How to Further Design in an Organization without Design Management?

Org Chart
Image: An Event Apart Chicago Sketchnotes: Org Charts

This week’s “question of the week” is actually quite important. With the growing momentum of design thinking and organizations wanting to have a competence in design, more and more designers will find themselves hired in organizations without a design friendly management structure or colleagues sympathetic to the needs of design.
Tyler asks:

Thanks for the work you put into this site – insightful and pertinent to this designer.
I realize this question comes well after this was posted, but I’m wondering if you think the Lead/Principle Designer position can exist in an organization without established Design Management?
As a highly contributing sr. designer, what arguments and discussion points can I use to persuade my company that elevating my role to include design management would be advantageous?

Indeed design will suffer when an organization does not have a strong design management structure in place to further the needs of the competence. However this question has no easy answer. What I do know is that it will require a significant time investment as this is not something you can build and influence in a short time. From my experience it took me about 3 years before I got any traction. However because Tyler wanted to know how, his underlying passion, a key factor, will get him more than half way there.

Understand the role

The short answer to this question is yes. A lead or principle design position can exist in an organization without design management. However design will largely be execution in nature, i.e. the brief get passed down and you create a design from it. I can already see you cringing! But if I sense the question right, this is not what Tyler is asking.
If we want to further the competence of design in any organization we need to understand how the role of the designer has to evolve and move beyond traditional design. The additional workload is something many designers do not cherish, so we need to be careful with what we wish for.
This new hybrid designer cum corporate animal will need to work closely with many departments, and understand intimately how his organization functions. It is indeed a multi-disciplinary role with the designer requiring to wear many hats and speak the different lingo.
After you have done all that communication, you will sit down in the evenings and do design. I’m kidding! It is not that bad, but the toughest thing to do is change our mindsets.

Build Trust

With a closer working relationship with many people in our organization, a certain level of trust and credibility is built. Often designers are seen as fickle and fluffy people, connecting with other competences dispels this myth and also bring us back down to earth.
However, when in doubt always make sure you do good work and/or create great designs. Even if people do not agree, a great design always wins the day. Well most of the time…

Be the champion of design

Design is a noun and a verb. It is an end result and also a process, therefore you need to be the champion of both. Otherwise, who else is going to do it? Championing design in an organization requires a mindset of a marketer as well as understanding it is about adding value to the day to day activities within an organization.

Establish process and structure

A champion of design has also a strong grasp of the design process. Many organizations lack a creative or creation process. Therefore make sure you are the one leading the introduction and deployment of such processes. Throw in your ability to communicate with non-designer types, your status will immediately be elevated as a manager or at least a leader in design and its processes.

Continue to learn

It is likely that this is a lonely role. It was for me. You would likely be the only designer or creative professional in the organization. This is because organizations are testing the usefulness of such roles, and start by bringing in only one designer.
Therefore to ensure that you have the ability to keep on proving to management the value of your role, you will need to improve your knowledge of your competence. Continue to push yourself, learn, network with external mentors and designers, and evolve. Don’t stop challenging the systems you have put in place. This is a role that requires a lot of self motivation, but the rewards are great if you see it to the end.
When things start going well, consider building a team of designers to support you or the organization’s needs. When such creative “hives” are established, things will really start to fly!

Educate your partners

Finally, after everything, you need to ensure that you take responsibility in teaching and educating your partners of the value of design. The more they know, the easier your job will be. Take every opportunity, from informal chats to design presentations, to educate your partners about the process and what it takes to good design. This further shores up your credibility and continues your value add to your organization.
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I have actually written extensively on this topic in other posts, I would therefore like to recommend that you check them out for further insights:
1) The Changing role of Design and Designers, and old but still relevant presentation on Slideshare.

2) Corporate Designer’s Survival Guide. Here I discuss issues like Reporting lines to the top, corporate allies, etc.

3) Why do I always get rejected? 10 tips on how to get the “buy in”. In this article I give advice on how to get your ideas or designs approved in a corporate environment.
I hope these further insights help and as always I love to hear your feedback!

3 Comments
  • rAiNMan

    September 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm Reply

    Hi DS,
    I am making a paper of Master of Science in Design Management (DM). I would like to know you comment for …
    A “no-design & no-DM” small family company, who would like to integrate design into the company…. besides hiring product designer and/or design consultants…. I propose the idea in my paper to build the Product “creation” process (include both design and development process)
    …. the background of proposing PCP is PCP covers all three area of DM (strategic, functional and operation).
    So the company will have DM in these 3 levels and implement through PCP.
    1. using design in planning as a strategic DM
    2. Set up design (& development) process as a key process in “product creation” of the company.
    3. Manage the design work (project management, the making of design brief….etc)
    And the company will gradually learn how to use design for product designing, process and strategic design.
    What’s your comment for setting up a “PCP” as a starting point of Design Integration?

  • rafael armstrong

    September 15, 2010 at 9:28 pm Reply

    Talk about a timely post. Just over a month ago, I was hired by a company that had just created their first in-house designer position (so far it’s been all outside folks), and I’ve been struggling with the same long-term concerns that you’ve addressed in the post. Thank you!

  • Abram Hernandez

    September 19, 2010 at 1:48 am Reply

    I work for a company with an interest in design but no formal positions. Therefore, the (mechanical) engineers performing the design work are responsible for the technical as well as the aesthetic aspects of the product. In the past there has been a lack of consistency between the look and style of the products produced, however, there is now interest in changing this. The company that I think epitomizes this is Apple. It is clear that an Apple product is an Apple product without even seeing the logo.
    What resources/recommendation do have to achieve this type of coordination? Where would you point an engineer interested in industrial design to learn how to coordinate people around a common style?

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