the focus was on the end product — making something look good/polished/impressive to sell stuff. There was almost zero on the ‘why?’ or ‘why this?’ aspect to what we offered our clients. It was largely a matter of saying, ‘You want an App? Okay, then’, rather than saying, ‘Tell us why you think you need an App.’

The value was giving the client exactly what they wanted… Which makes sense, right? Yes, well, um, no, not anymore.

So, here I was in my new home in the land of acronyms, methodologies, and jargon; round glasses, jeans and post-it notes; venn diagrams, icons and double diamonds; carrying the contents of my desk in a very cool Atelier backpack. Not only was the word ‘value’ a new part of the vernacular regarding the offering, but my value became clearer in a completely different way than I had become accustomed. All whilst navigating these non-English sounding words.

Collaboration, anyone?

So, back down to business. According to Falk et al, design is shifting from transactional to collaborative (p. 7, 2015). They state this as due to the highly uncertain nature of providing design services. The concept of unknown outcomes is difficult to get your head around; especially when there’s serious cash behind the investment. No-one’s that keen on ‘mystery flights’, either. But, if the destination were Mecca, that’s be great, right?! (No, I don’t mean Silicon Valley.)

Design services are often provided by management consultancies. Consultancies are hired to shift organisations toward human-centred design practices, where things like customer experience strategy, organisational structure changes and new products and services are designed to help improve customer value propositions and ways of working.

The collaborative model works when design services are introduced into an organisation. Consultancies usually go into the client’s environment, get a room, and work together with the right stakeholders to understand their business and form good relationships. This is the crucial stuff if any of the design work is going to make an impact. There’s multiple aspects to this bit that are a post in themselves, but back to where the visual designer fits into this.

This collaborative practice method in the provision of design services is the reason the role of the visual designer has changed; the work of the visual designer has had to become collaborative: the steps taken, tools used and outputs reached have to be collaborative to fit with this practice (aka — yes, your client wants it in PowerPoint, bad luck).

Good looking, right?

The shift of our practice from designers of ‘good looking’ work created inside impervious studios to ‘sense-makers’ inside organisations is a big jump. Gone are the days of hiding behind our work as though it’s from a special, magical, unknowable place to which only the truly gifted are privy. This new work we’re creating is done with the client, in front of them, to the right and left of them, yes, with them!

A visual designer creates value through artefacts as they engage with the client along a project’s journey. We’ve discussed the ‘good looking’ versus ‘sense-making’ types above, but when working as a visual designer in service design, artefacts work as discussion enablers for further experimentation and exploration; our work works as a sort of collaboration ‘connector’.

Designers use diagrammatic and visual methods to lead or support concepts to form and test ideas as they take shape; this can be anything from diagrams to user flows, wireframes to prototypes. And we’re communicating this stuff as roughly and quickly as possible. And we’re making big calls on the levels of fidelity we use to give our idea the appropriate agency.

There are varying ways one can communicate iteratively with the client which depends on where you are in the design process, your capabilities and what you think the client is expecting. It’s interesting how often the visual aesthetic of a management consultancy rests on the specific style of one visual designer. The 3 attributes Falk et al mention in their paper: ‘design capability’, ‘character’ and ‘design process’, can be attributed to how and when a visual designer navigates this. Let’s take a look whilst noting the overlap of 2 of the 3 attributes in this post: ‘design capability’ and ‘character’ have been discussed as one point as I view ‘character’ intrinsic to capability in this instance.

Design capability, character

Falk et al define the ‘design capability’ attribute as an indication, ‘…that a firm can contribute to the production of quality designs. For providers, it refers to an ability to produce high quality design services. For clients, it refers to their capacity to evaluate and endorse partner quality’ (p. 10, 2015).

Inside the consultancies I’ve worked within, capability is a ubiquitous part of what ‘providers’ address when proposing their offering to a potential client. This informs a supply of skills from varying team members delivering upon their objectives. A part of this objective is usually to equip the ‘client’ with the capabilities to continue on the new design services path after the consultancy has literally left the building.

Falk et al’s definition of design capability falls short as design capability extends far beyond ‘production of quality designs’ (p. 10, 2015). The main capability of the visual designer is to visually interpret and produce concepts, ideas, research, and discussions as artefacts for collaboration. As simple as it may sound, there are many complexities at play when connecting the above-mentioned interpretations into visuals — one takes risks in forming relationships between ideas and digital functions for example. In addition, the fidelity of execution layers the complexity. All this while conversing and iterating… Sheesh!

It takes ‘character’ to execute the above; it takes skill to adapt your character to the varying contexts in which these capabilities sit. The qualities of the visual designer, commitment or temperament for example, are at play when executing capabilities. An adaptive character is a key new attribute of a visual designer in management consultancies as not only do you not have a fixed postcode, no project is ever the same; you’re constantly in new environments, compass in hand.

Design process

Falk et al define the ‘design process’ indicating, ‘…that the firm can effectively collaborate and engage in iterative development with the provider. It involves clients and providers articulating their methodologies, providing clarity in design briefs, and demonstrating a track record for implementation.’ (p. 11, 2015).

Design processes obviously differ between organisations. The key thing here is that the process fits and is clearly relevant for the ‘provider’ and for the ‘client’. A design process forms the basis for design services to communicate what consultancies are intending to do as well as the implementation. There’s a lot of intellectual property in these processes and, like any form of experience lends, evolves over time. The role of the visual designer is interesting when considering the design process within the design thinking field as it enforces what this post is expressing.

A design process, for example, begins with research, moves through insight development and synthesis toward co-concept development, and into refinement, testing and delivery. There’s not much in there that requires ‘good looking’ visual design — it’s all workshops and experimentation and failings and wrong turns — which is the point. So, why invest in high fidelity visuals if it’s probably going in the bin?

Examples please

Let’s use a workshop for example. And let’s say we’ve got some insights from our research that we’re aiming to decode and synthesise. We work with the client to build out visuals of what these could start to be: could it be a feature within a smartphone App? Could it be a new process for a manager to know more about their customer? Could it be a completely new service? What type? Drawing these concepts out — sketching inside blank smartphone screens, or drawing a new process on the wall, building out an idea visually brings a hell of a lot of value. And doing this with your stakeholders, they see value in the way you approach problem solving by seeing your process in action. Being able to visualise synthesis brings immediate value — conceiving an idea and visualising it creates the artefact that starts the actualisation where your research starts to become tangible — this is how the artefact is formed and then thrown out, and then recreated, and then built upon, and so the cycle continues.

It is absolutely crucial to keep the fidelity levels as low as possible during this process as every visual produced has a powerful agency that, if not communicated appropriately, can mean a great concept gets thrown out, or worse, is communicated as fixed or unmodifiable. If a concept is communicated too early in a high fidelity visual, there’s no way you’re going to get the buy-in you need from your stakeholders — they’re going to feel it’s too defined and there’s no room for iterations. Co-designing is a really important part of service design and things need to look and feel as though they are evolving as the design process evolves. The agency (or lack thereof) of low fidelity allows designers and clients to use these visuals as artefacts to illustrate research and experimentation and open the design process right up to invite collaboration. Your workshop compatriots need to be able to grab a marker and cross out your ideas — it can be brutal.

So… Arguably, high fidelity visuals can come later— when you’re delivering your project in whatever form agreed prior. If this includes delivering digital prototypes, then this may be when a designer considers high fidelity features or user interfaces. And sure, there may be a need for high fidelity visuals to help collate a shit load of workshop mess into something to share back and make sense of early on — so it’s a case-by-case scenario of where you’re at in the design process and reading your client. Again, a new skill to be brave to go out and experiment with.

In the (never) end

I guess I haven’t specifically mentioned how any of the values a visual designer brings their organisation can be measured; some evidence for our sweat and tears. At this level, it’s a lot of gut-feeling: when you’re in a workshop, ‘workshopping’ as mentioned above, and you get somewhere — a new place you weren’t at before; where you’re suggesting a connection between 2 ideas and your group agrees that works. There’s nothing quite like the planets aligning in that way; when you get that positive reinforcement that what you’re doing isn’t complete rubbish and ‘makes sense’ to stakeholders.

I find it difficult to measure the value of design thinking at this stage of both of our ‘careers’. I am not completely convinced it is executed with integrity a lot of the time, but I can measure the value of visual designers to execute ideas, concepts and/or data or whatever which form as ‘connectors’ for collaboration. This skill of decoding abstraction creates value for the ‘provider’ and for the ‘client’, and for the designer for that matter (yes, my value to me and to my role in my organisation), as visual artefacts, or realisations of an idea, do in fact, that; visual designers give tangibility to the intangible.

A big part in my decision to steer my career in this way has been curiosity, dissatisfaction and thirst for what’s next — I’ll always have these 3 attributes. When we started discussing the new skills required for visual designers to bring value, and how this has changed over time, we need to consider what value itself means to the designer: what is your value to you. The shifting will just keep shifting; we will never ‘arrive’ per-se — whether you decide to make a bold move and do something different or not, your career is going to evolve at some point and your value evolves, too. The most important aspect is how we perceive our own value in our own contexts and whether this makes us happy.

Heraclitus of Ephesus said: ‘the only thing that is constant is change’. It is exciting to be designing our own value, as we take on the change we’re creating outside of ourselves for the betterment of humankind, too.


Michael R. Falk, Kwanghui Lim and Don O’Sullivan, ‘Relationship Formation in the Market for Design Services’ (2015). Melbourne Business School and IPRIA.ORG.