Design-Driven Organizations

Regardless of whether you’re a small business owner, startup founder, or part of a larger institution, you might want to ask yourself: what role, if any, does design play in your company?

If your job title is not what is commonly considered “creative” (a term unfairly attributed only to those who work in the aesthetic aspects of an organization), your reaction might be to dismiss this issue and think, Not for me. There are people at my company that do that sort of thing but it has nothing to do with my job.

This is a common misconception: we’ve been primed to believe that, unless you draw, sketch, or sculpt well, your career path is not bound to be creative. The problem with this is that creativity is not a category of job specialization on its own. Yes, there are the arts and there is design, both of which channel creativity into a specific type of medium, but creativity often can–and does–play a role in every type of job. The best way to channel creativity in these non-aesthetic contexts is to apply design thinking methods to your process.

What is Design?

In order to understand what design thinking is, one must first understand what design is. Steve Jobs (now famously) said, “design isn’t just how it looks and feels; design is how it works.” This is a good way to describe industrial and interaction design at a surface. Other prominent designers like to say that design is about solving problems, while I personally had the privilege of hearing Don Norman say that the job of designers is not only to solve problems, but to define them first.

While the above all seems to make sense and does speak to the designer’s role in the process of creating a product, service, or offering, I still think it falls short. For starters, many other people are qualified to solve problems–engineers solve problems, as do lawyers, and police officers, and doctors. Problem-solving, or even problem-defining, is natural to anyone with a pulse. To determine what design actually means, I would say that:

Design, at its core, is a method of facilitation, where a task is made easier and more pleasant for the users to perform, in a manner that is consistent with their needs, which take precedent above all other factors.

If you think about all the branches of traditional design disciplines–some of which might seem completely incongruous to each other–this rationale is the thread that weaves them together. For example, fashion design facilitates covering the body, protecting it from overexposure and the elements, and making the wearer (user) feel good both in terms of comfort (fit) and self-confidence (style); graphic design makes messages legible and easy to understand to users, while giving them a pleasurable visual experience; architecture makes it easy for people to navigate a built environment while being sheltered from the elements and in an environment that looks good and feels comfortable. And so on.

This definiton of design includes what Steve Jobs, Don Norman, and other great design thinkers have said, but it also frames the role of the designer a bit more accurately. As designers and design thinkers, our role is not only to solve a problem, or to make sure that something works. Our role is to define the problem, figure out how the problem can be solved, understand the people for whom we are solving the problem through deep empathy, and figure out the solution that would bring them the most joy.

Design thinking is the practice of taking this rationale and applying it to facilitating other aspects of strategy and reasoning that require human interaction. If you were to describe design thinking using the same rationale as I did with other areas of design above, it would be:

Design thinking makes strategies easier to execute for those in charge of executing them, in a way that feels pleasurable to all stakeholders involved (strategists as well as end-users).

If that feels broad to you, it’s because it’s meant to be. Just as the description is broad, so is its application. In recent years, the practice has become part of the day-to-day in large companies such as 3M, Steelcase and Procter & Gamble, due in large part to the influence of design firms such as IDEO and frog design. Companies like Apple and Tesla practice design thinking practices because of the vision of their leaders, even if they are not explicitly calling their methods by that name.

Forget The Labels

Companies that refer to themselves as “design thinking companies” are few and far between, but that doesn’t mean these companies don’t exist and I’m just a crazy man ranting on about imaginary business methods.

Going back to Apple, If you ran a fine-tooth comb through al of their marketing materials and communications, you’d be hard-pressed to find the words “design thinking” except for maybe when they talk about Jony Ive’s work on all the products that they make. However, you not only could you argue that Apple is deeply rooted in design thinking, but you could argue that their success can be partly attributed to these methods.

Steve Jobs, whose management style was infamous in many ways, was known for having extremely high standards of his people and the work they’d produce. Granted, his methods for motivating people to give their best work weren’t always the most amicable (i.e. he was often a jerk), but he understood one of the most important concepts behind design thinking: every single aspect of an organization that people are exposed to, no matter in what capacity, makes up part of the brand. And the brand’s reputation is what will drive its value and therefore, its revenue. As a result, Jobs would never let small details slide if there was a chance that they would fail at facilitating a task in a delightful manner, often demanding last-minute changes to make sure that a product felt “just right,” or as he would put it, “it just works.”

In the case of Apple, this is quite simple to illustrate since his obsessiveness over the actual industrial design of the product led to the aesthetic that we all now recognize and others have tried to imitate countless times. However, not every organization has a product design output like Apple does, and, if organizations that are design-driven don’t tend to label themselves as such, how do we know if we are part of one?

Design Yourself

While understanding how to apply these practices on a regular, reproducible basis is not the sort of thing that can be explained in a blog post, I can point out some telling signs that might indicate at least the potential for a design-driven strategy in your company’s operations.

The User is The Focus

The customer always comes first, but they are not always right in the ways that they think they are. Organizations that put the customer first not only listen to them, but are also keenly observant of their behavior. Much like an industrial designer would observe how users would interact with the prototype of an object that she’s testing, design-driven organizations will look at the touch points between the customers and their product, while being on the lookout for opportunities. Companies that truly understand user needs do so by doing more than just asking–they also pay attention to the user’s acted behavior instead of their stated preferences. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, I would have given them a faster horse.” Likewise, design thinking teaches us to observe the people’s needs and think of ways to solve their problems in completely novel ways.

Iteration is Constant

Design is never finished. At Pixar studios, it is widely said that creative teams are never truly finished with a film, they just run out of time before they need to release it. Industrial designers and software developers are also aware that good design is never really done. This is why your iPhone (and, as of the iPhone 7, your headphones) is now obsolete, and why its software is in its tenth major iteration. Contrary to what cynics might say, it’s not because Apple needs to sell more phones to appease stockholders and it’s not even because technology has advanced in the last year or so to warrant new components of the most recent device. While these are certainly drivers for iteration, I’d argue that a bigger driver for iteration is user behavior. As stated above, designers observe this behavior, looking for opportunities. Opportunities can be pain points experienced by the user when accessing a touch point or a moment of unexpected delight that can be leveraged into improving a product or offering. Iteration based on user preferences ensures that companies are able to retain their customers by responding to how they interact with the company itself.

Small Details are Big Differences

The Pixar example above speaks of a concept that startups and tech companies use called the MVP, or Minimum Viable Product. The MVP is the point in the development of a product or offering where things might not be at the ideal spot where you would consider perfect, but they are in a point where the quality is good enough to ship out to customers and succeed. The trick is that successful products are those that have been carefully considered in all aspects before being considered MVP’s. It is easy to use the MVP concept as a crutch to put something into the world where the experience will feel unpleasant, look ugly, or the offering will be incomplete. This is a mistake. Design driven organizations consider every aspect of an offering, carefully but mercilessly removing the least necessary ones from the MVP, making compromises in the number of features, but not the quality of them. In every aspect of their products, careful attention is given in order to present a delightful solution to the user’s problem.

With this in mind, can you say your organization is design-driven? There’s a good chance that you’ve been working from a design thinking perspective and didn’t even realize that your work ethics and the design thinking ethos aligned. There’s also a good chance that your workplace fits this bill too. If either of these is not the case, you would be wise to take the information above into consideration. Whether it’s for your personal processes or for the overall culture in your organization, there is proof that this type of thinking yields value. After all, you can build a strategy around numbers, or you can do it around people. When you do it around people, they will make the decision to bring the numbers they control–numbers you want– in your direction.


Santiago Castillo is a Brooklyn-based design strategist with an MFA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is the founder and Strategy Manager at SCHEMA Strategy, a design and business strategy consultancy that helps clients with design-driven innovation, thinking, and value creation.