Three levels of design

The Design Council report Leading Business by Design defines three levels of design within the organisation.

1. Design as a service

Design is treated as an organisational function. It is a service to be called upon when technical experts are needed to fulfill pre-defined tasks.

2. Service design

Design is crucial in the product/service development process and designers are involved from beginning to end.

Design will have an equal footing alongside other teams such as marketing. Obviously, this represents a step up from design as a service, and is a more strategic role.

3. Strategic design

Design shapes business strategy and designers may act as process leaders (for example in product development).

There is no one defined method of integrating strategic design, so let’s look at how some design-led companies have managed it…

Organisational structure and company culture 

Nathan Sinsabaugh in his 2015 Wired article about design states that ‘design ends up looking a lot like corporate culture; different everywhere’.

As we’ve discussed previously, there are some parallels with digital transformation, in that one of the main challenges for design is how to best structure the organisation to take advantage (and to adopt a design culture).

Dispersed designers

Dispersing designers around the company across various different teams can lead to disjointed projects, as different designers bring slightly different ideas to the table.

This inconsistency can be tackled with a monomaniacal focus on design standards, something that Google achieves with Material Design.

In Google’s words, Material Design was created ‘as a metaphor to rationalize design and implementation, establishing a shared language to help teams unite style, branding, interaction, and motion under a cohesive set of principles’.

The internal design consultancy 

The internal design consultancy can be thought of as analogous to the digital centre of excellence (detailed as a mid-point of sorts in digital transformation models).

These consultancies will tend to be dedicated to larger projects, with details left to unguided product teams.

There are many companies that take this approach and it’s most noticeable amongst those in the throes of major new product design, such as Hive, which may create a separate design team.

Barclays and Reckitt Benckiser are two companies identified by the Design Council as having recently established design departments and processes.

Barclays’ Chief Design Officer tells the Design Council that “marketing officially owns and protects the brand, but we work intimately with them to ensure that our design language, our design thinking, our design process fits intimately with the overall brand at Barclays”.

The bank has also set up new office space for the design team with ‘hoppers’ (tables) ‘being utilised to bring together people assigned to a project, for example, a designer, a business analyst, an operations or a technology person, and a program manager.’

Reckitt Benckiser uses a strategy of ‘innovation marketing’ (combination of increased marketing spending and product innovation, focusing on consumer needs).

This innovation marketing involves a design department established in 2008 whose aims are ‘improving brand recognition, cost effectiveness in the supply chain and overall strengthening of existing brands’.

Defacto user advocacy

The most famous design-led business is probably Apple. It gets its fame from the quality of its products, its success, but chiefly through the cultural zeal for design.

Every employee is a defacto user advocate (this is simply the company culture) and Jony Ive manages design from the top. This is institutionalised design.

But how to just make every employee a user advocate, without the years of embedded culture that Apple has?

In a Wired interview, Airbnb’s Head of Design Alex Schleifer and CEO Brian Chesky discuss how design culture is less important than understanding the user viewpoint.

Every Airbnb project team has a project manager whose explicit role is to represent the user (and not design or marketing or engineering).

Schleifer says: “This structure creates points where different points of view meet, and are either aligned or not.”

As Sinsabaugh puts it: ‘Designers tend to design for themselves, whether they intend to or not. User research, meanwhile, often has limits. A true user perspective is something more nuanced, specific, intuitive, and independent.’

Designer as ethnographer

Ultimately, a designer should be a constant ethnographer, and this demands moving from products to experiences, and from short-term metrics to lifetime customer value.

In summary

Design thinking needs a sponsor, which for digital unicorns is increasingly the business founder themselves.

Beyond that, organisations need to find the best way to incorporate design thinking, user perspectives, leadership and consistency.

For many companies, like Barclays, this means a strengthened design team that influences an increasing number of projects, if not yet every brand detail and interaction.

Read the other posts in this series: