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How to build the foundations for design success

In June 2008 Tim Brown, CEO of design agency IDEO wrote an article for Harvard Business Review titled ‘Design Thinking’. His article marked the start of a significant transition in the way companies view design, with organisations beginning to look at design as the secret sauce for strategic success — rather than something that is purely functional or aesthetic. That transition has created a huge appetite for adopting design approaches and building in-house design teams, and has seen the rise of design agencies who blend traditional design skills with business consulting.

Despite this new found appreciation for the power of design, many organisations struggle to realise its potential. That’s because they still see design solely as a functional capability. They mistakenly believe that if they can just learn the design process, and associated methods, they will have the ability to use design to tackle business challenges; in short, they believe that they will have mastered design by developing it as a capability. To achieve this mastery they send executives off to Stanford, read as much as they can about design thinking approaches, go to design thinking meetups, and enlist the help of design agencies to teach them the fundamentals of the design approach. Everywhere they turn there are models like the UK Design Council’s double diamond and Stanford’s five hexagon model. These models appear to describe design as a simple, repeatable process that can be easily assimilated, however as most experienced designers will tell you, design is so much more complex and messy than that. It requires flexibility and a playful and speculative mindset that simply isn’t communicated in these visualisations of a process. Whilst they are useful for conceptually explaining how design approaches work, these models have unwittingly created an expectation that to be successful at design you just have to follow the process.


In her Medium article ‘Let’s stop talking about the design process’ Carissa Carter, Director of Teaching and Learning at Stanford, talks candidly about this unintended consequence of popularising their five hexagon model. She also outlines how the is trying to tackle this by encouraging disciples to develop ‘eight abilities’ that focus on building creative confidence and design skills. Whilst this emphasis on ability, rather than process, is certainly a positive step, it still makes individual capability the focus of building a successful design practice. I don’t want to diminish the importance of capability because it is certainly a major component — but it’s not the only one. There are also two other components, which are often neglected but are absolutely essential for creating an organisational environment that is conducive to building a successful design practice.

A compelling vision for design

Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash

Many organisations set about building a design team that is focused on delivering to a design process, without really having a clear and compelling vision for what they want design to be within their organisation. Without a vision for design, employees typically view it as a novel side project, which isn’t really relevant to them, or as a capability that is there to support established business activities by designing and producing things like websites and smartphone apps. This results fairly rapidly in design teams becoming frustrated that the promise of adopting design thinking to solve business problems isn’t being realised. It also results in executives losing faith in the supposed ‘secret sauce’ quality of design as a strategic capability. This lack of design vision ultimately creates a hostile environment for design, largely because most organisations have a culture that is inherently focused on production, instead of creativity. Production culture prises predictability, consistency and efficiency, all of which are at odds with the experimental nature of creative endeavours like design.

Organisations may not recognise that they have a design vision problem. They have usually had to justify the investment of building a design team by explaining the value to the business in some way, and this business case then acts as the design vision. Building the case for design is typically done by reviewing business goals and writing grandiose statements that align design with the strategic aims of the organisation. “Design will help us be more customer centric” is a common trope, but this isn’t a vision. These types of goals focus solely on how design could serve the organisation, but don’t get at what design actually means to the organisation. A design vision has to be compelling to people across the whole organisation — not just the company executives and design team. It needs to act as a rallying cry — a statement of belief about the power of design that creates an energy throughout the organisation, and gives the design team a deeply motivating sense of purpose. A design vision needs to fundamentally influence the culture of the organisation, and help it to see and believe itself to be creative. Simon Sinek’s book ‘Start with Why’ explains in more detail than I can in this short article, just how important and powerful a vision is when it gives a team something to truly believe in. If you’re about to define a vision for design in your organisation, then this should be required reading!

Influencing the culture of an organisation takes more than just writing a compelling statement; at its core it’s about shaping the beliefs of all employees and encouraging creative mindsets and behaviours throughout the organisation. In this way the design vision becomes embodied within the organisation, which can only be achieved by taking a radically different approach to managing design.

Design Management

Many of the in-house design managers I work with fall prey to the notion that design is a discrete function within their organisations. They firmly believe that the main focus of their role is to manage a team of design specialists, assuring the quality of their output for the tasks the organisation engages them in. This reinforces the ‘design as capability’ belief throughout the organisation, and seriously limits the strategic potential for design that executives are so keen to see realised.

In her book ‘Design Management’, Kathryn Best outlines the idea of “managing for design”, which calls on design managers to view their role more broadly: to seek out opportunities for design and to help the organisation as a whole better understand and use design to achieve its strategic aims. In this sense they take on the role of cultural engines, influencing how the organisation thinks and acts. The size of this task shouldn’t be underestimated. Encouraging an organisation with a strong production culture to embrace the uncertainty and risk of creative culture is a long-term mission. Design managers will need to address pockets of resistance, balance the differing rates at which parts of the organisation become design advocates, and learn how to identify and utilise cultural influencers across the organisation.

Photo by Dmitry Pavlov on Unsplash

Those attempting to make this transition to managing for design often struggle to break free of the status quo notion of just managing design. The task seems overwhelming, and managing design as a function isn’t going to go away just because they now have bigger ambitions. A successful starting point I have experienced first-hand is to create a manageable-sized ‘beacon project’. This is a strategic project that acts as a proof of concept for taking a genuinely design led approach to a business problem. It has to bring together a cross-disciplinary team from across the organisation and immerse them in a creative way of thinking and doing. It also needs a small but committed group of senior stakeholders who are open to taking a new approach. These stakeholders must be active participants in the project, helping shape strategic and creative direction, and removing roadblocks. It doesn’t need to be a massive project, but it does need to be one that tackles a real business challenge. The team assembled needs to be carefully selected. Diversity of organisation experience is essential, as is working dynamic with other team members. The ultimate aim is to turn the individuals working on the project, and the senior stakeholders supporting it, into design advocates — people who can act as agents of a culture shift towards creativity at every level of the organisation.

Building the environment for a successful design practice

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

When you consider the importance of creating a compelling vision for design and managing for design, it’s tempting to try to plan the transformation in detail before taking action. However, as I’ve already discussed, taking a step-by-step approach when thinking about design isn’t always wise, and building the right environment for design is no different. You don’t have to start with a vision as this is something that can be informed by the experiences of delivering a beacon project. You also don’t have to try and change the culture of the organisation to be more open to design and creativity all at once. Start with conversations that identify which parts of the organisation are open to trying something new, and use their input and experiences of working with you in a new way to shape the design vision and creative culture of the organisation over time.

This organic approach to building the environment for a successful design practice is something I’m observing and experiencing first-hand with a large financial services client I work with. The start of our engagement with this organisation was pretty typical of a business that views design as a functional capability. They were keen to develop their service design skills, and wanted us to teach them how to make service blueprints. Through some initial discussion it emerged that they believed they would be seen as more strategic within the business if they were able to develop practical service design skills. Rather than teaching them to create service blueprints, we suggested that a beacon project would be a better way to achieve their aims. They set about finding stakeholders who were up for tackling a business problem with a creative approach, and what we ended up embarking on was a project that redesigned the way complaints were handled by the bank. With a cross-disciplinary team from the contact centre, the in-house design team and engaged senior stakeholders assembled, we immersed them in a creative approach and radically redesigned the complaints experience with dramatic results in customer experience, efficiency and cost savings. Following the success of this beacon project similar strategically focused design projects quickly stacked up in the design team’s pipeline. Whilst the design managers were keen to capitalise on this initial success, they also realised that to do so meant they would need to develop a compelling vision for design, by using these strategic projects to reshape the organisational understanding and approach to design — rather than just allowing these projects to become formulaic process following exercises.

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Nina Belk

Nina Belk

Design Strategist. Practice Lead @

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