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A designer’s job is not just to design

4 min read
Ryan Rumsey  •  May 1, 2020
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In case you missed it: We launched a new free book, Business Thinking for Designers. To celebrate, over the next couple of weeks we’ll be publishing excerpts we think Inside Design readers will find especially useful. Here, author Ryan Rumsey reframes the designer’s job definition: 

There’s a reason companies like Netflix, Nike, Patagonia, and Tencent continually produce inspiring products, services, and innovations: They have design teams that connect their work to the ultimate outcome of their organizations—winning in competitive markets.

These high-performing teams have behaviors, practices, and outcomes that make them mature, or rather, allow them greater influence on a company’s bottom line. The report The New Design Frontier identifies five organic levels of design maturity. Teams in levels 1, 2, and 3 function under the assumption that design is a service for basic aesthetics and creative problem-solving techniques. On the other hand, those in level 4 and 5 are major collaborators in the core processes of strategic decision-making. They experience deeper customer understanding, bolder exploration and experimentation, and more informed decisions vetted through the continuous testing and learning processes design enables.

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I’ve seen many design teams stuck at Levels 2 and 3 because they’re unable to correlate more advanced design activities to business outcomes. They’re left waiting for their organization to establish the right conditions for design and make room for it in core processes, and may often feel shut out of innovative strategic decisions. For example, designers may disagree when a insurance company decides to reduce its prices for coverage, or a bank decides to target frequent travelers for a credit card offer, or a hardware company updates its supply chain because they would have recommended a different decision-making process.

However, designers aren’t shut out of these decisions because of malice; it’s a lack of trust.

Many organizations aren’t prepared to trust designers beyond aesthetics or problem-solving techniques. The reason why? Many organizations think that designers can come up with a lot of ideas—but that the ideas they generate aren’t always seen as viable options to move the company forward.

And I’ve never seen organizations give their trust to designers organically. Instead, designers have to earn it. To really mature as a team and earn a seat at the table, they must step outside their comfort zones and learn the business. They must rethink their function on a very basic level, starting with accepting…

The designer’s job is not to design. Instead, it’s to help the organization “win” by creating a competitive advantage.

To win in the market, organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, need a competitive advantage: A condition or circumstance that puts them in a better business position than the rest of the field—and that’s the perspective of the C-suite.

It is therefore the designer’s job to distinguish how the aesthetic, interactive, storytelling, and brand work they do is not only visually or experimentally amazing to executives, but also how it creates a meaningful, productive, ethical and transformative value for their customers and positively influences a company’s bottom line.

We as individual designers have the ability to reframe the greater conversation about the value and fit of design in the organization—beyond just discussions of aesthetics. We can speak about why a decision is good for the business, how a decision can be executed by the team, and why the decision will be adopted by our customers. This reframing is an important first step on the road to greater design maturity and establishing greater trust with our cross-functional colleagues. And it’s a first step we can take today.