in design organizations

Keep design weird… but relevant

Historically, most formal design has been practiced by design agencies, which were environments set up to deliver optimal design output.

As design increasingly moves in-house, into environments that are not only not optimized for good design practice, but can prove quite hostile to it, a measure of a design team, and its leadership, is how they navigate this.

Many design teams find themselves at one of two poles.

I’ve now seen a number of teams, whose leadership comes from the design agency world, try to protect design by insulating the team from the rest of the organization. Essentially, these teams try to re-create the studio model when moving in-house, but in doing so inhibit connection with the rest of the company. This may lead to great design work in the abstract, but it also ultimately leads to ineffectiveness, as without those connections, the work of the design team is not realized through the product.

The other pole is one of total integration. Product design molds itself to whatever product development process exists, usually some flavor of agile. While this integration allows design to have some effect, the quality is subpar, because design is a different kind of activity than engineering, and what works for technical development is not ideal for great design. So, by trying to be accommodating team players, design loses what makes it interesting in the first place.

The challenge for in-house teams is to figure out how to keep that creative spark that makes design such a valuable contributor, without isolating it so much that it’s simply out of sync with the rest of the organization. It’s one of the (many) reasons I advocate for what I call the Centralized Partnership–centralization allows design to maintain it’s mindset and community of practice (i.e., it allows design to remain a little weird), while the partnership ensures those connections with the rest of the organization that keeps design relevant.

To maintain this balance requires vigilance and continual adjustment. This is a key aspect of any design leader’s role, ensuring that design doesn’t get run over by development processes, and not being so precious that it’s never put in a position to be realized.