Building a Design-Driven Culture

Lately, it seems like every company is presenting themselves as design-driven. They tout accomplishments like hiring a designer as part of the first set of employees, striving for simple and straightforward user experiences and deploying visually beautiful sites and apps that garner first-glance kudos from Dribbble and the tech press. This promise of design-led culture is pushed with high frequency on design job boards and recruiting emails. Join our team, they say, we really care about design.

The problem is that being design-driven doesn’t simply mean caring about user experience or stunning look-and-feels. It doesn’t mean hiring as many designers as possible. It doesn’t mean more wireframes or user research or having a design blog.

Being design-driven means treating design as a partner (and a leader) in the product creation process. Look at your feature roadmap right now. Are there major initiatives and ideas that were generated directly from your designer or design team? If yes, was design in the room when the other items were created and prioritized? Congratulations, you’re design-driven.

The reality is that many companies hire designers, but still treat that part of their product as a resource instead of a thought-leader. And even if a company starts out as design-driven, it’s all too easy to lose that as you grow the team. Hiring designers is a tough business (especially today), not to mention it’s hard to predict how a designer will scale against engineering and product orgs. If you’re not vigilant, you’ll find your designer not only struggling to keep pace, but (because they’re so constrained) also unable to contribute meaningfully to the product vision and direction. And while you may not feel the results of that initially, you certainly will later down the road.

When I worked at Zoosk, there was a lot of concern from my CEOs that I would accidentally become a resource. They pushed hard for me to have free time to blue sky and generate new ideas and features for the product. And while ideas and features certainly originated from all parts of the company (as they should!), there was a high value placed on the time I allotted to imagining the future of the product.

Part of this is because they valued perspectives from all parts of the organization. But I think the bigger reason is that designers are in a unique position when it comes to holistically understanding products. Whether it’s because there are typically few designers per product or because of something innate to the design process, designers are naturally 10,000-foot-view people. They view every feature they work on and every idea they have as part of a larger whole. They view changes not just through the lens of the present, but also looking into future iterations. They think about version 5.0 while working on version 1.0.

This sort of perspective is invaluable when building products. Keeping design deeply involved and connected to the heartbeat of your company won’t only make you truly design-led, but will also greatly benefit your company, your product and your users.


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