Design culture



So many companies talk about being customer-focused. But when you take a closer look at their organization, you realize they don’t have processes in place that consistently provide value to their customers.

Design culture and related phrases like “design-led organizations” and “design-driven organizations” have become popular as more big companies work to integrate design into their culture.

But design culture is more than hiring a chief design officer. It’s a guiding truth and internal framework that helps any company—not just design companies—be more competitive and create better user experiences. In this article, we’ll cover what a design culture is, why it’s important, and how you can build a design culture at your organization.

What is a design culture?

Design culture describes a work environment rooted in design thinking principles with a high priority placed on the user experience. An organization with a strong design culture focuses on creating experiences that add value to their users’ lives.

A McKinsey digital vice president, Silicon Valley director, and digital partner deconstruct what it means for an organization to be design-driven:

“The difference with design-driven companies is that they seek to go far beyond understanding what customers want to truly uncovering why they want it. They recognize that while data are important for understanding customer behavior, they’re woefully short on empathy.

Design-driven companies turn to ethnographers and cultural anthropologists. These ’empathy sleuths’ conduct contextual one-on-one interviews, shopper-shadowing exercises, and ‘follow me homes’ to observe, listen, and learn how people actually use and experience products.

They plot out customer decision journeys to understand exactly what motivates people, what bothers them, and where there are opportunities for creating delightful experiences.”

Design culture means that design is at the forefront of everything your organization does, from strategy to execution. It also means that employees, leaders, and staff all understand the value of design, using it to propel the user forward in a seamless experience.

When design is a core value, it serves as a focal point that all teams and stakeholders can align on. Any question that you ask (and if your company is design-led, you ask a lot of questions) can be answered by measuring it against whether or not it aligns with your design-based value system.

Why a design culture is important outside of just design

Creating a design culture can transform your organization for the better. In 2016, Forrester Research Consulting conducted a study investigating whether or not design-led cultures gave companies a quantifiable advantage in business. They surveyed and analyzed enterprises in the U.S., the UK, France, Germany, South Korea, Australia/New Zealand, and Japan.

The results of the study illustrate just how much a strong design culture can impact an organization:

  • 70% had digital experiences that outpaced the competition.
  • 50% had more loyal users.
  • 46% had a solid overall competitive advantage.
  • 41% had a higher market share.

According to the study, a focus on design strengthens an organization from the inside out:

“In design-led firms, design permeates the organization beyond the product teams; it’s embedded in the culture. And there is an ambition to always do better… These companies support a range of skills, from more senior or more strategically oriented designers to more junior or more tactical designers. Teams use collaborative processes and tools to unify working groups.”

A design-driven organization tends to be more proactive than reactive, confronting the next problem or challenge instead of waiting for it to come to them. That’s because their values are built on a foundation of problem-solving through collaboration, experimentation, empathy, and user research.

How to build a design culture

There are a few ways to build a design culture. Some organizations, including Dropbox, have a design team that floats from project to project, like an internal design consultancy. And some organizations make sure that there are designers in place across all product teams. Some companies take the Airibnb approach and make sure every product team has a project manager whose sole job is to represent the users’ interests.

IDEO defines a robust design culture by five characteristics:

  1. Constant curiosity. Everyone at your company is always asking questions and you have systems in place to use data to help inform and answer them.
  2. Frequent experimentation. Employees are always exploring as many solutions as possible, resulting in more successful launches.
  3. Cross-team collaboration. Different teams across varying verticals are comfortable working with each other. Nothing is done in a silo. Tools that encourage collaboration, like Freehand, allow your team to work together on wireframes, plans, and design presentations.
  4. Intentional storytelling. Instead of letting an idea die as it volleys back and forth between teams, assign it to someone who can truly own it, like a project lead, design lead, or passionate team member. Their job is to tell the kind of story that generates momentum and excitement.
  5. More ideas. Coming up with a wealth of ideas is a daily habit at your organization, allowing you to iterate and receive feedback quickly. You’re always honing how you ship new products.

Many companies build their design culture through trial and error. Apple has been fine-tuning their design culture for three decades. It’s a corny but relevant adage, that when it comes to creating a meaningful design culture, it really is about focusing on the journey—filled with experimentation, feedback, and constant tweaking—instead of the destination.

One thing is for sure: Your attempt at creating a design culture won’t make any impact if your leadership doesn’t value design. Because when C-level executives are passionate about crafting better user experiences, they set an example that encourages everyone to care. The role of “Chief Design Officer” sends the message that design is involved in your organization’s highest-level decisions.

Use the right tools to empower your team

You don’t just arrive at the “ideal” design culture. With InVision, you have a whole suite of products at your disposal to empower every aspect of your organization’s design culture journey. InVision encourages collaboration, transparency, and focused creativity: major tenets of a successful design culture.

With Freehand and Boards, various teams at your organization can work together seamlessly to brainstorm, plan, and wireframe. You’ll always have a feedback loop in place thanks to cloud connectivity. And with Prototype, your team can iterate products quickly for frequent experimentation.


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