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Lost in Translation — Being a Designer in the Business World

Written By: Eadaoin Dempsey, Associate Director of Design, TribalScale

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


Like most creatives, I started my design career at the ripe old age of about six months — using food to Jackson Pollock all and anywhere my spoon would allow — much to my mother’s delight! Some years later, however, these splatters turned into a bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Full of naivety and hope, I set out for the world — I was going to make an impact and work in the most incredible, purposeful and influential company, or something close to this. I would drink coffee all day, shower my walls with sticky notes, have deep, meaningful sessions with my colleagues and launch unique, life-changing products — wash, rinse and repeat.

Unfortunately not — apart from lacking basic business knowledge, my education seemed to skip the essential teachings of getting a job in design (ironically, all linked to business and selling). I was never taught how to sell myself and my work, write a resume or even create a portfolio — so I was missing several skills for my journey into the real world. I had no idea how to sell myself or what my worth was to a company.

Designers need to learn the language of business and, in turn, forge a stronger, more meaningful relationship with stakeholders, clients and any other non-designers in the boardroom (virtual or in-person). A unicorn can mean many things depending on the industry; in the design world, it means someone strong in design and development knowledge — this needs to be updated to include business knowledge. As designers, we will then understand the value and worth of our work; we can put logic to our decisions and correlate these with the company’s business needs. The goal is to create a symbiotic relationship, instead of two roommates coexisting together, hoping one will clean the bathroom and the other not knowing it’s their responsibility.


Designers want to feel like they are in some small way improving the world, making people’s everyday lives a little bit better (or ideally, a lot better). Be it a musician whose music calms that student before an exam or a product designer who creates life-changing medical equipment — we want to make a difference. This is what makes design so unique and special — the ability to use our craft, tools, and mindsets to create something that could influence thousands of people’s lives. However, before achieving this, we need to foster our ability to sell; it is the primal part of design. Most designers feel uncomfortable discussing money; it feels crass and unbecoming and takes away from doing it for the “love of the art” — however, we also need to pay our bills, live and validate our worth as a designer.

Unless you are doing [insert anything here] as a hobby, you need to learn the art of business, how to sell yourself in an interview, how to sell your expertise/design choices/pitch to a client, or sell your business plan to potential investors. Without being able to sell, we are all just creating unsold dreams in our attic — starving and freezing!

In design school, we are not taught business programs — I may stand corrected, and in some cases, they are — which is excellent. However, the latter is a small minority; we don’t discuss the implications of joining a start-up versus a large corporation when you graduate and all the varying business requirements within these two. In 2014, design was far from the forefront of IBM’s business model. However, at the time, the CEO Ginni Rommety suggested to Phil Gilbert, Head of Design at IBM, that he needed to bring this “UX thing” into IBM and Incorporate it into the company’s business model. This was a considerable undertaking; despite having the bosses sign off, he would still have to convince and sell this to board members, executives and many people that don’t inherently have a design mindset. So he took on their mindset and didn’t show them beautiful designs, UI’s, etc. he showed them beautiful graphs, NPS scores (Net Promoter Scores), and increases in sales — the same message in the language these business people could understand and digest. The rest is history.

Designers need to understand how the business side operates to help them do their jobs in a more meaningful and focused way. Designers will find they can do their jobs even better when they understand how the other side — the business side — operates. It works the same from a business perspective — the business side needs to understand the importance of design, what they do and why they are necessary to the success of the company/agency — this was the secret to IBM’s success.

Design is often equated with art, but it’s much more complicated than that. Designers must understand that their designs contribute to a solution for a problem or issue that a person, group or business has identified in their market and/or industry. A designer must know what they are creating and why they are doing it to ensure they deliver on behalf of their client’s vision and goals.

To do this effectively requires designers to understand their client’s overall vision and strategy — their business goals and objectives — and the broader environment within which these operate (i.e., who else is working where?). Designers must also appreciate how all these elements play together to achieve success for both parties involved; namely, how does each piece help move us towards our ultimate goal?

Part of the reason designers and business people struggle to work together is that they don’t understand one another. Designers are often so focused on their creative process that they lose sight of what’s happening on the business side. Meanwhile, many business people don’t know how a designer’s work fits their company’s bigger goals.

For designers and business people to work together effectively, each side needs to be open to learning about the other’s perspective. The best way for this mutual education process is by creating opportunities for collaboration and encouraging teams from both sides of the design equation (designers and other stakeholders) to collaborate throughout projects when possible for design to come to the table at an early stage. To understand what or if they are required and what solutions they can offer at this stage.

If you are a designer and want a better impact on the end user, then it is essential for you to understand business thinking. This is because designers tend to think from the user’s perspective rather than from a more business-oriented standpoint. While this can be effective in creating great products, it may lead designers down an incorrect path when they try to implement their design thinking into something that would benefit both them and the business at large.

So what does it mean to say that we need “a better understanding of how businesses work?” Well, many things go into making up a successful company; the basics include:

  • gaining revenue
  • reducing costs
  • improving efficiency


As you can see, there is much more to understanding design than simply knowing how to make things look nice. Designers are in a unique position to affect the lives of others in a way that other professions cannot, which means they are also responsible for doing so. By taking on this responsibility and becoming more knowledgeable about business, designers can begin impacting the world around them. By incorporating these principles into your work and being open-minded when it comes time for feedback from others who may not know much about design just yet, we can all work together towards making experiences better for everyone involved. Become the unicorn among a field of horses.

Eadaoin is the Associate Director of Design here at TribalScale. She manages and organizes an incredible group of designers in the company. When she’s not working, she loves downtime with her family and can be heard belting out Adele tunes — much to said family’s delight!

TribalScale is a global innovation firm that helps enterprises adapt and thrive in the digital era. We transform teams and processes, build best-in-class digital products, and create disruptive startups. Learn more about us on our website. Connect with us on Twitter, LinkedIn & Facebook!



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TribalScale Inc.

TribalScale Inc.


A digital innovation firm with a mission to right the future.