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From 'Doing Design' to 'Leading Change Through Design'

The Design profession is at a crossroad. The excitement surrounding design as a discipline over the last decade has started to temper and as such Design Thinking will either become marginalised as it was in the early days or organisations will further integrate it as a fundamentally different way of solving problems for users. 


Either way, its renaissance will depend on leaders’ ability to reignite its relevance and importance for executives. 



Has Design Peaked?

Let’s go back to Design’s era of rapid growth because its ubiquity isn’t a haphazard coincidence.


Through the early 2010s we saw the emergence of customer centric start-ups who were disrupting markets and bringing unique solutions to customer pain points. These startups were rapidly expanding and capturing market share from incumbents, and they weren’t slowing down or going away. Some early adopting executives brought in companies like IDEO to help them rethink their products and services from the users’ needs back.


Beyond the obvious poaching of customers, these startups were fundamentally shifting consumers' mindsets. Where previously you would have been happy to call for a taxi and wait until the little yellow Ford showed up at your doorstep, you were now able to track the exact location of your driver on apps like Uber. Digital experiences on other platforms were shaping users' expectations at a pace that had never been seen before.


As a leader you were rapidly realising that you were facing into:


  • Customer-Centricity as an imperative

  • A rapidly evolving digital landscape

  • The urgency to act now or face irrelevance


Maintaining and growing market share was becoming increasingly difficult, with agile start-ups poised to lure your customers away piece by piece.


This challenge gave rise to the Design hype-train. 


The numbers speak for themselves. When I transitioned into Design from a background in Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement, we were a small team of 5 people at NAB, an organisation with 40,000 employees. During the early formation of NAB Labs we reached 20 people, and today when I type ‘Designer’ into current employees of NAB on LinkedIn almost 700 people carry a related title.


So, has Design peaked? Is it ready to simply exist as a prescribed function everywhere? Where does it go from here? 



The Three Challenges

While some early challenges with Design—such as understanding the skill set, recognising the time required to establish a qualitative fact base, and ensuring adequate resources across various skills—are mostly behind us, three key challenges still lie ahead if design is to remain relevant:


  1. Engaging in meaningful work that goes beyond feature iterations to include new product and service innovation.

  2. Securing a seat at the table where key strategic decisions are made.

  3. Demonstrating a Return on Investment (ROI) within the organisation and ensuring alignment with broader value measurements.


1. Meaningful Work

During the early Design boom, those riding the wave were able to conduct broad exploratory research and develop concepts and innovative solutions to customer challenges. However, as the craft matured and processes were operationalised, Designers had fewer opportunities to venture outside the essential task at hand.


These days, Design is embedded in Digital or Marketing teams typically churning feature iterations on apps or websites. There is little scope for truly creative work reimaging products or services that will maintain or grow market share. Although there is always a place for more task-oriented, compressed bursts of customer research with a specific goal of refining user interfaces or validating the applicability of a customer insight to a different product or segment, this approach has diminished some of the scope for design work that shifts the needle.


This has two consequences; firstly it can lead to the disengagement of people who ventured into a career in Design due to the creative and strategic application of the profession and secondly, it limits the real reason organisations brought Design in - to disrupt before being disrupted! 

 

2. A Seat at the Table

Although there are many people ‘doing Design’ at most organisations, it is still commonplace for Design leaders and Design functions to be buried many layers deep in organisational structures.


This creates complexity in bringing the voice of the customer to the upper echelons and allowing those insights to guide strategic choices. The challenge here is that currently we’re seeing organisations reducing department headcount in the name of efficiency, leading many Designers to fight for any seat, let alone a seat at the leadership table.


It is up to senior leaders to advocate and amplify the true value of Design at their organisation. One way to achieve this is to promote Design as a central hub for collaboration with other departments, such as marketing, product management, and customer service, which helps the organisation to align design initiatives with broader business objectives. 


3. Demonstrating ROI

In 2018 McKinsey & Company published the The Business Value of Design where design maturity and the integration of customers into product and service development cycles was measured through The McKinsey Design Index (MDI).


It was at this point that, for the first time, Design-centric organisations could say with full confidence and supported by data that they outperformed their peers. Demonstrating ROI for Design work in large organisations can be crucial for securing and maintaining resources, gaining buy-in from stakeholders and showcasing the value of Design. Instead of being stuck in a cycle of endless work and the constant threat of Design being labelled as merely a 'cost centre', the primary focus for Design should be shifting this narrative to highlight its ability to generate value.


It is clear that Design plays a pivotal role in generating value. The challenge lies in effectively demonstrating this value to the broader organisation in a manner that aligns with the organisational value metrics.


Quantifying Impact on Key Metrics:

One way to demonstrate value is to identify KPIs that are affected by Design interventions, such as increased sales, reduced calls to call centres and higher conversion rates. The role of design needs to be tightly aligned to strategic priorities and measured accordingly.


For example, if your organisation is heavily oriented around increasing self-service capability, is it sensible for you to allocate resources to initiatives that will create additional human-driven tasks?


Likely not. The executive scorecards will simply not align. Therefore, aligning teams around the broader organisational direction, along with measuring metrics before and after Design changes, will demonstrate a clear ROI and cement Design as an essential function in the business. 


Case Studies and Success Stories: 

Many of us have a mental picture of ‘the humble designer’ slaving away behind their computer, buried under a swarm of post-it notes, pouring their creativity and energy into solving a never-ending carousel of business challenges. When we routinely operate this way, stuck in the cycle of jumping from one challenge to another, we often lose the opportunity for reflection, documentation and sharing our success stories.


Developing case studies and success stories that highlight how Design improvements have directly contributed to achieving business goals or solving specific problems within the organisation, gives Designers a chance to use real-world examples and testimonials to illustrate the tangible benefits of Design. Further, people love hearing from customers, even if it’s simply raw insights, quotes, and quirky observations.


Demonstrating how business decisions are informed by user insights can bring organisation leadership along on the journey and help justify the continued investment in Design.

 


Where to from here?

Design can be a transformative power when it is embraced wholeheartedly.


Design, at its core, is not merely about making things look pretty; it's about solving problems, understanding customers deeply, and creating experiences that resonate on a fundamental level.


Both the proliferation of Design teams and the elevation of Design as a core function within organisations reflect a notable shift in mindset: businesses now acknowledge the significance of empathetic, user-centric approaches to innovation. However, executive patience wears thin when results are elusive to measure and success appears inconsistent.


So, has Design peaked? Far from it—Design is evolving.


As long as there are problems to solve and experiences to enhance, the role of Design will remain indispensable. However, its future role will depend significantly on the willingness of leaders to champion Design at strategic levels, foster peer relationships with executives, and find a balance between 'doing Design' and 'leading change through Design'.


By engaging in meaningful work, securing a seat at the table and demonstrating ROI we can ensure that Design not only remains relevant but also continues to be a driving force for innovation and value creation within organisations.


The journey of Design is ongoing, and with the right mindset and approach, its best days are yet to come.

 

 

Selin Lanzafame

A Strategist, Designer and Board Member, creating out of the box solutions for entrenched problems.


 

New perspectives on Growth and Innovation. Delivered every Full Moon.

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