Design-led is a fallacy. Integrated design isn’t.

Cultivating design leadership is hard when you don’t fully understand what design can do for a business. Ask an entrepreneur what they think of when they think of “design” and you might find they get a bit uncomfortable. Is it branding? The look and feel of their product? Or perhaps it’s the UX and UI?

Daniel Burka did just that. A design partner a GV, the investment arm of Alphabet (formerly Google Ventures), he helps a portfolio of more than 300 companies solve their design challenges. Prior to that, Daniel spent over a decade helping technology companies with product design, from Mozilla and Digg.com to Google+.

A few years ago, when GV first began eyeing European investments, Daniel set up a week-long series of brunch meetings. Each one started with a simple question, “When you think of design, what do you think of? “The entrepreneurs often looked nervous,” he recalls. “Like we were putting them on the spot, asking about something they didn’t feel comfortable with.”

He noticed a dramatic shift when he asked his next question: what keeps you up at night? “They visibly looked more relaxed, sat back in their seat — now we were in their wheelhouse.”

The entrepreneurs would talk about hiring and retaining talent, about moving into new markets, raising new funds, about changing features and how that was going to affect their user base.

“They would talk about all these things that were really important to them, that didn’t have anything to do with “design”. But we can apply design to all of those problems,” says Daniel. “Most people — including designers themselves — don’t consider these to be the problems of design.”

In a recent interview with Stewart Scott-Curran, who heads up the Intercom Brand Studio, Daniel shared his thoughts on what design leadership can do for a business.

Click the play button to listen below, head to our blog for a transcript, or keep reading for some highlights.

Design leaders should always be in a prototyping mindset

In a meeting where everybody is debating over strategy and abstract ideas? As a designer, even a junior one, a simple prototype in InVision or Marvel can quickly bring these ideas to life.

“All of a sudden, you’re the person who can give the meat to something. You can put bones on it, and no longer is everyone confused because they’re all talking about an abstract concept,” says Daniel. “Now they’re talking about a real thing.”

Through prototypes, designers can quickly test theories and bring value to the whole company. “The biggest risk to businesses is that there’s a great deal of uncertainty,” he says.

“Design done right can be the scientific method for business.” Designers are perfectly placed to not only listen to key concerns, but create certainty about what direction a company should take.

Use fewer tools, build more relationships

Too many designers see design as their whole job, and end up frustrated when their work never sees the light of day or gets dragged sideways.

Young designers need to put more focus into their relationships with product managers and engineers and building their credibility than the tools they spend their days in.

“Even if you work in a company of six people, working with those other five people is extremely difficult and you should consider that to be part of your job,” says Daniel.

Don’t put design in a bubble

Design is most effective when everyone considers their job to be design in some way, and not when creativity is seen solely as the remit of the design team.

“This idea of a design-led organization where design makes all the decisions is a bit of a fallacy,” says Daniel. “Even the companies that are famous for being design-led aren’t really. They’re most effective when design is deeply integrated into all of the teams.”

Designers have argued for a seat at the table for the last decade — and in the past five years it’s becoming a reality — but Daniel feels they risk squandering it by focusing too much on design as a craft, and not enough on solving fundamental business problems. “Entrepreneurs have heard that design is important,” he says. “They’ve seen that companies like Apple and Airbnb are famous for leading with design, and they understand that there’s this pixie dust that can be applied that’s called ‘design’, but they don’t really know what design can do.”

By bringing Design Thinking to fundamental elements of the business, designers can not only cement their position at the leadership table but make a positive impact across the entire company.

Intercom makes messaging apps for businesses that help them understand and talk to customers.

Want to hear weekly conversations with practitioners from the worlds of product management, design, startups and marketing? Click below to subscribe to our podcast, or visit our the Inside Intercom blog for key takeaways and transcripts.

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