Design leaders answer: What’s the biggest problem in our industry?

Feb 25, 2016

Design leaders answer: What's the biggest problem in our industry?

Editor’s note: Design leaders respond to the question “What is the biggest problem in the design industry?”


Designers need to prove their ROI

While design certainly has been recognized as a differentiator of product success (especially with digital products) in many companies today, the investments made in bringing design into the overall strategic conversation have fallen short.

Yes, design is hot. And yes, companies are hiring designers. Yet, find these same designers and ask them what they’re responsible for at work and you’ll hear a familiar and repetitive chorus of “visual mockups,” “wireframes,” “content audits,” and “prototypes.”

Of course these deliverables are the responsibility of designers, but they’re the manifestation of broader product strategies. Much less frequent are the replies of, “I work in a tight strategic collaboration with product management and engineering to determine not only how the product will look/feel/behave, but how that design reflects on our brand and helps us achieve our corporate objectives.”


Apple, Tesla, Netflix, Nest, Airbnb, and others have shown the C-suite that design sells. That hurdle has been crossed.

The piece of that conversation that most executives miss is that bringing in designers to “make it pretty” is an insufficient, superficial gesture.

To counter this, designers need to continuously feedback the ROI of their work to their executives.

“Bringing in designers to ‘make it pretty’ is an insufficient, superficial gesture.”


Collect data—real, numeric, objective data—that shows the impact your work has had on the company’s profits, acquisition costs, retention, and sales numbers. Showcase those numbers in language those executives care about: dollars, cents, utilization, stock price, costs, etc.

Leave the design-centric language—pixels, task completion rates, time on task, etc.—behind. Speak the language of business. The more we as designers do this, the more we drive home the message that a strategy conversation without design present is incomplete.



Design thinking: An over-promise under delivered

When you’re dealing with a client, there’s a rule in the design industry: you should under promise and over deliver. Doing that helps you build a great relationship with your client—who rarely understands how the design process works—based on trust and delivery.

But what will happen if we over promise and under deliver on design itself?

Design thinking is everywhere. The largest companies in the world are investing in design, embedding design leaders at C level. Large enterprises are acquiring design agencies—like Capital One (Adaptive Path) and Facebook (Teehan and Lax). Others are hiring thousands of designers (IBM).

This is great news, isn’t it?

All eyes are on designers to solve the many problems faced by the largest companies in the world. We need to deliver design at scale.


Have we broken our own rule and over-promised? What will happen if we under deliver?

People now know they need design. But they don’t quite understand what design is or why they need it. Design thinking confuses things more. It implies a process and a way of thinking, yet people fail to recognize that design is also a craft. It takes experience, skill, and time to deliver great design.

What happens when companies apply design thinking but don’t get immediate results?

“If expectations are set appropriately, they must be aligned around a realistic timeline—culture changes slowly in large organizations.”

–Jon Kolko, Design Thinking Comes of Age

Establishing design thinking in large organizations requires a significant culture change. That culture change takes a long time. Organizations expect results, yet designers give them learnings. We talk about failure being a good thing. It’s all too easy for the outcome of design thinking to be misunderstood.

Delivering design needs designers. Delivering design at scale needs lots of designers.

But do we have enough good designers for this new demand? And if not, where are we going to get them?


Colleges, courses, and even leading universities are taking advantage of the opportunity. They’re producing more new designers than we’ve ever had. But these new designers, and the ones being hired by the thousand for large organizations, need training. It takes years to master the craft of design, and this training happens after graduation.

“Startups and new designers, I hope you guys never meet.”

–Mike Monteiro, The Golden Age of Design

So, new designers need mentors. But the experienced designers within the agencies that get acquired often leave. They set up new companies or work for themselves. New designers are also falling for the short-term gain of the startup—the dream of becoming a unicorn designer.

Design thinking is the shiny new thing in the business world, just like The Lean Startup and Agile were a few years ago. But once it becomes mainstream, it’ll no longer offer a competitive advantage. So businesses will move on to the next craze.

“Now that design thinking is everywhere, it’s tempting to simply declare it dead—to ordain something new in its place.”

–Tim Brown, Design Thinking is a skill which takes years to master

How long do we have until design thinking simply gets replaced? These are big problems to solve. We are designers—solving problems is what we do.

But what if we under deliver on the promise design thinking has made?

1. What happens to the thousands of designers—in the large companies—when they aren’t required anymore?

2. What do we do with all the designers we’ve created when the supply of design jobs no longer exists?

3. What’s left of the design industry when agencies no longer exist because their clients have built in-house design teams?

You may think we’ve over-promised design thinking, or you may disagree.

It doesn’t matter. We will still need to ask these questions.



Finding meaningful work

The problem of finding and prioritizing meaningful work isn’t unique to creative professionals, but the practice of design is one that lends itself to fixing big problems.

In a recent survey, 30% of millennial workers identified meaningful work as the most important factor of career success. We all want to do our best work and leave our mark on the world, so why aren’t we out there chipping away at the big problems?

To start, finding and focusing on meaningful work isn’t easy. Sometimes we get caught up in day-to-day task lists, or putting out fires that seem to magically ignite in Slack channels. Even if we have the luxury of distraction-free time, meaningful problems can be intimidating. It’s tough to go all “Elon Musk” and tackle rocket science while balancing work and family life.

Don’t lose hope, though. If you’re struggling with the problem of finding meaningful work, here are 5 ways to get started down the right path.

1. Block time for exploration

Block time to explore industries, trends, and problems that interest you. And don’t try to do this all at once—set aside time on a recurring basis and give yourself the space to explore topics that are meaningful to you.

2. Explore beyond your immediate surroundings

If you spend most of your time in one of the infamous design bubbles (hello, San Francisco!), make it a personal goal to stretch your perspective. Observe the product and design needs of family members who don’t live near you, look at the projects of big philanthropy organizations like the Gates Foundation, watch TED talks for inspiration, travel.


“Block time to explore industries, trends, and problems that interest you.”


3. Look for areas in need of design love

There are lots of meaningful problems that design hasn’t fully addressed yet. Healthcare, social services, government, education—all pillars of modern society that are in need of design love. Andrew Yang’s recent post “What’s eating Silicon Valley” does an excellent job of looking at the needs in some of these areas.

This chart shows parts of the economy that are still ripe for disruption. As the evolution of these sectors takes place, many interesting design problems will need to be solved. Source: KPCB Internet Trends 2015.

4. Seek out people you admire

Observing the paths others have taken is a fantastic way to start your own journey towards meaningful work. Look for designers who are working on the problems you care about. How did they arrive in that situation? What steps did they take to build the experience and skills needed to work on the problem?

5. Start with baby steps

Most of us aren’t awesome at breaking down large goals into multi-year processes, so skip the 5-year plan. Think about steps you can take in the next 10-20 minutes to move closer to your objective. Gather design examples, find blogs that cover your topic of interest, invite a friend to coffee if they might know something about the space. The important part is to avoid getting derailed with unreal expectations for your progress.

“Give yourself the time and permission to explore your interests.”


Here’s the thing to remember: you know you want to do meaningful work, but it often takes time to figure out what that means for you. Give yourself the time and permission to explore your interests. There are a lot of meaningful design problems in the world that need your talent—allow yourself the room to find them.

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