Strategies & Insights

Debate & Discuss: Developing Amazing Design Organizations

Posted: August 22, 2016 by
Linda Casey

Nathan Hendricks

How do you define a winning design culture?
A winning design culture provides the components necessary for designers to thrive: safety, challenge, inspiration and rigor.

Why safety?
People talk about failing and the importance of failure. This is bullshit.

Far more important is how an organization deals with the consequences of failure. Design-centric organizations need to provide an environment where people feel that they can swing for the fences—as well as an acknowledgement that if you’re swinging for the fences, you’ll often miss.

 An organization’s response to this phenomenon is critical to show its employees they’ve got their back, even if they fail. Designers will pick up these signals very quickly and learn to align the scope and ambition of their efforts to your behavior.

Designers need to know that their failures are as supported as their successes.

Why challenge?
Nothing energizes designers more than a challenge. The bigger the better. Conversely, nothing is more demotivating than incrementalism and comfort. Most people want their days clearly defined—not designers. If you want to get the most out of a designer, throw them into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver.

Why inspiration?
Designers are omnivorous people. They are driven by an insatiable curiosity. Some people are well read—designers are well experienced. Diversity is their drug. It creates the friction required for invention.

Why rigor?
Process may seem counterintuitive for a freethinking creative designer, however, it is the key component to making sure ideas make it into the world. There’s nothing more frustrating to creative people, especially designers, than having the work they do come to nothing. Designing without a result is a hobby.

How can business and design leaders create an effective and influential design organization within their parent companies?
This is a thorny question! Hundreds of books have been wasted on this subject in the past three or four years. Ten are probably being written right now.

The reality is that design and business make odd bedfellows. The mission of design is to make things clear, useful, meaningful and delightful for people. The mission of business is to deliver value to shareholders.

Being in the “design business” puts the two missions at odds, and can cause incredible dissonance within organizations trying to be design centric. Most design agencies experience this every day.

Consequently, designers and business leaders often “just don’t get” each other. As a consultant, I see designers within large organizations struggling to keep their mission intact while working desperately to demonstrate relevance within their organizations. And because money talks in this asymmetrical power phenomenon, designers typically lose. Ultimately, they end up submitting to the mission of their business colleagues.

Business leaders need to suspend the disbelief of their cultural, educational and corporate training to realize that the mission of design—putting users at the center of their effort—ultimately will deliver shareholder value. No mean feat!

Designers need to eliminate jargon and naivety from their vocabulary. They need to reframe the aims of design in ways that align with the aims of business.

Are there any tools that help you elevate the design culture within your company?
Design thinking is our operating system. What I began to notice in the last decade is that the compression of time and budgets was adversely affecting the quality of the way that we ran that operating system.

If you read anything about the key to creativity you often come to the subject of “simmering.” The idea is that you contemplate a problem, and then put the problem away and just kind of let it simmer. In the world of commercial design, simmering has become a breathtaking luxury—we are often not simmering, but rather applying blowtorches to problems.

The challenge, then, is how to construct a project in a way that compensates for this new reality. It became clear that we had to exert new levels of discipline in the way that we approached our work. Out of that revelation came a system of thinking that we call, “The Mechanics.” These are activities we know we need to do well to execute the design-thinking process—specifically these focus on divergence, converge and critique.

On divergence

We call this “prolific exploration:” a collection of tools that allow the facilitation of divergent thinking in a short amount of time. The ultimate goal is an embarrassment of riches.

On convergence

The next challenge is to converge to synthesize and find the right connection points for the right combinations of ideas that will generate value for our client. This is often a challenge, especially for less-experienced practitioners. We interviewed our most-experienced people to develop a collection of principles that would enable everyone in our organization to synthesize like a pro.

On critique

Finally, being able to conduct an excellent and effective creative review is critical. The creative review is the most-important meeting that a design-centric organization has, and making sure that meeting is as effective as possible has a huge impact on the success or failure of a project.

Creative reviews are one of the most challenging and, again, particularly for those with less experience, terrifying experiences at a creative agency. The cognitive load of synthesizing and interpreting information while performing in front of an audience is often overwhelming. Constructive critique is a way of assigning roles, responsibilities and standards of excellence for the people who lead, the people who set up and the people who participate in creative reviews.

What role does education play in building an amazing design culture within an organization?
Education is critical. When design thinking became a “thing,” designers didn’t quite understand what the shouting was about. We’d been using design thinking because that’s the way we thought—it took us years to realize that the rest of the world thought differently.

Business people tend to start with the realities of the situation, converting combinations of variables into actions that deliver value for their company. Designers start with what is and imagine what could be, expanding what’s possible. They then engage in a process of iteration that requires failure, growth, divergence, convergence and iterative learning.

Iteration and prototyping just weren’t common ways of working in the business world. Business majors were also very tied to metrics: “Show me the numbers, show me the accounting,” etc. Accounting is about the past. Designers are interested in future outcomes.

These differences are still being reconciled in our business cultures. I think education comes down to empathy. Designers need to have empathy for what business people are accountable for. Business people need to have empathy and appreciation for the mission of design.

How can design leaders empower everyone within their companies with design thinking?
Design thinking has two very distinct components to it. The first is an intense and abiding focus on the desires of people. At LPK, we pay attention to the rational, emotional and primal desires that motivate people. This often requires us to submit to the people we serve as opposed to the companies we represent.

The second is the realization that design thinking is about iteration. My observation among my business colleagues is they can talk an idea to death. Michael Wintrob, our vice president of strategy, has a motto: design over debate. Said another way: less talk, more do.

This means that you come up with an idea, produce a prototype, test the prototype, learn, diverge and test again. This approach allows you to go far fast and ultimately arrive at solutions that best serve the interests of the people you’re designing for.

How can design and marketing leaders create a design culture that helps contribute to a company’s bottom line?
As I’ve stated, the mission of design—putting people at the center of the effort—ultimately will deliver shareholder value. However, the missions of design and business are dissonant. When design organizations exist within businesses they struggle to retain their mission and identity. The exceptions are in industries where design is the product (see fashion and Apple). For the rest, power lies with business interests. I’ve witnessed the mission of design slowly ebb to become submissive to that of business.

TO BE CLEAR: I believe the role of business is pure and legitimate. It’s just different relative to that of design.

The solution?
Hire a design-obsessed CEO (good luck).

Erect a barrier between design and business to keep both aims pure.

How does workspace affect creativity within an organization and encourage a more design-oriented culture?
Creative spaces can’t simply be created by dropping in foosball tables and Nerf guns (although, honestly, we have both). Although creative agencies invest a lot of money in spaces meant to “promote creativity,” most seem to fall flat. Many Silicon Valley offices represent the new gilded age of the workspace f**kshow. [Editor’s note: The last word in Hendrick’s comment here was altered to reflect our editorial policy while still conveying his message.]

I, however, take inspiration from art movements throughout history. If you think about it, most art movements had a café or tavern or some other meeting space where groups of people could come together and exchange ideas, argue, fight or have sex. They also had spaces where they could go to be alone: studios, nature, etc.

The need for connection, conviviality and debate—as well as the need for solitude—are all critical to the success of creative spaces. They don’t have to be dressed up and adorned in the latest trendy services, slogans or ivy walls.

Ultimately, creativity is an earthy, human experience and requires some very basic ingredients: debate, solitude and humor.

How can design and business leaders improve the creative and strategic processes of their consumer-facing brands?
One thing that designers and consumer-facing brands should have in common is an obsession with the hopes, dreams and aspirations of their consumers. Unfortunately, most brands today are still asking consumers the wrong questions. They’re asking them questions like “what do you want from Brand X shampoo?” This is akin to asking someone “enough about me, what do you think about me?” We should be answering more fundamental, design-oriented questions, like “what’s beauty for?” and “what’s the meaning of hair.”

At LPK, we use a tool called Design for Desire to get to the heart of these fundamental questions. We know why people are standing in front of shelves full of shampoo and why they choose. We also help brands align their efforts to the authentic interests of the people they serve. Ultimately, we want the commercial truth between people and brands to be the opposite of “f**k off.”

We also know that design-centric organizations outperform the S&P 500 by over 200%, so, you know [great design will make its own best argument for its business importance].