Building a Design Culture - a primer for non-Designers

Building a Design Culture - a primer for non-Designers

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So you want to build a culture of Design in your organisation. There are usually two underlying reasons why you would want to do this.

The first reason is entirely selfish - you want to attract (and retain) Design talent. Design talent will probably ask a lot of questions before considering joining your organisation, but their first two questions are usually - 'do I actually have to physically turn up at an office?' and 'what is your Design culture like?'. You want to have an answer to that last question.

The second reason is because everyone knows from Medium, InVision's $135 Million CRM strategy and a growing number of repetitive conferences - that Design thinking and Design culture is 100% the key to success in business these days. want to be the one to bring that magic into your business.

Makes sense. Design culture sounds sexy and exciting. It's going to be complex journey though.

Why Design cultures are hard to build

  1. You can't build a culture, you can only tirelessly enable it.

  2. You can't bullshit culture into existence overnight or as part of your Q1 strategy. It takes time (in fact it can take longer than a year and even longer than any single Designer or Design leaders tenure) and it needs constant gardening.

  3. Gardening is highly rewarding but always more effort than you expect and often more janitorial than you imagine.

  4. You have to implement culture at the absolute top leadership level so that...

  5. ...people feel empowered to embrace and personally invest in it so that....

  6. doesn't feel like some shitty executive box-ticking exercise - or worse - it's actually going to be a published company OKR.

  7. It has to be led by actual Design practitioners who are active independent contributors. This isn't a human resource thing with an attached metric, it's definitely not an executive-led employee education programme, and it's certainly not defined by the outcomes of 'workshops' and 'off sites'.

  8. Any culture will be unique to your organisation, so you can't carbon copy some abstract Medium post into a team meeting and expect magic Design beans to suddenly start growing all around you.

  9. There is no culture without trust. Trust takes time to build and needs consistency - consistency of people, consistency in the attitude towards Design - and consistency in how Design is communicated across your organisation. If you have high churn, regular departmental overstepping, disempowerment and a lack of Design definition - you'll struggle.

  10. Big changes will happen. If you're fortunate enough to get a Design culture seeded in your organisation - it will change things in every area of your organisation. That's what cultures do and that’s why you wanted to build one - right? So you'll need to be thirsty for that change and all that lovely Design empowerment that's going to happen everywhere outside of your control.

  11. It's likely your Designers have already discussed all of this already amongst themselves and have probably made some decisions. You'll need to find out what those decisions are, why they were made, and why they haven't turned into a culture you recognise.

  12. It's more likely your Designers actually have a Design culture which you're not aware of and - wow - that's a little bit embarrassing.

If you're a Designer then you know the situation, know the blockers to culture, and know what your team needs. It's your job to figure out how to unblock that stuff and through working with other Designers figure out what that Design culture is beyond just your team. Of course, because there are Designers - boom - there is a Design culture. But you'll need to all decide if this is something you want to push and strive for in your organisation - and if it's worth it. Because in all honesty, sometimes it's not.

If you're a non-Designer - all you can do is enable. Listen to Design and use your skills to present the need for Design representation at the top of the business. Without that the culture will remain subservient and wing-clipped. Which would not only be a shame, but it's also not going to inspire others to invest in it.

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