I always loved conceptualizing and visualizing processes. As a product designer, I ended up working with a design team, doing user flows, user testing, design sprints, etc. As I was growing as a designer, I did more facilitation, customer journeys, created big conference events, etc. All those were activities that had processes, regardless of how broken or great they might have been. And as a process nerd, did I follow processes as rules written in stone? Not to the slightest. So, “what is the purpose?” you might ask. The best explanation I found was coined by Amy Thibodeau, stating that processes are smart defaults because “process is necessary, but good things can happen in ambiguous spaces”.
Conceptualizing and visualizing processes enables us to navigate between smart defaults and ambiguous spaces, returning to those defaults when and if everything else fails.
During the last few years, being involved closely with design systems, and operations helped me solidify a certain understanding of the intertwined relationship of systems and operations in a design profession that is inherently more complex by the day.
The systems aspect
Design Systems, in their modern form, have been pioneered and championed by hard-working professionals (examples: Jina Anne, Claudina Sarahe, Diana Mounter, Brad Frost, Dan Mall) who helped solidify not only the term but also the way that products are built globally. They are products that help our products and services be more customer-centric but they go beyond that. They increase cross-collaboration to much more effective levels.
Beneath all the complex layers of technical solutions that design systems are built with, governed, and maintained, lies the fact that they solve real people problems. Has always been like that, even before they became a tech term.
The operations aspect
In parallel, Design Operations came into place to amplify the value of design in products and services. Whereas with Design Systems we solve issues on the technical side, or to be more specific to the design doing part, with Design Operations we aim beyond that, on an organizational and ways-of-working level. As it goes with all these terms, Design Operations is nothing new that we just happened to figure out as a concept. It is however a modernized form of practice aimed to fit in companies working on digital products and services.
The practice goes beyond just processes or even systems. It addresses issues such as evolving and scaling of design teams, how they collaborate with other functions of a company (beyond technical processes of a Design System), and improving the quality of the design craft as well as its impact.
Design Operations focuses on the how so that design can focus on the what. It is the design discipline that owns the intentional operationalizing, optimizing and scaling of design.
Design Systems and Design Operations are for people.
And this is nothing that should come as a surprise to anyone connected to the profession.
By the word design, we put the human aspect into focus. “…when you design, you’re making a claim about how we should interact with a future object, and by extension, how we should interact with each other” Cennydd Bowles, author of Future Ethics, claims.
By the word system, we make a claim that this is a technical solution (a product) that has all the right components in place and aims to build a future state in which certain problems are lifted.
By the word operations, we make a claim that this is an orchestration, a combination of people, processes, and craft to help us build a state within the design team where certain problems will be lifted.
In all cases, we make tangible efforts for people to collaborate better and more effectively together.
Turning our practices outward
The only sound criticism I have ever gotten against Design Operations was the question “why don’t we do these things for other people?” meaning developers, business people, marketing people, etc. And that is a very valid question/critique. To which I answered; “exactly, why?”.
Design Operations focuses on design because even one practice is infinitely complex let alone a big organization of multitudes of stakeholders. On the other hand, there is nothing at the core of the activities and expertise of DesignOps professionals that cannot be shared and remixed by other professions.
In the State of DesignOps 2021 report we see Design Operations finding cross-functional partners in all corners of an organization:
Technical Program Management
In my view, Design Systems and Design Operations are a natural progression of a maturing design profession. They reflect the struggles of teams of designers in finding ways to tackle problems of collaboration, effectiveness, and coherence. Both of them come with their own complexity of problems, either technical or human and most importantly they do not exist in a vacuum.
One thing is certain: our profession is still evolving, and with that so do our people, processes, and tools. Design Systems have become de-facto ways of working for designers and developers and DesignOps has seen growth in communities like DesignOps Assembly (from 400member in 2020 to 4000+ members in 2022 which is 900% increase in 2 years).
“I’m very concerned that our society is much more concerned with information than wonder, in noise rather than silence. How do we encourage reflection? … Oh my, this is a noisy world.”
– Mister Rogers
Design can be found everywhere. Design decisions are made with or without the involvement of professional designers. When I was fixing a bicycle, I made such decisions about the tools to be used, the parts and how they fit together, and the branding of everything. When I took my daughter to the playground, I was impressed by everything from the safety of the swing to the simple “boulder climbing set” for kids. Or when I queued at a restaurant for lunch, everything from the queuing system to how to pay with a lunch benefit to the utensils used to consume said food was designed.
It’s not that I’m blinded by the myth of design as the all-encompassing profession that leads to all important things in life… I am just wired to look at things through the design lens. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone sees reality through their own lenses, and their profession plays a significant role in this.
Meanwhile, the design field (digital or otherwise) has struggled for decades to achieve an invisible, and dare I say, imaginary seat at the table. In our efforts to get business to take us seriously, we have distorted the true value of design, which is what makes it unique in the first place. The true value of design, however, was never to find a single solution to a problem. But to understand, and explore.
There is a schism here. We are currently working in businesses that are wired to grow solely for profit, with old thinking that has harmed the very core of our reality through climate change, war, and, in more cases than we care to admit, the complete breakdown of democratic foundations of societies.
When we started seeing things clinically through the business lens, we basically started producing as a factory. We became means to an end. We had to shut up because if you said something, that means that the other seats at the table would laugh at us. And so we assimilated. Efficiency, consistency, design thinking, risk aversion, MVP, PMF. Valuable terms, alas limit the scope of the core value of design in the first place; To understand and explore.
In this article, I set to understand and explore fundamental thinking that examines a new design worldview. A proposal to change our ways of working as designers, first in voluntary communities (which we already have, but with different goals) and then to be better equipped to understand and explore as individuals and as a community. This is not a desperate article. Believe me when I say this is an article full of hope and wonder.
Embracing Design Folklore
In the Ancient Greek language, the word philosophy means “love of wisdom”. Wisdom, which usually comes with experience, is something that people acquire throughout their lives. During that ancient era though, wisdom never seemed to be deriving purely from logic. Logic was considered one type of thinking. The other type of thinking was myth (similarly imagination, legends, and folk tales). While logic (logos) influenced western science, myth (mythos) influenced and even birthed logos, to begin with, according to many scholars (Buxton, 2002). If you think about it, myth helped to develop the earliest concepts and theories of how our universe exists. Concepts such as the Cosmos, the nothingness, and the beginning of the universe were ideas that were first introduced through myth.
We need a sense of wonder. We need the re-enchantment of imagining. For a long time, we have ignored the imaginative in our profession and focused solely on logic. But, how else can we dream of what’s possible? We need stewards in design who can help people rediscover what is meaningful and step away (even if momentarily) from the clinical lens of business logic by which design has merely become a business tool (read: design thinking). As human beings, we can’t understand nor explore when acting purely on logic. Imagination is critical.
In order to gain a meaningful re-enchantment, Design needs to embrace and capture the folkloric aspect of community as a learning approach, whilst relying less on a top-down elitist view of the profession through the eyes of “leaders” (people who happened to be there first, or have the loudest voices). What I call Design Folklore is a communal and co-created future (according to Dr. Dan Ben-Amos, folklore is artistic communication in small groups). Design folklore is the part that makes up our lived experiences working as designers. It is informal, unofficial, and often purely spoken discourse. Things that we learn outside of books, conferences, or podcasts. The co-creative aspect of it is often for example; ephemeral messages in slack channels, memes, and a Thursday talk over a beer before a meet-up starts.
Design folklore is an integral part of the design community. It is through storytelling and informal communication that the story of design changes in locales, languages, and cultures while keeping shared traits in each and every version. However, it is also communication that is very much dependent on the indigenous aspect. A version of design folklore in Northern Europe would introduce changes in its quality that would render that specific version of the story irrelevant to a person without a Northern European context. This is why Design Folklore is important as a practice. It has both a co-creative element to it but it’s always very local and specific to its culture, rather than a top-down “expert” design view that forces a rigid prescriptive perspective on all.
This meaningful re-enchantment of our profession would assist us in breaking free from worldviews that have reduced design to being so procedural and tactical. During that transition, we would evaluate how to do so purposefully, taking into account previous lessons and the current era.
Planetary and societal state 2022
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past ten years (which is commendable!), you’ve probably seen at least one version of our reality crumble. Sure, we have more apps than ever before, and we have more access to information than ever before, but there are also fundamental issues that are perpetuated as a result of all of this. Design has aided businesses in perpetuating this way of thinking. As a result, we have helped to shape some global trends that are now shaping design and business in ways that none of us can predict or “solve”. Instead of viewing design as a problem-solving profession, we should view it as problem-creating, and study the problems themselves to understand them better (Quadflieg, 2021).
When we say world trends in this context, we are not referring to technological fads promoted by VCs, tech bros, or loud voices on social media. We are not discussing the gleaming web3, the metaverse, or agile design. We’re talking about systemic issues that designers cannot solve on their own (even businesses alone cannot solve those issues).
The planetary crisis (due to climate emergency, and the laggard response of governments and the business institution)
New world reality (due to war, societal breakdown, and geopolitical shifts)
People’s displacement (due to the two above combined)
Currently, we craft design, operate design, and lead design based on old thinking. In a recent article Alex Steffen points out that “we’re trying to understand an unprecedented future with the worldviews of an older age, formed on a different planet. We’re working with slightly broken brains”. This is an accurate realization because even the most progressive businesses today have plans to meet 1.5C goals, an era we have already crossed with no sign of the planetary crisis abating (or staying at a 1.5C increase only).
People used to spend entire careers trying to make businesses more resilient to risk and change. Trends like climate change forced businesses to change at a much slower pace in the 1990s and early 2000s, making it easy to believe that we could always do something about it later. However, by delaying action, we have turned climate change into a climate emergency, and the rate of change is now unprecedented.
Designers working in business today lack the necessary skills and tools to unlearn old worldviews quickly enough to transform not only our professions but also the businesses with which we operate. As Alex points out “for most of us, it’s no longer enough to take a training now and then, to pick up a few new perspectives at a conference, to scan to the news in our field, to read the occasional provocative book. The speed and scale of the changes around us mean that the shortcomings in our worldview are themselves systemic. They are failures to see the pattern right, and new information can’t by itself correct those failures. We have to not only ‘think in systems’ but learn to see new ones, with new interconnections”.
We are currently trapped in the illusion of growth. The belief that all businesses should grow indefinitely. To expand their business, profits, and workforce… Everything in nature is circular, so there’s nothing natural about this growth craze. Nobody tells us that we should help businesses grow into the next Amazon of the future. This delusion is directly related to the false narrative that corporations’ sole obligation is to maximize shareholder returns. Because there will be no planet with a future for us if we think like that. We should look beyond reform and band-aid solutions, which so often strengthen and obscure the foundational violence and racism of the systems around us (Gerber, 2021). Instead, Gerber expands, we need to question our core values and make room for something different.
So how do we design for the last earth? We must be able to see the world from a bird’s-eye view while also zooming in on specifics. We must employ systemic thinking to comprehend the interconnectedness of the businesses we work with, our planet, our society, as well as past and current actions in relation to the planet’s future (any kind of future). The major global trends of planetary crisis, new world reality, and human displacement are already disrupting our “normalcy” in ways we cannot yet comprehend.
Ecology of futures
“We are projects of collective self-creation. What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such? What if, instead of telling a story about how our species fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?”
– David Graeber & David Wengrow – The Dawn of Everything
The designer’s future toolkit will not have to be built from the ground up. Understanding our past, with all of its mistakes and failures, is critical, and repurposing what we already have is one of the wisest moves we can make. With that, we only need to rethink certain mindsets in order to transform design and business to be fit for the futures we are pursuing. We had to learn new things and unlearn old ones at the time in order to adapt our knowledge to the new realities (the new planet; the last earth) we were living in.
The worlds we are moving toward will either be best-case or worst-case scenarios depending on how we, as designers, and the rest of our peers, behave and succeed in transforming our businesses. In this section, I’m grouping our toolbox into three categories that will help shape a future-responsible design profession and I am also providing examples of potential targets.
Mutualism is the ecological interaction between two or more actors where each actor has a net benefit. In our case, we consider not only the professions of a large system (the business institution) but also the people who are affected by our actions. These actions should facilitate accessible understanding and learning, eventually leading to the achievement of our targets for establishing accessible truth networks (target A) and enabling accessible learning and unlearning mechanisms (target B). With the danger of repeating myself understanding and learning should not be kept within businesses or professions, but rather shared, mutually, for everyone’s benefit.
Co-design is an approach to designing with, not for, people. While co-design is helpful in many areas, it typically works best where people with lived experience, communities, and professionals work together to improve something that they all care about (Kelly Ann McKercher – Beyond sticky notes). Understanding systemic issues while acting on a small local level to make a meaningful impact can be accomplished not only by involving professionals but also by involving everyone who would benefit from the co-design we are performing. Designers play the roles of facilitators, integrators, and doers in a manner that only resembles direct democracy standards. Diversity is essential and should be a function of our decentralized collective organizing, and this must be baked into our ideology. Our actions, in this case, should assist in the development of scenarios and safe environments, resulting in the achievement of our goals for designing scenarios for degrowth and plurality (target C), as well as incorporating easy-to-approach data protection (target D).
Stewardship entails taking responsible care of something. When we discuss design folklore (informal communication) and co-design, we are making conscious efforts to eliminate elitist or colonial narratives that are imposed on everyone else. We must be deliberate in ensuring that no one’s vision ‘wins,’ and that privileged people do not assume to understand the struggles of marginalized people. Open-source narratives, as well as the communities that help people transition and change, must be fair, just, and pluralistic. Our actions should navigate complex systems, map them, and visualize them, ultimately leading to our goals of facilitating transition mechanisms (target E).
Rachael Dietkus points out that if we approach our design research with compassionate inquiry and humility -both for ourselves and others- we can start to build knowledge and literacy around trauma, We can then be moving toward this future state of trauma-responsive design by practicing and embodying liberatory practices of trauma work – those that are not just centered on medicine and diagnoses.
There are many alternatives
We live in capitalism, as Ursula Le Guin wisely put it. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.
We only have words right now. But it’s a start. We are living in a new era that we cannot ignore or discuss in the future tense. The planetary crisis has arrived. Warfare and geopolitical shifts have arrived. People are being displaced as we speak. If we continue as is, things will get ugly. Even if we completely reinvent ourselves, things will get ugly… But if we succeed in taking action, we will have avoided the worst-case scenarios.
Let’s debunk the myth that there is no alternative. The time to act has passed, and we must accelerate our efforts to pave the way for a meaningful design profession. Future designers are not high performers and ROI champions. They are responsible stewards. I hope you are concerned. This is the last earth.
—— I would kindly like to extend my gratitude to Lisa Angela, Ron Bronson, and Matt (@ishyamo) for reading this article first and providing me with much-needed feedback, reflection, and ideas for the future.I would also like to thank the authors of the sources I have used to complete this article. Without your inspiration, my job to articulate my own thoughts would be far harder.
Recently I got to think a bit about design and leadership. I mean, to be totally honest I think a lot about design and leadership… But recently I needed to crystalize some thoughts around the subject and in order to do that I decided to make it an article, as it often helps me learn, reflect, and clarify. So in this article I aim to share 5 important responsibilities of design leadership that people can perform in their professional careers. These responsibilities are not listed in a specific order of importance. However, they are all crucial in their own way to make designers better leaders.
How can we help you solve your challenges?
Be the glue
Being the glue is a horizontal responsibility. Understanding the need for cross-functional alignment, knowing how to bring people together, and how to represent the needs of your coworkers is something that will establish you as a key person and someone that people can rely on to move things forward. This responsibility often requires translation from design language to business outcomes, and from business outcomes to actual design work and validation.
This responsibility requires rigorous relationship-building and emotional intelligence. Trust between people of the same company, regardless of levels in the org chart (example: execs & experts) should come by default. But there should be still data and documentation to back up the fact that the teams are performing well.
Champion the change
Championing the change is an upwards responsibility, towards the executives. Design and change are inextricably connected as Alison Rand once shared in a talk called “Mutualism” back in Clarity 2020. The responsibility of a leader in a team is not to take credit for all the good work, but to be the platform that supports and uplifts everyone else. It is about externalizing the wins and making sure that the work that teams are doing is visible, measurable, and accounted for. Design can also be seen as an enabler where design can help executives visualize strategic priorities and create concepts that can be validated as hypotheses without major investments upfront.
For design teams to be change agents in a product team, they need to be integrated and equal partners to engineering and business. Working closely with cross-functional partners to ensure models of decision-making that take this into account is in the best interest of everyone.
Hint: This work becomes easier once you have set up good relationships with your cross-functional partners and stakeholders (being the glue).
Design the designer journey
Knowing how designers are working within their teams is key to understanding their work. This is a responsibility that is facing downwards towards the design teams. Building a tight-knit design team, and a good culture is a very hard task. This is about not only understanding the journey of a designer inside a company, but also going deep into the specifics of how design is viewed and understood from different cross-functional stakeholders, and how designers are working with those stakeholders on a day-to-day basis.
Examples that are ingredients of a good team:
A fair interview processes
Onboarding a new designer to the team
Career support and growth, establishing clear ladders for designers to amplify their best selves
Goal setting, knowing in which ways the team will succeed
Critiques, being intentional about what kind of quality gates we are setting for the work
Offboarding, and learning from employees who leave for another opportunity (and why), but also passing the knowledge to the rest of the team
This work can be seen as establishing a DesignOps mindset. A team does not have to have an assigned role for a DesignOps Lead or Manager to get into these subjects, however, it is more likely that if this kind of work is needed, it will take away from actual design time. It is in the best interest of a team to assign a DesignOps role to a person, even if that means that it is going to be a partial engagement. Documentation is key here. Mapping the designer journey, the processes, the rituals, and the practices for your teams can help you visualize and understand the current state of things, but also identify key areas that are having major pain points and turn them into opportunities for things to be fixed.
No team can operate effectively without trust
Foster a safe environment
Fostering a safe environment is a key responsibility that affects the whole organization. As I mentioned already, part of the work is ensuring that trust is present throughout the whole organization. If trust between coworkers is not default, then the environment in which teams operate is not safe. No team can operate effectively without trust. How might we foster a safe environment?
Never be too busy for their team whenever they really need support. Always listen to what people tell you even though their problems might sound “small” to you. Promote a healthy work-life banance by establishing clear boundaries of where work begins and ends helps people to not burn out, especially during the pandemic.
Train the organization, something that should happen for executives but also experts. Train your executives in the ability to take feedback and perspectives from multiple experts regardless of their position. Likewise, train your experts in being vulnerable, and speaking out on subjects that are important to them, and during decision making processes.
Document the good examples to help teams navigate and build stronger safety within them. Measure and ask anonymously in teams on their confidence levels of psychological safety (an example question by Google: “How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?”). Make all these traits a habit — baked in the DNA of the organization.
A safe environment is not a micro-climate that sits between you and your peers. A safe environment is an organizational mechanism, and in a way it is a strategy that boosts performance. Diverse teams feel less comfortable — and that’s why they perform better. Peoples voices, when heard equally, they bring multiple perspectives. A safe and diverse environment in fact is a problem solving mechanism. And in that, processes also play a big role, by making them visual and by practicing them constantly.
How are teams taking decisions?
How do our team handles feedback?
How does the whole organization handle conflict?
How diverse are the teams, and by extension, the whole organization?
These are very hard discussions however they need to happen in order to be able to foster a safe environment.
Do the design
Lastly let’s talk about designing. It is important to stay in touch with the actual design of things to keep you connected to your people. It does not necessarily mean that a design leader has to go deep into pixel-pushing on a day-to-day basis, however, helping the product direction with actions, and leading the teams with examples adds value to your ways of working.
Leading design means less time to do the actual design, however keeping engaged with the work and being present often to at least support the team when they need it (as opposed to micromanaging every little detail) will create a stronger bond with them. If a leader finds it hard to keep up being engaged with work, they should at least try to be present in customer interviews and observe what they tell you about their needs and the product.
One of the best ways to keep your team’s morale high is to connect them with customers more often. There is nothing else that comes close to feeling the impact of your work than to ground that work in the reality of what customers and user problems you’re solving.
Jehad Affoneh, Chief Design Officer @ Splunk
I hope this article was helpful. These are not the only responsibilities a design leader should have, however, they are key for leading effective design (and not only?) teams. What else would you add?
Credits: Peter Boersma, and Adam Fry-Pierce for much-needed perspective and bouncing off ideas!
In 2019 a photo was uploaded on a Reddit community that depicted a graffiti on a wall that read in Chinese characters: “We can’t return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem”. That message was written presumably during the Hong Kong unrests but it echoes to my mind in a broader context ever since. With the pandemic disrupting our daily routines, many parts of our lives changed overnight. Actions and experiences once performed without much thought, now invoke fear in people’s minds as social distancing became a norm. Kissing a friend, hugging a relative, doing the early morning commute to work, attending that ridiculously popular festival, traveling…
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
The effects of the pandemic have shown us the importance of a work-life balance through remote work, especially when both of them take place in the same location. It forced us to re-evaluate and strengthen closeness that we often took for granted. It put us in a liminal space where the old clashed with the new in an amplified notion.
The Oppenheimer moment
With the painful realization that in 2020 we still have to fight for basic human rights, and a healthy environment, is there a more inclusive future to seek for? Does design as a profession have a historical duty to do good? This could very well be our Oppenheimer moment.
My gut feeling tells me that if we want to continue calling our practice human-centered, humane, or something similar that is trying to portray design as “good”, we have to radically change the way we as designers, and the companies we work with, operate. As Cameron Tonkinwise put it elegantly; “Human-Centred Design is always only ever These-Humans-Centred Design”. This statement keeps me up some nights. Human-, society-, or planet-centered design cannot be true when it operates in an organization that its true aim is the accumulation of capital.
How could design perform as a positive and changing force in organizations, beyond the tactical and strategic level? We need to establish basic pillars between business (think profit) and society (where your customers, humans, belong), in the context of a large scale system (the planet, the space where all interactions take place).
Purpose – Moving away from mindless consumerism and focusing on building better products and services that really serve societies and the planet. How might we redesign the business plan so that we can define prosperity and equity for hard work, equally, inclusively, and ethically?
Interconnectedness – The symbiotic nature of our species in connection with the rest of the ecosystem. How might we evolve our ways of working so that businesses can be redesigned holistically, and from the ground up, in order to provide a positive impact on profit, people, and the planet?
Resilience – Strengthen what is meaningful. How might we build our basic building blocks of societies’ prosperity through research, sustainability, and cutting edge technology in order to preserve truth, transparency, and quality of life for all?
Learning – Define true learning that is evidence-based. Not irresponsible education and information gathering that lacks judgment and the eagerness to question. How might we design an education system for true learning so that we can build intelligent and compassionate human beings?
The holistic design lens
Beyond the reoccurring navel-gazing in design, in social media, we have a lot of design debt. That is our responsibility towards society. We need to evolve design to a more holistic approach in order to do better.As Leah Zaidi (Futurist, researcher, & systems-thinking advocate) points out: “It is entirely possible to colonize the future. It’s why no one should insist their vision is the correct one, why the privileged shouldn’t claim to know the struggles of the marginalized, and why the future should be designed by the many, not the few”. Therefore holistic design is not designed by me, or you. It is open-sourced, distributed, and mutated based on the situation of each society while holding a few principles in mind.
In a piece I wrote previously, I explained that a holistic design approach oughts to be inclusive by default. It has to be ethical and diverse and most of all it has to be planet-centric. With well-researched and design-oriented approaches, profit is assured because it always identifies a need and then solves it. Impact equals profit, the opposite, however, is not true (Towards a holistic design approach).
The basic principles of holistic design
Accountable – Designers must take full responsibility for the products and services they create. Strategic – Designers help businesses transform, become humane, and prosper Inclusive and diverse – Holistic means everyone, everywhere Impactful – Creating positive change on profit, people, planet Integrated – Holistic design works only when it is an equal and indispensable part of an organization. Not in isolation Intentional – Defining the purpose of the outcomes designers create Epistemic – Using data and research as evidence to uncover knowledge and understand Respectful – First, do no harm
Organizations need to align profit with impact for design to be good (beyond human-centered). Holistic design requires situational awareness because the context of ‘good’ can change. If good design would be led by western white people, for everyone else that design would not be good. It would not be holistic if it was not led equally by people who were not typically represented, or were simply being erased. For that, organizations need to define their purpose and move away from the arbitrary capitalistic notion that above all we gotta maximize shareholder profit (which is made up).
What is your purpose? Imagine this question in a job interview! It would pose a big WHAT(?) moment and make people think for some time before answering. However, every human being has a purpose. The thing that is a higher goal. To save the world? To do good? No matter how big or cliche, it is something that motivates you to set goals for your career, to be someone you previously aspired to be.
Your purpose is not “to build beautiful websites”, or “to design a smart water bottle”. No, it is more than that, is it not? These goals are what makes you relevant to others’ work. Purpose is something higher than what you do as a job. It does not have to be related to your work also, so let’s clear that up first. It is what drives you to do your job. So in a business context, why it almost never comes up? Not just in an interview, but to companies themselves. What is your company’s purpose?
In an article for MISC magazine (Rebranding Purpose) Anna Roumiansteva notes that “this thinking has to do with a belief that has become a doctrine of the corporate world: that above all else, corporations have a single and paramount obligation to maximize returns for shareholders”.
And while this has been debunked even by professionals such as lawyers and economics constantly, we keep on holding that notion as the upper purpose of companies. Imagine if you would ask a person what is their life purpose, and they would answer genuinely that their purpose is to help their boss Dan to buy a yacht and a bigger house.
For a long time, we have perpetrated this hurtful mentality that has brought us examples like unregulated Big Tech. This is simply not sustainable anymore to continue. As people have a purpose we have to ask ourselves the question “how might we change our company’s purpose so that we can work together with our stakeholders for a sustainable and viable future?”
As the era of move fast and break things is over, reevaluating our companies’ purposes seems like a natural evolution. In a publication titled “Creating Shared Value: Redefining Capitalism and the Role of the Corporation in Society”, Michael Porter suggests that the answer is creating shared value. And unlike Corporate Social Responsibility that — many times — is purpose-washing, shared value is something more actionable and sustainable for the future of business (and well, the world).
“Shared Value: Corporate policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing social and economic conditions in the communities in which it operates“
– Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business School
There are three levels of shared value according to Porter:
– Reconceiving customer needs, products, & markets — Example: low-cost tech to service underserved communities and open new markets
– Redefining productivity in the value chain — Example: Paper provided by companies who do production only on planted trees — no tropical or native trees
– Enabling local cluster development — Example: the use of local suppliers and institutions increases supply chain efficiency
Wicked problems require extraordinary solutions. This is not a fight for designers (only). But design has a big role in this. As it did have a big role in building the very structures that have brought our societies to this current state. So how do we move forward? Let’s build the answers together.
Understanding the need for a multi-angled view of design in business.
What is the value of design? This question is overwhelmingly bounced around, not only on social media like design twitter, but also in meetings, in product teams, and in companies’ strategic steering groups. Rightly so, we all need to understand — even designers — the real value that design creates.
There are a couple of interesting scenarios that I observe dominating design in business, that happen over and over again, that make the answer for “what is the value of design?” almost impossible to justify. Design being either a function, or a partner in companies.
To understand design holistically we need to observe and operate in multiple levels identified as craft, operations, and strategy.
“Designing for the future starts with redesigning how you show up in the now“
– Mia Blume
Design is not just a function When design is reduced to simply the deliverable (as opposed to a process), it is seen as merely execution. And likely is seen as a nice-to-have. It is hard to justify the value of design then, because while pushing pixels can contribute to the overall betterment of a product, the real value of design is not shown directly through that. In similar scenarios where design happens in isolation, whether it is UX, Service Design or Design Research, unless design is seen holistically it is hard to put any value on it.
Design is not just a partner In mature customer-centric companies, design has gained a bigger role in an organizational level. Design can help in development teams, with UX embedded. Designers and developers can work more efficiently. Design can help with Design Research and aid in the customer understanding. Design can help on a strategic level with facilitation, service design and coaching. However, still, unless design is seen holistically, a compartmentalized design jumbled into silos is hard to measure.
The three levels of design
A lot of advances have been made in our profession. As Doug Powell pointed out in his closing keynote (Design at scale) at the DesignOps Summit, this is the best time for design and designers. We observe that design happens in 3 different levels and we need 3 different lenses to understand those focal points.
We are actively solving cross-disciplinary and collaboration issues with the wide adoption of solutions like design systems and automations. With such products or solutions we have also been able to measure clear benefits for business goals: Speed to market, cost efficiency, and cross-collaboration increased.
The next level of challenges involve scaling teams, not only in terms of numbers and talent but helping amplifying the design craft through design and research operations. While adopting such practices, companies are able to measure benefits that deal with: increase of product design and design research work while a specialized team take care of the operations and processes, which lead to employee satisfaction (designers doing actual design and research) and reduction in attrition rates.
The next set of challenges are strategic and focus on design leadership. Keeping one eye on the horizon and one eye on the next wave (Maria Skaaden at DesignOps Summit). Design needs a strong culture, a North Star and a competent leadership that is seen as equal as the rest of the parts of the imaginary Venn diagram: engineering — business — design. Companies who have been able to achieve such level of design (climbing the famous design ladders), they see clear benefits in understanding (making the right products), delivering (making the products right), learning, discovering, and having a vision.
Yet, unless design is able to change the whole organization it fits in, in order to accommodate for all those changes it propagates for, it would likely fail because it would fall on a vacuum, and inherently design would create its own silo along the run.
“By choosing to be a designer you are choosing to impact the people who come in contact with your work, you can either help or hurt them with your actions. The effect of what you put into the fabric of society should always be a key consideration in your work“
– Mike Monteiro
Towards holistic design
As we see by now, design works in different levels and we need different focus lenses to understand the real value of design. Those three different lenses are identified as craft, operations and strategy. Holistic design is understanding and solving problems in all those levels that design operates. When we see design holistically, we understand the value design has, in its totality. A whole is indeed greater than the sums of its parts. This is also called emergence. In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the condition of an entity having properties its parts do not have, due to interactions among the parts.
Design has to hold a few important distinctions that makes it holistic. A holistic design approach ought to be inclusive by default. It has to be ethical and diverse and most of all it has to be people-first. With well-researched and design-oriented approaches, profit is assured because it always identifies a need and then solves it. Impact equals profit, the opposite is not true.
If that sounds complex, it is exactly because it is complex. The more you zoom out and see a profession as part of a system, we understand that wicked problems require extraordinary solutions and multidisciplinary and inclusive approaches.