Working at a design agency as a UX consultant, I get to work with many clients and lots of design teams. I get to see projects from the perspective of the business who initiate them and the viewpoint of the creative teams tasked with delivering them.
In both of these camps there is a emerging consensus: scaling digital design (used deliberately here in its broadest sense) is likely to provide your organisation with its ongoing competitive advantage, unlock its next innovation and kick-start its next growth spurt.
However, ‘scaling design’, this amorphous term, is in danger of meaning everything to everyone... therefore nothing to anybody.
Scaling design promises the heady elixir of bestowing greater recognition on the importance and impact of design, placing the design team as the engine-room for stoking business growth, and elevating designers as the saviours who can drag your business into modernity.
Yet talking to both project stakeholders and designers, I sense there is often a mismatch between how the two groups view design and how to nurture and grow it as a core business function. Is scaling design about becoming bigger, better, faster, cheaper? How can you increase capacity alongside capability? Is it possible to deliver quantity with quality?
When scaling design, the people involved in the process are at the heart of successful change and adoption. Get the teams across the organisation aligned with a shared vision and you are well on your way to success.
Here are some of the common myths and misconceptions I hear from both design teams and non-design business managers. I’d like to suggest some ways for each group to start speaking the same language. After all, things appear different depending on which end of the telescope you look through.
Designer: I don’t work here to be a design robot.
To designers, systems and processes can often sound as if they herald a move towards creating a factory-line churning out components at the expense of individual creativity. Designers need time to do their best work. The aim of systematising design is to help free up this time. But if you then end up just doing more of the business-as-usual type of work, you’ve missed the greatest opportunity you can get from scaling design. Design systems and production processes aim to take the pain away from the routine stuff in order to free up the time for investigating future possibilities.
Manager: Why does everything take so long? All I need is a simple web page!
There is often a shared pain felt between the person requesting the work and the person trying to deliver it. Maybe we start with the wrong question when we ask ‘why does it take so long?’ Instead ask ‘how can we reduce the effort required next time we need to do this?’ Make it a challenge for the design team to solve.
As design scales, and patterns and processes tessellate, it’s time to see where you can save time. Of course, there’s an irony here that to save some time you need to spend some time.
The more successful examples of operationalising design have a few key factors in common. These include shared ownership of the system (don’t impose it on the design team), time set aside for ongoing maintenance, and an expectation of iteration as patterns change and new practices emerge. Think of design ops as a community garden that needs many people to shape and tend to it through the seasons.
Designer: Rules and restrictions are okay for others in less creative roles but they don’t work for designers.
Why do designers bristle at the mention of having rules imposed on their practice? I’ve always found this odd as the world of design is full of guidance covering everything from grids, typography choices, colour theory to gestalt principles, animation and beyond. Brand guidelines are one of the first things designers ask for when starting to work with a new organisation.
I think one of the secrets for adoption is to move from ‘rules’, which feels draconian and inflexible, to framing a design system as a set of patterns which are emergent and open to change. The litmus test is that the design team feel the ‘rules’ provide useful constraints that encourage creativity rather than crush it.
Manager: Can’t we just scale design by hiring another dozen designers?
It’s not as easy as just turning on the design tap and letting the creative outputs flow. Currently, there’s a shortage of digital design talent which means, as an employer, you need to have something exciting to entice potential colleagues. The chance to do meaningful impactful work, opportunities to learn, and space to try new ideas are often key considerations for designers – above mere remuneration.
Because finding designers is hard, make sure you have an active plan for retaining staff. Alongside – or as an alternative – to increasing the headcount make sure you develop your existing talent. Think about how you can increase design capacity by improving the capability of your current team. This may include opportunities for training, sharing ideas and coaching.
Designer: When you say scaling design, why do I think you really mean producing more in less time?
There’s often a misconception from many non-designers that great design can be done quicker. All that time sketching on paper and standing around whiteboards looks more like fun than ‘proper work’. Designers exacerbate this misunderstanding with speed-infused talk about the need to do rapid prototyping or to unlock ideas with a one-week design sprint.
The truth is that great design work doesn’t just happen. Forming, testing, iterating and polishing great ideas takes time to get right, with inevitable moments of going wrong along the way. Scaling design shouldn’t be about producing more of the same. It’s not a race to clear the backlog. True business value comes from focussing on design quality, with quantity as the happy byproduct rather than the intention.
Scaling design should allow you the time to polish the components you need to repeat. Putting them in a pattern library now saves you time with every reuse. However, get the initial quality wrong and every time you deploy the pattern, it will remove value from your digital products. Polish then scale; don’t scale and then try to polish.
Manager: Why should design be excluded from proving its worth to the business?
Just because it’s sometimes hard to quantify the impact of user experience and design doesn’t mean you can bury your head in the sand to avoid the topic. Projects and programmes of work are initiated from business cases, and these need to provide the decision-makers with projected costs and benefits.
Managers and designers need to work together to find ways to evaluate the impact of design in terms that make sense for the business. Stop obsessing about the performance of the UI and start measuring what adds value to the business. A/B testing has its place, but don’t fall into the trap of counting what’s easiest to measure.
To get more savvy about measuring design, never start a piece of work without knowing how you’ll measure it, when you’ll measure it, and how far you need to move the needle.
Designer: Why do you never ask me what design can offer the organisation?
Many designers hold a frustration that they sit at the end of the pipeline and are handed solutions to make pretty. Designers by their nature are inventive problem solvers. If you’re not including them at the framing, investigation and shaping stages of a project then you’re missing a trick.
One way to rapidly and cost-effectively scale design across an organisation is to introduce design-thinking techniques to non-designers. The good news is that you may already have the perfect people in place to introduce design thinking as part of your business practice.
Manager: Why don’t you ever talk about design in ways I can understand?
As designers, if we want to become critical to business then we need to talk in terms non-designers can understand. Geek out less over grids, typography and interaction patterns. Instead talk more about how you’ve rigorously identified and elegantly addressed customer needs. You need a story to tell and the best stories are the ones the audience want to share.
If, as a business leader, you want to scale design, you’ll need to address the fears of your design team. If, as a designer, you want to grow design, you’ll have to demonstrate the value and impact it brings.
Even with the shared goal of growing design, the starting point is to get a shared understanding and empathy for one another’s concerns and motivations. People create the culture. People create the process. So to successfully scale design, start with your people.
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