Value of Design P1:

Understanding the power and stigma of the word ‘Design’

The first of a 3 part series where we will look at the steps you can take to help your team and company understand the value of design. In this episode, we will talk about how people can see design as a claim of ownership instead of a process, how we separate creativity from execution as the basis of knowing how to show the value of design, and how to start to create the data you will need to begin to change things.

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The next three shows are going to be a little different from the normal format in that we are going to talk about one topic across three episodes because when you try to talk about how to define the value of design – there is so much to cover. I did this once before, back in episodes 33-35, when we talked about Design Thinking.

I am doing this because the question I have been asked THE MOST by teams all over the world over the past few years has been, “How do we articulate the value of design”. It’s a simple question and one that isn’t easy to answer because there is a lot that goes into the topic.

So we are going to break this down into three parts, starting with this episode looking at the power and stigma of the word design, then we will look at how to create demand for design, and then finally talk about how we can then articulate the value of design. I know you may be tempted to jump to the end to hear how to articulate the value but stick with me on this journey as it will be worth it.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about the word “Design”. Since this is a podcast, you couldn’t see that I made air quotes when I said the word design just now. I didn’t do that to make fun of the word or even because I like using air quotes

It’s because it’s a word that has taken on so many meanings in so many different contexts that I think it may be in danger of becoming a phrase that can hurt our work if we don’t understand what is going on. In this episode, we are going to talk about the word design and its meaning in several critical contexts that you need to understand for your team, your work, and your career.

Stigma: Design as ownership

For years on this show, at the companies I’ve consulted for, and in countless mentoring sessions, I have given one simple piece of advice – if you want to scale design inside of your company, never call it design. I know it sounds like such a weird direction coming from a design leader, so why on earth do I say that?

I say it because when we talk about design we see it as a process, a way to create new ideas, and a way to bring people together to work on something together. But most of the people we work with do not see it that way. When they hear terms like design thinking or design system, they don’t hear a methodology or a toolkit – they hear a claim of ownership.

It’s why if you have ever asked someone to be a part of a Design Thinking session before, they often say, “but I’m not a designer” because all they hear is the word design That reaction runs much deeper with many other people who think these terms are an attempt b the design team to wrestle control away from them. This obviously isn’t true at every company – but it is true at A LOT of them.

It wasn’t by mistake that when I was able to scale Design Thinking inside of Citi we did it because we taught everyone a Discovery Mindset – not Design Thinking. It was EXACTLY the same with all the parts and phrases – only the name was changed to make it something the organization would accept and support

When we said Design Thinking, then everyone thought they either needed to be a designer, it was a process only design used, or it was a process where design was trying to take over. None of these perceptions were right, but we found it easier to change the name than try to rewire all of those biases against what we were trying to do. And it is those pre-wired biases in the way people see design then feed into something we talk about back in episode 91 – design vs creativity.

Foundation – Design vs creativity

It’s the tension between design and creativity that is also riding shotgun next to and feeding those biases which are why this is also something important to understand. So while we have gone over this before let’s do a quick again through the difference between these two phrases and why it is important you and your team understand the difference. I know a lot of people would argue that these are the same thing but for me, they could not be more different.

Let’s start with the most basic way of looking at these two things.
CREATIVITY: Problem-solving. The core of methodologies like design thinking and design sprints.
DESIGN: Visual expression of the solution valued by almost no companies.

This is important to you, your career, and your team because…
CREATIVITY: Everyone is creative, they just forgot.
DESIGN: Is a specialized craft so very few people can design.

The approach for each of these needs to be different.
CREATIVITY: Social movement to empower people but maybe don’t use the word design to get it to scale.
DESIGN: Can be endlessly debated when it is reduced to the execution.

The reason why all this matters so much is because how you position yourself and your team makes all the difference.
CREATIVITY: Creativity asset
DESIGN: Commodity

An output and an outcome

I think all of these perceptual biases can be summed up in a pretty simple way which that we need to know that people see design as an output and an outcome. That’s what we are really talking about when we talk about design vs. creativity.

Design is an output.

Creativity is an outcome.

Most people find design to be something they don’t know how to engage in, and they see it as an output that doesn’t have much value beyond “looking pretty”

This is why teams who have their value only based in their ability to create an output struggle to be taken seriously, get a seat at the leadership table or show their value. This is the start of our conversation on how to show the value of design. You need to understand how design is seen, and how it can mean more than one thing. Often it is this lack of understanding that is why teams, leaders, and people feel stuck in their careers because they are not able to step back to see the larger picture and see the difference in perception on this.

The output

I am not saying the craft of design and the output of design have no value because know that is not the case. It is that if we ONLY engage on the output, then we get in trouble.

The output part of design is the easiest part to measure and show the value of because you can
• Measure the velocity of your teams work
• Measure business and performance metrics on the work after it has launched
• Test your prototypes to see how it performs

All of these things yield data and you can use that data to show the effectiveness of your team and their work The important thing is that once you have that data, you need to make sure that you then share that data to show your impact. That can be shared in a quarterly email, at an all-hands, in a year-end video, a post-mortum, and a ton of other places. Just find a place to do it consistently.

The outcome

But as I said before, those metrics and that output can’t be the only or primary thing the team is known for. Your major focus needs to be on your thinking and ideas – the outcomes.

Super Mario example

Final thought

We need to see this as an opportunity. An opportunity to understand how we need to work with other people. But also that we can help people rediscover their creativity and help them to become comfortable being uncomfortable.

The power of design to shape understanding and belief

Why Design Thinking Works

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