“We are entering a Golden Age of product design.” Those were the words that MasterClass cofounder Aaron Rasmussen used to describe the influence designers are exerting over commerce in the Fast Company article, “Software Ate the World. Now It’s Design’s Turn.”

His argument was compelling: in a world cluttered with too many products and choices, design has become the most potent means of differentiation. And as a designer, I can certainly identify with his viewpoint. I can also sense designers around the world high-fiving each other after reading this article. Hey, we’re becoming more important! Design is much more than a function, a phase, a feeling, or the product. The value of design is in being a growth accelerator for achieving business results.

At the same time, his article challenges designers to up their game. The challenge is hard to spot, but it’s there:

“ . . .the impetus for good design begins at the top, with folks who value both the aesthetic nuances of the discipline and the appropriate metrics for measuring its impact.”

Think about that statement: the impetus for good design begins at the top.

The implications for designers are enormous. Folks that possess a design mindset make for great collaborators with other decision makers running the company. In the modern business, survival requires a new set of tools and thinking that future-proofs a business. The value of design is key to that mission. As I blogged in 2018, it is happening in pockets. But we still have a long way to go. The percentage is still low for number of designers holding c-suite positions. How many designers at your company?

  • Understand your CEO’s business priorities for the year?
  • Understand how your company is responding to global issues that are sweeping across the business landscape, such as sustainability and the rise of consumer privacy?
  • Understand that design is much more than just a craft, it is a growth-mindset positioned to deliver business results.
  • Can measure design and experiences to the same rigor that businesses are analyzed everyday (time and cost)?

To have a seat at the table, designers, need to think like the leaders of the business and apply that holistic thinking to how products are conceived and designed. How else can designers, for instance, understand the nuances of creating AI-based voice interfaces unless you also understand some of the inherent trust issues people have with AI and technology companies in the age of privacy?

Researcher, professor, author, and Director of The Design Lab at University of California, San Diego, Don Norman laid down a similar challenge in the Fast Company article, “This is the one skill designers need to develop most in 2020.” He discussed how designers need to learn business skills to grow, most notably collaboration. He wrote:

. . . many designers never escape from their lack of general, broad knowledge. That is why we must change design education. We are in the 21st century, and although the craft skills of many designers still produce wonderful results, the world needs much more than that. We need designers who can tackle major social issues. Designers whose creative thinking can move us forward. Designers who recognize that no single discipline can solve the major problems facing us; instead it will require that designers work with scientists, engineers, businesspeople, ethicists, planners, developers, and politicians.

Where do designers develop those skills? Well, take a deep breath: Don Norman urges a wholesale change in design education. Among other things, he proposes that designers get a broader education about topics such as ethics and technology. Doing that, he says, requires separating designers from art schools and departments. It is worth thinking about a person gaining the skills to obtain the “design mindset” outside of a true design school.

If you’re looking for change to happen anytime soon, you’re in for a disappointment. Norman admits that what he proposes – changing the curriculum of design schools around the world – will take time.

But meanwhile, we as a community do have the means to effect change now, and so do our employers. For one, the value of Design is reaching to the top. LinkedIn recently promoted their most senior product leader Ryan Roslansky to takeover from CEO Jeffery Weiner. The Millennial consumer is very vocal about their desires and value of experiences over products. The roles of Chief Design Officer, Chief Experience Officer, and Chief Digital Officers are appearing on senior leadership teams globally. Tactically, mechanisms such as design sprints are helpful to position design-minded folks to think cross-functionally, understand the key measures to success, define the total experience, and spur ways of working to foster co-creation, experimentation, and connection. Design sprints are engineered to bring about the collaboration that Don Norman writes about.

But what happens after the design sprint is over? After all, a design sprint happens for four or five days tops. Here is where a business can start breaking down silos in a very practical way, by organizing teams in cross-functional ways. As I wrote in “The Five Cs Framework to Achieve Enterprise Agility” in June 2019,

Within a traditional corporate culture, people work in silos (such as marketing, finance, and HR) under hierarchies – an approach that slows down companies. No longer does it work for teams to be hierarchical or siloed. An agile culture rewards innovation and speed. And embracing this culture means changing how people work. Organizing people into cross-functional squads (a model derived from businesses such as Spotify) and empowering those squads to own the entire customer journey unleashes the power of an agile culture. The squads are built and disbanded depending on where the business needs to add value, so that they can move fast and be nimble.

The critical reader might argue, “But squads don’t work if the people in them refuse to collaborate.” But that’s just it: if people refuse to collaborate in a decentralized squad, the entire team suffers. The team cannot afford to work in any other way.

Now, design sprints and decentralized teams are not going to solve Don Norman’s long-term challenge of changing design curriculum. But they do help us address the question of, How can companies start getting designers to think beyond design (craft)?

Amish Desai

Amish Desai

Head of Experiences