Designer Confidential

Designer Confidential: I understand design’s value, but the CEO doesn’t!

4 min read
Greg Storey
  •  Dec 20, 2019
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Welcome to the next installment of Designer Confidential: a new column sharing practical advice on solving your toughest challenges like transforming your organization, creating a better-connected workflow between designers and developers, and building a great team. Submit your questions via this form, email us at, or tweet at us at @InVisionApp

How do you get a business-focused team to see the value of and invest in design?

—Signed, Desperately Seeking Stakeholders

I have been part of design programs from Happy Cog (12 designers) to IBM Design (2500 designers), USAA (300 designers) to InVision (40 designers). The one constant in all of these companies? It’s always required effort to sell the value of design.

With all the hoopla around design these days, investing in it should be an easy sell. Business-at-large, however, still doesn’t understand what design is, what it does, how it works, or the value it brings to a company.

While we have made some recent gains, there is still so much ground to cover before general awareness of our vocation is on par with, say, engineering—a field that’s been around since the late 1960s.

(Read more about design’s impact on bottom-line success in our report, The New Design Frontier.)

Yes, design goes well beyond standard business metrics and eventually transforms an organization by helping it think, work, and collaborate differently. However, that can only happen after a business accepts how design can impact a company beyond its core deliverables.

That means you can’t just evangelize design—you have to prove its worth.

Remember: Your business leaders have their own priorities they’re directed toward. To better understand them, I suggest pulling out your design thinking toolbox and creating a good old-fashioned empathy map to get the full picture of what these “business-minded” folks say, think, do, and feel in their positions. If this isn’t easy for you to create off the top of your head, I’d suggest talking to your CFO and COO (or their equivalent) to find what the current business priorities are, as well as what metrics they use to monitor the health of the business. Is the company spending too much money engineering new solutions that customers don’t want? Are you getting clobbered in the marketplace? Are they seeking customer growth or higher retention? More revenue, cost reduction, or both?

Once you better understand where your business-oriented team is coming from and how they define “value,” you can translate your design evangelism into their terms, identify exactly how design can solve one of their business’s goals, and decipher what outcomes would be most meaningful to them. Abigail Hart Gray, Director of UX at Google, spoke of design’s versatility on the Design Better podcast earlier this year and how she thinks it can be used as a tool to improve almost any problem:

“The great thing about design is that there’s no one solution,” she said. “When you find the places where you can all agree, ‘Okay, let’s merge towards this goal,’ I think that’s the way to start building a relationship and building trust because you want to show them that you care about the same things they do. There’s always a lot of overlap.”

In an ideal world, you’d get the chance to put your designer hat on and find a small problem whose outcome would provide evidence of the value of design. You’d run a proper sprint with a cross-functional team and then drive that team hard and fast to get to a user-centered outcome that the business-at-large cannot ignore.

The project wouldn’t have to last long, but it would need to involve the entire team and real users. (While I was at IBM we did this all the time and I saw the results change hearts and minds. I honestly can’t think of a better way to show the value of design to a business than a shared, positive outcome between the business and the users.)

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But if creating your own metrics is not in the cards, you can use other companies’ data and outcomes to create a simple presentation on how design can help move the needle on one of your business’s goals. Use their already-grounded business metrics—the costs, revenue, time-to market, improved compliance, reduced legal risk, etc to show the results (whether real or intended), evidence of the actual work (research, sketches, screens, prototypes), and how your company can either replicate the result or avoid it (if the outcome is negative).

Here are some great resources to help make your point (as well as some takeaways to create your own metrics):

  • Design Value Index. A study based on a portfolio of 16 publicly traded stocks from companies considered to be “design-centric,” contingent on a set of criteria that reflects best practices in design management, showed a 211% return over the S&P 500 from 2005 to 2015. If you work for a publicly-traded company, take the stock performance between the same time period and amplify it by 211% to illustrate—albeit hypothetically—what your company’s market performance would look like over the same time period. If your company is not listed, try plotting out the hypothetical performance of your nearest publicly traded competitor to help make the case.
  • Total Economic Impact of IBM’s Design Thinking Practice. After interviewing a handful of IBM customers and clients, Forrester determined that incorporating IBM Design Thinking into the business and software development practice brought products twice as fast to market, reduced development time by 33%, and brought a 301% return on investment. Use IBM’s results to look at what impact these results would have on your businesses’ sales, costs, revenue, and financial planning.
  • InVision Design Maturity Report. After analyzing the results of 2,200 respondents to our design practices survey, it was found that: “nearly three-quarters of companies have improved product quality with design. After analyzing the data using regression and factor analysis, we mapped design-forward characteristics across five maturity levels. We found that design propels substantial business impact. In fact, companies with high design maturity in our model are more likely to see cost savings, revenue gains, productivity gains, speed to market, and brand and market position improvements through their design efforts.” On page four of this report you’ll find a breakdown of business benefits impacted by design, from product usability and customer satisfaction to revenue and brand equity.
  • The Business Value of Design. McKinsey surveyed 300 companies and found that “companies within the top-quartile of the McKinsey Design Index outperformed industry-benchmark growth by as much as two-to-one” in both revenue and returns on stakeholders. Higher “design index” scores directly correlated with higher revenue growth and higher return for shareholders (for those companies in the top quarter). While the data is somewhat summed up in the Design Value Index referenced earlier, the original report goes into greater depth.
  • Total Economic Impact of InVision. Another report from Forrester, this time with the spotlight on us. This market analysts found the use of InVision—which I consider to be an investment in design—brought an estimated 475% return on investment over three years, an average increase in revenue of $14.4M (in three years), and an increase in developer productivity valued at $3k each annually. Now there’s an easy metric to create: [No. of Engineers] x [3000]. The money saved adds up pretty quickly—especially for the Enterprise companies that hire thousands of engineers.

With just these five reports, you ought to be able to crank out a forty slide deck—fifty if you include some funny animated GIFs and that one Venn diagram with circles for business, engineering, and design coming together to that middle piece that’s labeled, “profit!”

I’d like to say that’s all there is to it, but no matter how many numbers you gather to make a solid defense, no matter the company size, there’s still one important thing missing: executive sponsorship. Gregory Larkin defines it excellently in his energetic book This Might Get Me Fired:

“The [Executive Sponsor] is the one executive who is more afraid of extinction than change. They have a long, powerful legacy in the organization and are determined to use this power to fuel an innovation transformation.”

Executive sponsors are those who have enough power and political clout to support, sponsor, and make change within the organization. They are the ladder that enables design to scale against “The Wall of Can’t” (what Larkin calls the business executives who are active agents against change and more interested in self-preservation.)

Take Phil Gilbert, for example, who caught the eye of IBM CEO Ginni Rometty after taking over the company’s hemorrhaging middleware division and turned it into a revenue machine using user-centered design. Ginni recognized that these practices could mean similar success for the entire company and funded an enormous investment in what we know today as IBM Design. Phil was able to kickstart such a massive endeavor within IBM because he had Ginni providing resources and strategic cover. With that kind of executive support, there were few people within the company that could interfere with the program.

While you may not have the support of a Fortune 500 CEO or a sizable budget to put towards your design team, you can work towards selling the power of design by simply strategically advocating for it in as many small ways as possible.

I’d encourage you to continue exploring viewpoints on this topic, like Richard Banfield’s article, “A better way to sell the value of design,” Ryan Rumsey’s class “Designers, Meet Your Business,” or Intuit’s Diego Rodriguez interview on the Design Better Podcast.

Good luck, and stay strong!


Greg Storey


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