I failed to build a design-driven culture

This is a tough one to talk about, folks. This is not an aspirational post, or even one that will give advice on how to avoid my mistakes. I don’t think I can show exactly where I went wrong, or how I could have changed anything. There is no happy ending. Abandon hope all ye who scroll here.

Spoiler alert?

Now, if you’re still reading, than you, yes, you with the shining rectangle in front of your face, might just be in a similar dire straight. At your company, design is viewed as superficial in comparison to other, more technical practices like engineering, HR, or potato farming. I’ve been there. It’s not fun.

You’ve scoured your local design book surplus store, gone to Meetups and talked to other designers who shake their heads in remorse, read too many overly-long Medium posts written by designers who say that you just have to stick with it, your hardcover copies of Sprint and The Design of Everyday Things are dog-eared and highlighted, heck, you have even started recording people using your product to give voice to their angst and tangible evidence of a need for improvement through design thinking.

If that’s you, then kudos. Stick with it. You’re on step 3 or maybe even 4 of the design-driven-company guide. Make it to step 5 and things will really sta…

What’s that?

You… You’ve never heard of the design-driven-company guide?

How can that be? I’m sure I’ve got that url somewhere, let me ju…


Thaaaat’s right.

I just made it up for this post! How dumb of me!

There is no guide, even though everyone acts like it’s just as simple as following a step-by-step guide that’s readily available at every corner five-and-design. A guide that looks something like…

10 Steps to Build a Design Driven Company Culture

You’ll never believe step 8!

  1. Diagnose and design
    Find a specifically frustrating feature, and improve it with design practices. No, I’m not asking you to actually implement it. Just make a fancy prototype (engineers are just too hard to deal with, anyhow). So… go polish pixels to a high gloss, and add some seriously springy easings. Bonus points for posting a gif on your dribbble account!
  2. Conduct user testing
    Record your users (IRL) interacting with your prototype. Make a montage of their wide eyes and gasps of excitement!
  3. Showcase your users
    Show this montage to your engineers, salespeople, marketers, janitorial staff, interns… everyone; so that they can gain empathy. Once they see it they’ll look deep inside themselves and hop on the design band wagon! Look out, they may hoist you onto their shoulders!
  4. Write a case study
    Make a case for the study of your case study. The interwebs will gush at it. Before you know it, you’ll even be able to add “thought-leader” to your twitter bio. Once that happens, it’ll be time to pay fiverr for 30k extra followers so you look extra-legit and get that blue checkmark!
  5. Meet with key stakeholders
    You’ve heard of them. You know of them. Now buck up and schedule a meeting to show the before vs the after to the mythical “key stakeholders”. Use data. Use pie charts. Emphasize buzzwords. They’ll eat it up.
    “Cost-benefit analysis!”
    “ROI of UCD!” (See? You can do it too!)
    Make sure they’re nodding approvingly in their French collars and exchanging knowing glances with each other. Once that’s happening, they’ll ask for you to have more involvement in future projects and unveil your very own vegan leather seat at the table.
  6. Wow with whimsical decks
    Now that the stakeholders are intrigued, it’s time to get the whole company on board. Create a few decks (powerpoints for the layperson) Send them to all-users@corporate.com. People always read those!
  7. Mention your “seat at the table” whenever possible
    You’ve got that seat, now keep it’s plushy glory in the front of everyone’s mind. Bring up your old case study and the comments that people left about how totally neat-o your sketches looked. You can now hire 15 more designers, there’s always room in the budget for that!
  8. Buy lots of black turtlenecks
    It’s time to start looking the part! Your company knows that better products, delighted users, clearer objectives, tangible outcomes, quick wins, stakeholder value, and most importantly: dynamic improvement in rapidly-shifting landscapes are just over the horizon. They’ll need to easily identify you in a crowded room, so dress accordingly.
  9. Build a design community
    Once those business leaders examine the evidence and invest in design, you can swivel around to building out a design community. Make it one that fosters creativity, has random graffiti artists come and speak at Meetups about their process and how they gain “inspiration from the mundane sensibilities of urban life and the dichotomy of the human spirit intermixed with a personification of the lost generation”.
    You can now kick the snowball of a great product down the mountain. Designers will do anything to work for your company.
    You, as the main-table-sitting-turtleneck-wearing-leader, will now start sporting fingerless glove and can stop wearing socks to show how innovative and different you’ve made the company. Closed-toed shoes are for the closed-minded!
  10. Innovate and iterate
    Disrupt. Penetrate whitespace. Jargon. Buzzword. Iterate. Open source. Flowchart. IPO. Whizzbang. React JS. Conference keynote. Wowzers. Blockchain. Stakeholder value! Thought leadership! Write a book about about your success. Buy a pet tiger.

There’s nothing to it!

I’m, of course, being pedantic. My efforts resulted in failure.

Talking to users, showing prototypes, trying to get people to commit to a design sprint, all turned into frustration and roadblocks.

I didn’t have what it took to get it done.

As a result, I got jaded. I got frustrated. I felt like I was fighting an unwinnable battle…. After a while, I started pushing for design process for myself instead of for the company. I needed validation, maybe I still do. It was hard to see no tangible progress to my efforts even though my work was well received.

After a few months of being told that design was not worth investing in, I accepted another job offer. It was a good move for my wife and I, and I love my current role, but I’ll always be left with a taste in my mouth that smacks of what could have been.

Looking back though, I don’t know if I ever could have been successful in my endeavor. The company wanted to prioritize issues they were encountering with handling scale, years of defects and bug fixes, data models that wouldn’t support their future.

Their perspective was that I was asking to polish the brass on the Titanic.

My perspective was that even if they fixed every bug, they’d still have a product that was nearly impossible to use and learn. Their perspective was that I was asking to polish the brass on the Titanic. I could have made headway, yes, but the fact was that design never got viewed as more than an aesthetic part of the equation; something that came last in the process. Something that was there to “make things look good”.

You see, sometimes you will not be able to win advocacy. Sometimes even the most-shared case studies and examples of “best-practices” by other companies won’t help if there is a fundamental disconnect between what you are asking for and what they think you are asking for.

The look in the rear view mirror has shown me that try as I might, every time I asked for funding or emphasis on design, they heard “I want more people to make it look better”. I never got over that hump.

If you’re in my same situation, I’m not sure how I can help. I’ve still not figured out what it takes to shift that perception. Even at companies with an established design team, some people will still think of design as an aesthetic practice. That disconnect will make things difficult. There are those that get it, there are those that don’t. I’m learning that this is probably the case most anywhere. C’Est la Vie.

So at the end of all of this, I suppose I leave you with no advice.

No quick solutions.

No real bulleted steps to fix your company.

Maybe just a little warning to not buy the snake oil of anyone who says they’ve found the solution. Every company, every team, every product is different. Don’t despair because what worked for so-and-so doesn’t work for you. Keep trying.

You’re not alone in the struggle… but circle back and let me know if you find something that works.

Design at www.basedash.com. Formerly Principal Designer @Asurion. Personal site -> www.tomjohn.design

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