Illustration by Marine Au Yeung

Recently, an article on Fast Company made the announcement that corporate America broke up with design, citing that companies who were once green with Apple-envy and hungry for transformation are now jaded after realizing that “design is rarely the thing that determines whether something succeeds in the market.” Add in the recent corporate silence on the topic of design, and rumors abound – apparently design and corporate America are in trouble.

But does this really mean the relationship has fizzled out? Or could it instead be a time for reflection, re-evaluation, and evolution? Three of our Design and Strategy Directors respond to these questions and more –

Corporate America didn’t break up with design. It broke up with the mythological promise design firms sold them.

Jeff Turkelson, Strategy Director

‘Design will allow you to disrupt, transform, create and lead industries. Just do some research, run some workshops with sticky notes, prototype, and you’ll be onto  something that no one else could dream of!’

These are the false promises that corporate America has broken up with. But, there were always dissenters, Don Norman himself said it:

“Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.”

Flash forward to today, and the hype around being a design-led organization is pretty much dead. But corporate America has embraced design in a more traditional sense—significantly expanding internal design teams—not to think of radical breakthroughs but to create good user experiences that are usable and delightful.

It’s in many ways a reversion back to the decades-old paradigm of user-centered design (though often twisted by profit incentives, e.g. designing to maximize engagement or conversion rates rather than truly serve the user).

However, the spirit of human-centered design (HCD) is not lost. It has evolved. While the idea of being a “design-led” organization has lost its allure and most in-house practitioners are focused on traditional craft, design’s value to business was always secondary to the value designers sought to bring to humans. And for perhaps largely external reasons, many corporations have begun to embrace HCD’s value-based themes: designing for accessibility, inclusion, equity, etc.

Here we see design intersect with the responsible technology movement— designers, technologists, activists, and more, seeking to create positive outcomes or at least mitigate harms. Designers don’t get to say they own this broader movement but they do play an important role in its evolution.

What goes in comes out: amplify design’s value by doing these four things.

Chad Hall, Design Director

Companies green with “Apple envy” may have invested billions of dollars in design, but few did it well, and most in a way vastly different from the design-centric companies they looked up to. Here are four easy to overlook things they could do to better gain value from design.

1. Understand the complexity of problem spaces

“Simplicity and complexity need each other,” (John Maeda), a.k.a. there can be no simplicity without complexity. Designers work hard to obfuscate the complexity that exists in the products, services, strategies, and processes we work on. Understanding and allowing time and space to work through these complexities is paramount. If designers or companies don’t understand the complexities of what they work on and invest the time and resources to make sense of it, they’ll never be able to simplify anything down into a ‘magical solution.’

2. Foster seamless interdisciplinary collaboration

Design works best when not in a vacuum. Too often, I see these situations that prevent seamless experiences: A product team separated from key decision makers; A care team that doesn’t have good insight into their patient’s experience; An education board that is far removed from the students and communities it aims to impact.

Seamless customer experiences are a product of seamless interdisciplinary collaboration. Working alongside an interdisciplinary team with deep understandings of different industries, domains, processes, or organizations at hand, designers become experts in not only crafting forms, but leveraging their knowledge to become experts in facilitating processes. 

3. Align power and incentives with desired outcomes

If companies want transformation, they need to examine their internal power and incentives structures. It’s not enough to have a vision. Fragmented teams and inequitable power in decision making yield products with poor outcomes.

To make seamless experiences, the customer experience must be singular above internal organizational divisions, product categories, and even earnings reports in some cases. The organization and culture must support this collaboration; allowing, motivating, and empowering employees to make decisions that work toward the shared goal of a seamless customer experience. Rather we often see internal competition, tailoring outcomes to please a HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), or misaligned performance measurements that incentivize personal decisions over preferable product outcomes. While most organizations might have the vision, they don’t align the distribution of power and incentives to get the outcomes they seek.

4. Be curious about the unknown

Many companies have implemented design in a risk-averse way. Expecting transformation without accepting a level of risk leads to disappointment. To curb risk, we’ve turned a designer’s intuition and mastery of skills into a scalable and repeatable process built upon the scientific method. Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design have proliferated. These are great at identifying existing pain points and undiscovered needs, but lend toward refining existing solutions through incremental improvements. This has merit and need in products today. But, it’s not going to rock the boat.

To make large leaps, we must allow imagination and intuition back into the process. Designer’s, through years of mastery, are primed to make unexpected connections that can lead to new innovations. But, this process is nearly impossible to evaluate and scale. It pushes us into the unknown future and to rely somewhat on intuition. In our data-driven world, this is uncomfortable! It’s an inherent risk. But, a risk that could lead to a potential big win.

Design is expanding and evolving — we’re counting on corporate America to do the same

Joan Stoeckle, Design Director

Design is baked into countless experiences we encounter on a daily basis – ordering ahead for curbside pickup, communicating with our healthcare providers through patient portals, and of course in the devices we use for hours each day. We’ve become so accustomed to frictionless, carefully-designed experiences that the occasional encounter with an outdated tool can feel downright grating by contrast. Were corporations truly to break up with design, as customers and consumers we would definitely notice. Perhaps their common understanding of design was too narrow from the start.

Although design was historically associated with the creation of beautiful objects and innovative products, today we also interact with invisible forms of design in the services and systems we use and are a part of. Not only was our home’s smart speaker designed, but so was the AI and the specific phrases used to communicate with it, and we are as much components of that system as the speaker itself. The expansion of design into different contexts and ways of interacting with people and systems certainly represents new and exciting frontiers for innovation, but many designers and organizations are also exploring novel and alternative approaches to the processes and practice of design – not just its outputs. 

User-centered design established a baseline of orienting around the needs of end-users. Human-centered design helps foster a more holistic view of people as more than just ‘users’ of a product, anchored in understanding motivations, behaviors, values, and more. Elements of each are central to the design thinking process that was adopted by many companies. But there are concerns that focusing only on the needs of target users results in a myopic view of challenges and opportunities and can lead to unintended consequences (ex. worker injuries in warehouses that are struggling to meet consumer demand for rapid shipping). In response, designers and organizations are questioning and reframing the process of design to foster equity and inclusion, design for diverse and complex needs, and create more sustainable futures.

The practice of design is expanding and evolving in response to social, economic, and environmental realities. Will corporations also take informed action by evolving how and with whom they create products, services, and systems? Or will many of them, as the article suggests, walk away from a narrow and outdated notion of design?

At Artefact we continue to evolve our methods in support of our mission to create better futures: taking a more holistic view through stakeholder mapping, establishing best practices for trauma-informed design research, reflecting diversity of needs and mindsets through persona spectra, guiding participatory and co-design processes, reflecting on possible unintended consequences, and more.