Your designers should learn to speak business.

Leading Design
Published in
4 min readJul 11, 2019


As Erika Hall eloquently put it at UX London:

‘Business and design are separate planets, and this needs to change. We have a translation problem.’

Business-side stakeholders might not truly understand what a design system is, but you can be sure they’ll care about the value it provides to their business. We’ve long been of the mindset that language matters, and at our latest design leadership panel Martyn Reding, Head of Digital Experience at Virgin Atlantic mentioned it too.

As part of our design leader interview series, we asked Martyn to expand on why we should translate design terms into business terms for greater impact.

Martyn is a UK based design leader, with a background in building multi-discipline teams. He has worked both agency and product side, with some of the world’s top brands including BBC, Sony, Penguin Books, O2, John Lewis and IKEA. He is currently Head of Digital Experience at Virgin Atlantic, where he set up and runs the design, content and product teams.

“The user experience design community is a wonderful place, full of very clever people, but as a discipline, it’s fair to say is still not fully matured. The fact we’re still rabidly debating how we describe ourselves is a sign of how far we have to go. Right now there seem to be two common complaints that I believe are interconnected.

It’s not uncommon to hear design teams lament a lack of understanding in other teams

“The marketing team just don’t get lean UX”, “People in sales aren’t user centred” or worse still “we’ve got to educate the rest of the business”.

Whilst in equal measure there are articulations of frustration that “we don’t have a seat at the table”, “management won’t invest in design” and “we’re not design centred”. Both are equally frustrating feelings, but there is more we (the design community) can do to counter these situations.

In many instances, the disconnects that keep design teams from becoming deeply embedded in organisations can come from the behaviours (both explicit and implicit) of the design team itself.

We’ve all seen those super glamourous design teams in cash-rich companies that create glass-walled design teams, with their own logo, sometimes in a separate building who are using different tools and methodology — which is wonderful for creating an injection of new thinking, but can at the same time isolate designers from the brand, which in turn leads to a lack of trust, interest and investment.

At Leading Design, Scott Belkan referred to as the inclusion/exclusion syndrome. We all want to be seen as special and not like other departments, with our special processes, special equipment, special workspace and our own special twitter feed. But at the same time, we want to be accepted and listened to. We want other teams to give us equal attention. These two sentiments pull against each other.

If your organisation is revenue driven try using phrases replacing phrases like ‘inconsistencies’ with ‘design debt’ to describe the situation. People in revenue hate debt.

Or if your company is fixated with improving operations and efficiency, why not try switching terms like ‘rubbish copy’ with ‘content overhead’. Nobody working in operations wants to be that person who increased overheads.

It takes some experimentation, but there are usually a few red flag terms that get people’s attention. Once you’ve worked out those key terms I’d suggest going as far as creating a sheet of translations, with the UX matters you’re dealing with on one side and a business-centric version on the other (eg. “improving the design system” translates to “increasing speed to market”)

Too many practitioners, it may feel uncomfortable to embrace those acronyms, but the halo effect on your team is tangible. It can make it easy for others to relate to you . Having our own esoteric language is a key factor in making the people around us feel like they’re outside of a clique. Paul Adams of Intercom referred to this as “the end of naval gazing” at Leading Design.

Once you’ve got your redefined phrasebook you and your team will have a much greater opportunity to embed yourselves into key business decisions and processes. Being the outsider is cool for short bursts of energy, but deeper changes come from connecting to the heart of an organisation. At Leading Design (2017) Kate Tarling talked about applying design outcomes to project documentation and finding an appropriate place on project RACI. Kate pointed out that by using business processes and integrating user-centred design into other teams working methods she was able to “improve our ability to answer questions and doubts”.

The phrases that will work will be different in every organisation, let’s make 2019 the year that we solve this translation problem and align the planets of business and design.

Clearleft is a design consultancy helping organisations realise their digital potential. We use research, design and strategy to enable innovation, deliver products & services, and build design capability. Find out more about how we could help you.

Many thanks to @martynreding for his candid input in this series.



Leading Design

Clearleft is a strategic design studio helping you get the most from your products, services & teams.