Good design doesn’t just happen

Observations on maintaining a strong organisational design culture

A lot of factors are at play within an organisation that hinders or helps good design to happen. Investing effort into maintaining a strong design culture is important.

For a good design culture to thrive certain things need to be in place. I’ve outlined some factors that should be prioritised by organisations who are serious about promoting a strong design culture.

Some of these observations can relate to any discipline — but I’m looking at it through the perspective of being a designer (and design manager). Nothing I’ve noted is new or groundbreaking, but the point is these things need to be consistently maintained for design to flourish.

Clear direction and vision

In the organisation where I work we’re really lucky to have clear and strong design principles that we can stand behind. No matter how confused organisations can get, if you have strong guiding principles they can really bring you through the difficult times and keep you on the right path.

It’s really important to keep these principles prominent in the mindset of the organisation and make sure new people — especially senior management — have bought into them.

An open working environment

Designers should be shielded as much as reasonably possible from the internal politics and bickering of an organisation. Every organisation has silos, problems and infighting. People in leadership roles often have agendas. When this starts inhibiting designers it becomes a massive problem.

For good design to happen it needs to be collaborative, open, and free from the personal agendas and the whims of those in power. Maintaining a culture of sharing work and ideas is really important and should always be a high priority.

The right mix of people

Work output suffers when people feel alone. Design always thrives on collaboration: designer and writer, designer and developer, designer and user researcher — to name a few.

Getting the right team dynamics in place isn’t just about having the right roles. It also relies on having an inclusive environment. Great work happens when diverse people with different viewpoints and backgrounds come together to tackle a problem and feel safe to challenge each other.

Respect for each others roles and skills

Having respect for your colleagues is paramount. Blurred role boundaries happen all the time and it’s often healthy to have some overlap. It’s inevitable when people care about the things they’re working on that disagreements will happen. However, you need to be aware of the red lines and be open with each other when you feel these boundaries have been crossed.

Team relationships are hard and don’t magically just work. Respect and trust is fostered with good team dialogue and proper engagement with what everyone is working on. If you don’t know what certain roles do, invest time in trying to find out.

When relationships aren’t maintained and nurtured the design output is often weakened. Strained relationships lead to misunderstandings and ultimately to a poorer standard design.

People to lean on

Everyone needs people they can go to for impartial advice. Someone who isn’t directly involved in your day to day work. As an organisation, try and put community structures in place that allow this to happen more easily.

A strong design community isn’t just built on talent. It’s built on empathy too. Senior people in the community should be present and approachable.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have great colleagues who I’ve learned a lot from by just having chats. Sometimes it’s good to just get stuff off your chest and talk about it out loud. Chances are other people have been in the same sticky situation as you have.

Time and space to understand the problem

Deadlines and constraints are generally good for a designer, but they need to be realistic. Give designers time and space to get a thorough understanding of their users and the context of their work. This means allowing time for proper discovery and experimentation. Don’t just throw stuff over the wall and expect a designer to pick it up and make it work.

Only when fully informed of the problem space can designers properly contribute. A half baked understanding of the parameters you’re working in can lead to many wasted months designing the wrong thing. This then leads to frustrated designers and researchers who feel their skills aren’t valued.

Credit and reward where it’s due

Reward isn’t just about money — although that’s still important. When someone does good work tell them and credit them. If someone seems bored and ready for a new or bigger challenge, give it to them. When someone seems like they need help, offer it.

Depending on the organisation you are in, salary increases and promotions can be a long bureaucratic process. Invest time in making transparent what you expect from designers working at different levels of seniority and be proactive in trying to help them develop their skills and careers.

The above list isn’t exhaustive. They are just some of the observations formed while helping to build and maintain what I see as one of the strongest design teams around. If you want your organisation to produce good design work — then invest the time and effort into maintaining a strong design culture.