Designing Culture: Creating Design Aware Organizations

Design is becoming inextricably linked with the creation of products and services, especially within technology, as John Maeda’s annual design in tech report highlights. As the value proposition of design is gaining more traction, questions are arising about how design fits into companies, and why, when and how it should play a role. ‘Design culture’ is in part the idea that design can permeate the DNA of a company and its modus operandi.

Design works best when it operates holistically across an organization, in a way that plays nicely with other functions and approaches. In order to do this, leaders need to build design cultures that are contextually appropriate and contextually aware. In tandem with this, there are some tried and testing ways to foster design culture. I spoke with three design leaders in an agency, a product start-up and an enterprise company about what design culture means to them, and how to make it real.

What is Design Culture?

‘Design culture’ is a nebulous (and potentially trend driven!) term. Ryan Rumsey, Director of Experience Design at EA, talked about design culture as “Organizational intent in identifying the core purpose of an activity before going out and trying to do something.” Linda Nakanishi, Design Director at Nascent, echoed this, and talked about the crucial role design plays in understanding the problem, user and organization before building something. One of the value propositions of design is that it can envision products and services that people truly need and love, by deeply researching user needs.

Tom Creighton, Design Director at Wealthsimple, had a slight reframe on the term design culture, preferring the term ‘design awareness.’ “Design aware company culture means giving teams the room to scope and discover a problem through the process, rather than having rigidly defined scope and requirements from day one,” said Creighton. This is an interesting reframe, which potentially shifts from the notion of a pervasive or monolithic seeming ‘design culture’ to one that allows space for recognition of the appropriate uses of design. It also emphasizes the role and responsibility of design in problem framing — making sure that we are building the right solution for the right problem. When a company uses design to ask why before building something, design culture is born.

So how do you know when a culture of design awareness exists in your workplace? For Creighton, the ‘un-scoped scope’ with clear desired outcomes is a function of design awareness. Similarly, for Nakanishi, it means that a design perspective becomes an inherent requirement of the work, even to the point of impacting the type of work and projects that the agency takes on. From Rumsey’s perspective, one clue that design culture exists is that people pause for a moment before they draft business requirement documents and roadmaps.

How to Foster Design Culture

Building something as ephemeral as culture is certainly easier said than done. How do you get to a place where design is valued and recognized as an important part of creating products and services? Nakanishi, Creighton and Rumsey elaborated on some of their strategies and tactics.

Make a clear value proposition: Leading a design function in an organization requires being able to articulate the value of the approach. It’s also crucial to bridge any potential disconnects between design teams and the management or leadership of a company. Creighton captured this really well, “Part of what I’ve discovered in my career is that certainly a lot of design culture is about practicing design and doing the work — but the thing that’s not often taught, that should be a core component, is how to explain the value of design to people who aren’t designers or aren’t design thinkers.” A common mistake among designers can be an overemphasisover-emphasis on process rather than outcomes. Growing design culture requires a clear articulation of the value design brings in terms of the end game — whether that’s efficiency, revenue or user engagement.

Coalitions of the willing: Rumsey talked about the importance of finding willing partners and collaborators, who are excited about the possibility of using design to solve challenges. “It is difficult to take on design without shifting some of the operational models, and to do that you need to find champions who are working on smaller things,” said Rumsey. Part of the advantage of this approach is being able to demonstrate early successes, and grow the interest and curiosity around the approach. “It leads to people saying hey, how’d you do that, can you help me too?” says Rumsey. This is one way of using problem solving as a Trojan horse for design, sneaking it into the environment without being too directive or pushy.

Creating community: Culture is people, and all of the design leaders emphasised the importance of sharing knowledge within the design team and beyond. This can take the form of weekly design team meetups, or a broader team show and tell. There is something to be said for having really disciplined, organized check ins that are focused on product design, and this is part of what Creighton advocates for at Wealthsimple. On the other hand, while Nakanishi’s team does have design focused show and tell, they are experimenting with more cross-disciplinary sessions. “Through cross-discipline sharing, design culture will spread. At a project level when the full team is involved from the beginning, they will be exposed to the design discovery phase and they can contribute to the discussion.” said Nakanishi.

Design is not just for designers: Both Nakanishi and Rumsey mentioned the need to open design up beyond an exclusive club for those with explicit design roles. One approach Rumsey uses is to run design workshops over a lunch hour. He explains, “What I say is, ‘I’ll buy you a pizza and share with you how designers work.” No one wants to be ‘educated’ or lectured to, so this is a great strategy — get people to come for the pizza, and leave with the design bug! These opportunity workshops allow teams to explore design approaches themselves, as well as serving a clever dual function of allowing Rumsey to identify potential projects, partners and do some pre-scoping.

A Key Design Culture Enabler, and Blockers to Watch Out For

A key success criteria when growing a design function is having buy in from a high level. Without some executive or management team support, seeding and growing design culture can be an uphill battle. “If people at a higher level don’t see value in it, there is a risk that resources don’t get put towards design, for example not including research budget when scoping or not being willing to resource more than one designer to a project. In the past, I’ve pushed and struggled with this, and if it’s not supported it can’t grow,” said Nakanishi. In Creighton’s context, design as a key strategic differentiator means there is excellent support and buy in. “From an investment perspective, our offering is fairly conventional — the differentiator is the way in which we are offering them. The C suite has a huge awareness of design and the importance of design — the solutions we are coming up with are design solutions, not financial ones.”

What about blockers to creating design culture? Resistance to change, a feeling that design is ‘not for me’, or misunderstanding of design are common themes. When Rumsey joined his organization, the word design was already being used, but in a different context — that of solution architecture. “This can lead to massive amounts of confusion around the word design. For example, people trying to understand what designers are accountable for, and what parts of the work should they be involved in?” said Rumsey. For organizations where design thinking is a new way of working, it can require lots of capacity building to get people onto the same page.

Designing Culture is a Team Sport

The design leaders I spoke with unanimously emphasised the importance of people. From hiring developers who have a user focused mindset, to an openness and willingness to learn from each other across the organization, at the end of the day design culture is spread and maintained by teams. As Nakanishi put it, “Design culture is about having good people who can rally with you. It’s not about doing it all yourself, it’s about finding good people you can trust and do it together way — rallying together with other managers to grow the culture you want.”

Linn is a UX and service designer based in Toronto. You can currently find her at Bridgeable, telling the story of design and its impact in the world. Linn has worked with a wide range of clients including Huffington Post, Shoppers Drug Mart, Toronto Public Library and CBS Outdoor. She also mentors the next generation of designers online and in person. You can follow her on Twitter @wittster.

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