What Role does Design Play within Your Organization?

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Designers often wonder or whine about how their work is not recognized, accepted or even respected in their organization. What many designers don’t realize is how they or their designs are treated has to do with how the discipline of design is viewed within their organization. In this article I will frequently reference Design Management methodology in organizations that have in-house design teams, however most of the topics we will cover today can also apply to consultancies working with businesses that buy design services.
There are many levels of how Design is viewed or integrated within an organization. This is what I like to call “The Design Functionality Axis” as illustrated above. The Axis stretches from a low level Supplier relationship at the base of the triangle to a Strategic Design Leadership relationship.
In the next few paragraphs, I hope to explain in detail what it means for a company to operate at these different Design functional levels, what designers working at these levels can expect and some hints on what can be done to push the value of design in your organization up this axis.

A Supplier Relationship
This is the lowest relationship denominator and is no coincidence that it is at the bottom of the pyramid. In a Supplier relationship, design and designers are often put in an execution role. In other words, a design is treated a means to an end. It is often seen as being done “off the corner of the table” and in a few hours. Often very styling in nature, the majority of consulting and freelance work often operates at this level. With in-house designers, it is no different. Here a designer mostly works alone, does almost everything remotely creative, and has a hard time trying to convince his/her boss the value of design. Ironically such companies know that they need design, but do not have any enabling factors to take it past the superficial. Furthermore they make the mistake of hiring the cheapest designer or service they can find, often including designers fresh out of school.

A Supporting Role
It gets a little better here. Designers are seen as very tactical in nature. In other words, Design is seen as useful in articulating a required need. Here designers are found as part of and doing the bidding of established departments like R&D, Engineering or even Marketing. While much better than a supplier, a designer in a supporting role still suffers from working with down stream information, and have very little influence in the brief requirements. What is worst, is that designers will have to deal with departmental politics of diverging objectives, an awful design decision-making process, and many opportunities to rework designs due to changing requirements.

In a Functional Position
Often, strong designers with a great track record, or who have been in a company for a long time, will often evolve their contribution into a functional role. Here a young organization starts to mature in regard to their view of Design. Such functional roles are evident with a creation or the existence of a Design Department. Now on par with the other functional departments like R&D or Engineering, Design in a Functional role starts to really provide value to a company by having equal say in solutions. Even though you are now closer to the decision maker, you will still need to negotiate different environments to get things done, and have to live with recommendations as you may still have little say in decisions made.

A Partnership
This is probably one of the best places a designer can be in. In a partnership arrangement, a designer gets to be part of the decision-making process, as well as influence the business strategy of a company. With close partnerships, a designer has a lot of trust within an organization and his word has a lot of weight. It takes a designer with quite a lot of skill to be successful in this role as he has to frame complex design problems into a language the business can understand. It is not only about strategy, but designers in this situation, have not only established trust through good communication, but able to deliver the goods by seeing it through to the end. Here the design partnership will often have a strong team of designers that support its success.

Strong Design Leadership
Finally we end this post with the future of the function of Design within an organization, Design Leadership. With a strong partnership in place, the logical next step is for design to own the competence of design within an organization. Here the role of design is naturally very strategic, where design plays a part in high-level business discussions, or even the main driver leading key initiatives. Design does this by identifying potential opportunities and articulates solutions that are vital for a successful brand or business. It takes an organization with a very mature and strong understanding of the value of design to accept Design in a leadership role. Design has now gone beyond form, as it resides in the DNA of a company and integral to its daily operations.

13 Comments
  • Danny

    May 21, 2009 at 5:32 am Reply

    Very nice break down. I think I am currently in between “A supporting role” and “In a functioning Position” in my company. I am a graphic designer and assistant marketer for my company. Due to the economic down turn I have had to help the company think of new ways of marketing. Only recently did my company start taking my ideas into consideration.

  • Jonning

    May 22, 2009 at 5:41 am Reply

    A good read. Since I consider myself a fresh grad, so my question is – is it necessary to start right at the bottom of the food chain?

  • Raph

    May 22, 2009 at 7:45 am Reply

    Design Victoria recently did a five year study on design in Victoria, Australia and in their report on it (5 years on) they had a similar chart that maps the strategic use of design in organizations. You can check it out at – http://www.designvic.com/Knowledge/HotTopics/Design_Innovation_Ladder.aspx
    Their chart and your chart compliment each other well. Although their chart is more simplified to reach a much broader audience.
    (They also have a heap of other fantastic material on their site, all free of course)

  • Waikit Chung

    May 22, 2009 at 6:12 pm Reply

    These ‘levels’ feel like the ‘roles’ as mentioned in http://designsojourn.com/the-lifecycle-of-a-designer-part-1/
    in which the higher positioned and experienced designer also has a more strategic design responsibility. Perhaps I am bit confused?

    • DT

      May 22, 2009 at 8:15 pm Reply

      Hi Waikit,
      Thanks for pointing out the relationship. They are all related and part of my continual exploration of the position and value of design in an organization. That article you highlighted is from a view point of a designer. This article, I hope, is more from a view point of a company working with Design and designers.

  • David Airey

    May 24, 2009 at 5:07 pm Reply

    Hey DT,
    Kind of off-topic here, but just wanted to stop by and say I hope all’s well your side, with the family and all.
    Great to see your subscriber base growing. Long may it continue.

    • DT

      May 26, 2009 at 1:28 pm Reply

      Hi David,
      Always a pleasure to see you come visit! Thank you for the well wishes and please keep in touch.

  • Arjan

    May 25, 2009 at 6:22 pm Reply

    As a designer in a design agency the same rules apply. The extra difficulty to climb up the ladder is that you are mostly contacted to start working on a project that is allready started. So the main goals and decisions are allready taken.
    It’s so much work to get out of the support role this way. I’ve had hours of discussions with clients about their choices, trying to convince then of their inconsistencies. At times this would be succesfull and everybody left the room convinced that the new route is the better one. But a lot of times I would get a call or email telling me we would follow the old path. The higher manager, who was not at the meeting, and therefore not understanding this decision, would just tell everyone to continue on the old path.
    The knowledge and will to be a partner in the strategic choices of a company is there, but will only come to life every now and then. For us it is all about establishing long term relations with clients and slowly helping them see what a difference design thinking can do to a company.

  • Ingo

    May 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm Reply

    Would be interesting to know what it takes to take design to a level of partnership. Although Design Leadership sounds nice I think it might just flip the current situation and others would start to complain, although somebody has to lead.
    It also seems a bit unbalanced, there are 3 levels below partnership but only one above, and if you count “no design” in as designvic does, it’s 4 below. It’s also interesting how the role/picture of a designers changes. You might start as an ID person and you will slowly turn into someone who has to think more strategic as soon as you start to “climb up the ladder” until you commit yourself to strategy and do less traditional design (ID).

  • […] What Role does Design Play within Your Organization? […]

  • Tim Fife

    July 4, 2009 at 5:55 pm Reply

    Ingo make a very important point when mentioning Tradition Design. The firm I work at in Syndey, 2nd Road, focuses on using design thinking at the strategic level and embedding design thinking into the DNA of the organization. The fact is, as a designer accends the ladder, the focus of their day to day work will very much shift from design doing to design thinking. A designer must be willing to make this move in order to move up the spectrum. Or, perhaps to make things more comfortable for the designer, they must redefine what Traditional Design work consists of, and begin to consider the actual activities of design to be less critical (personally) than achieving the goals of design, which is to create better, more delightful experiences for the user.

  • web page designer

    September 3, 2009 at 4:01 am Reply

    Those in positions of power often just expect great designs come to forth from the ether, and never really appreciate it. This might be expected, as they have to put their time into other things… and to be honest, many believe that designers produce stuff of that quality all the time – so they don’t see the need to give special thanks.
    Interesting perspective for this post though, I liked it… thanks!.

  • Flüge

    October 23, 2009 at 9:20 pm Reply

    Indeed it´s a interessting position, that there are different views within organizations concerning design. I believe that most of the impotance is given to thinks like usability or good conversions. Design often plays the second role.

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