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Making Businesses Better by Design.

Am I a Designer?

Or: Why not having a Designer probably means you have too many designers.

I am going to run through a typical process by which companies instigate the creation of a design to see when design happens, who buy, how we know and what the impacts are.

A design process is often instigated by a Marketing department identifying a need, perhaps to take advantage of some opportunity or see off a threat from a competitor’s new product. They think that a new product or a change to an existing one could do the job. Feasibility or investigation work is required. Money must be spent and so some form of approval will be required. This approval will often come from a multi-departmental board and be in the form of a budget and programme. Along with approval very often comes the appointment of a Project Manager. So, we have a Requirement, Project Manager, Budget and Programme. A design resource may have been approached to contribute to the programme and budget but probably not to do any design, there has not been any funding for that.

What we do have is a large number of individuals who have all been designing. The marketing team, the members of the approval board and the Project Manager will all have developed some idea as to what the answer to the problem is likely to be. You cannot blame them, it is what we all do, solve problems and the better the business the more likely it is to be full of problem solvers. So, we have multiple Designers and probably multiple designs floating around the group consciousness of the business.

Our newly appointed Project Manager’s first task is likely to be producing, in conjunction with the marketing team, a brief for the Designer. A good brief will set out the problem rather than try and push development down a route to some preconceived solution. We should then arrive at a pretty significant moment; our Designer is appointed. Ironically, they are probably now the only person in the team that has no idea as to what the design is or is likely to be.

From here on in, if a question is asked as to what the design is, it should be fairly self-evident that it should be asked of the Project Manager or Designer but throughout the birth of the design project, decisions have been made that will have impacted the ‘group think’ about what that design is likely to look like and so it has been influenced accordingly. The budget, the brief, the programme will all influence the perception as to what the design is to greater or lesser degrees. A large budget implies ‘this is a big change, a new product may be required, a ground up change to what we do’ a smaller budget is saying ‘we should be able to get away with a few tweaks here and there’ similarly with the programme, the level of seniority of the staff involved etc.

So, who is a Designer? The answer in this instance is probably anyone involved in the idea/project to date. If they have design skills and think about design that may not be a problem, if they do not it could well be. The least that can be expected is that the newly appointed Designer will need, if they can, to try and understand what all these preconceived ideas are so as to understand what they need to address when pitching their idea. The problem of course is that these preconceptions are not documented. Why would they be, they are not actual ‘design proposals’ after all? A significant risk is that those who have set the project running, particularly the members of the approval body, likely to be senior management, may not have any involvement with the project again until it reports back with a proposal that is completely at odds with their preconception. That though is fundamentally a political problem. The more significant issue is that the design process is going in a direction that results from entirely unsystematic thinking, the opposite of design. If, as a result, the project’s first step has been in the wrong direction it may never recover and at best will waste time and resources changing direction.

Obviously, there are more ways than one to solve this problem and they will have more or less merit depending upon the nature of the business in which they are applied but here is one that I have found can work. In summary, you have to lose control to get control.

I am an advocate of the concept of a Design Custodian. The Design Custodian is the individual or entity that, at any given time holds all the information about the design and is responsible for controlling any changes to it. They are the single source of truth as to what the design is, irrespective of corporate seniority. The identity of the Design Custodian can change as the design is developed. The role can even move from one company to another, merge or divide (very, very carefully) but there should always be one, and only one for any given element of the design.

In our hypothetical story, the Marketing department were the originator of the requirement to do some design and thus arguably created the first draft of the design. I would suggest that a design always consists of three elements: a statement of need, a solution and an explanation as to how the solution meets the need. If one removes any of these elements the design cannot be fully understood. The Marketing department as the first Design Custodian therefore need to establish their record of this design. At this stage it may be as a simple as a statement: ‘Our competitors have successfully introduced a product with a new visual element (the requirement), offering the same appearance on our product will allow us to compete. We will offer a similar option on our two higher priced products (the solution), these products are bought by customers who value appearance more highly and so are likely to pay a premium for it (the explanation).’ This helps to set out some logic that can be perceived, expanded, challenged and developed in a design context.

Now that we have a design and a Design Custodian, perhaps we should have a Designer. The requirement here is to be able to bring a Design Thinking approach to bear as early as possible. This stops preconceived solutions getting too much traction early in the process which potentially require much more effort to change later. The key to this is allowing those who could instigate a design process to engage Designers more easily. Two powerful ways of achieving this are to give all departments that could require Design services access to an ideas budget, accepting that some of the ideas will not bear fruit or even get to the next stage. This budget can be held within those departments likely to instigate the process (less good) or within an in-house design department (better). The Designers’ first job will be to ensure that a Design Thinking type methodology is applied before the design moves onto a further stage of development. They must ensure that the requisite level of understanding, option development, selection and refinement can be demonstrated to be able to ensure that the candidate design (or designs) are the right way forward.

These two changes, the appointment of a Design Custodian and the early engagement of a skilled design resource mean that when some more serious funding is required, the design thinking behind it can be demonstrated and the likely direction of the design work envisioned by all involved so that the business as a whole has an accurate perception of the Design rather than a set of assumptions. The logic behind it is also likely to pass on to the next Design Custodian, be that the Project Manager, a Designer or Design Manager more effectively and without loss of fidelity. The design being under change control from the Design Custodian also means that it is easier to realise when the design has diverged significantly from that which various stakeholder last saw, allowing them to be kept informed and brought along with the designs development rather than being surprised by significant changes later in the process when their support may not be forthcoming.

So are you a designer? Probably, most businesses are set up such that all sorts of people influence the design process without it being understood or recognised let alone traceable. The more senior you are the more likely it is as more people will be trying to second guess what you want to see and providing you with it. As to whether you should be? I shall leave that for you to answer. But if you are, be a good one and design as part of a design process.

VODASY has a wealth of experience in ensuring that the early stages of a project or design exercise set solid foundations for its future development. If you feel that you could benefit from this, why not contact us?