Extensive research over the last few years has established a strong business case for the value of design. One example, by the Design Management Institute, revealed that design-led companies like Apple and Nike have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an impressive 211 percent. As a result, we've seen a shift in business priorities for many forward-thinking organizations where design is making significant impacts.
In top level management, design now has a seat at the table. Since 2004, companies like Accenture, Capital One, and Deloitte have acquired more than 71 independent design consultancies, with 50 of those multi-million dollar talent grabs happening in the last two years. Meanwhile, business schools like the Yale School of Management are adding design classes to their core curriculum. As a result, designers are being hired at an increasing rate, with companies like IBM investing hundreds of millions to build their design teams internally.
Many more companies are looking to join the movement and invest heavily in design talent. However, as with most investments, there is a risk of jumping in prematurely.
Especially if you are a young company, here are four things you need to consider when building out a design team.
1. Design is not just for making things look pretty.
Steve Jobs said it best: "Design is not just how it looks, but how it works."
Design has been historically associated with graphic design as a function for marketing and branding--and that association continues despite the changing role of design in technology. I've been amazed at how often design is assumed to serve as decoration--so much bad design is simply decoration. Design is more than an artistic craft. It's a strategic tool for achieving business objectives.
In order to design great products, services or campaigns, you need to understand not just what you're making, but why you're making it and for whom. You do that by empathizing with your customers to feel their pain, understand their problems and motivations, and solve for those needs.
Context is a designer's ammunition, and designers are ineffective unless they have a clear understanding of the problem. Which brings us to our second reason...
2. Great design starts with the customer.
This goes beyond just building a demographic profile of your customer. Great design requires sensitivity to many levels of context around customer touchpoints:
Emotional Context: How does someone feel when they are using your product or service--not just during, but before and after. What's their mental state? Are they coming to you to alleviate boredom, or are they using your product during a medical emergency?
Environmental Context: Where are they when they're using your product or service? What else is fighting for their attention? Do they have time pressures or spatial constraints?
Social Context: How will they be perceived by others when using your product or service? Will it make them feel cool or proud? Or are you solving a problem that's too embarrassing to share with others?
These are absolute requirements for designing products and services that customers love. Unless you're willing to invest the time to build a clear picture of your customer's problems and motivations, you run the risk of falling short of great design. This risk is worth taking seriously, because the alternative to great design is not no design at all, it's bad design.
3. Everyone in the company is a designer.
In my experience, I've seen too many designers hired onto marketing or engineering teams and tasked with visualizing user experiences or marketing materials. Oftentimes, the designer does not have access to customer data or high-level business goals, and management becomes frustrated with the designer's output and loses faith.
The reality is, great design is an attitude more than a skillset. In order to successfully integrate design into your company, it needs to be done on a cultural level and from the top down. Design thinking is not just something that needs to be represented by designers, but the entire company. Everyone in the company becomes a designer the moment each employee is able to rally around the customer's journey.
A pillar of great design is consistency, and design needs to be integrated into all customer touchpoints such as customer service centers, your website, social media, the product, or any conceivable interaction that a customer has with a brand.
That said, it's no coincidence that design has moved into top level management. To become a design-driven organization, it requires more than acquiring design talent--it requires design leadership.
4. Great design is not easy, but it's worth it.
Realizing the magnitude of effort that goes into building a design culture, some companies choose the option to hire design firms or freelancers when they're not ready to make the investment of time, money, and attention. This is certainly a viable option, but if the rise in activity over the last few years has proven anything, it's that prioritizing this investment can lead to serious business outcomes that really do move the needle.
Great design stems from a great design culture, and a great design culture is difficult to cultivate. Design talent these days falls under a large umbrella of writing and communication skills, coding skills, strong business acumen, and visual design. Individuals skilled in any combination of those areas are difficult to find, but they are worth the investment.
After all, the one thing more expensive than building a great design culture is to have no design culture at all.