30 Jun How Company Structures Stifle In-house Design Teams — Part 1
The role of design in high-tech companies has significantly improved in recent years. It is increasingly clear that well-designed products sell better because they are contextual and thoughtful, solve meaningful problems, and look better.
The VC community is starting to pay attention to the power of design. Great examples include the design team at Google Ventures helping start-ups create meaningful products, the Designer Fund, and John Maeda’s work with Kleiner Perkins. In addition, with the popular rise of Design Thinking, there are great effects on product innovation.
With this change comes an industry shift and great desire to build capable in-house design teams. Many designers working in agencies are now employed at places like Google, Adobe, Evernote, Pinterest, Facebook, and others. Designers bring to these companies extensive research capabilities, UX and UI design skills, innovation methodologies, and advanced design ideas. Previously, working directly within companies wasn’t very appealing because organizations did not know how to nurture design. Designers felt they were hindered in their creativity and doomed to endless dreadful production times with mediocre outcomes.
However, hiring expensive personnel alone will not make a significant change. A key game changing factor is organizational structure.
Here is a classic organizational chart for a mid-size tech company and how design teams are positioned within it.
Product design may be led by an experienced user experience designer and creative services may be headed by a successful creative director. Each of them very capable in their own right, but the setup structure itself can create a number of disconnects. Design ends up in two camps with each of them busy serving the needs of their department VP’s.
Marketing VP’s have a very clear agenda to primarily create leads, product buzz and determine the correct pricing. Rightfully, to them creative services is a tool to accomplish communication goals. Marketing usually owns branding, but marketers are usually not branding nor design experts. They are busy with what is close to their hearts — marketing.
Product VPs deeply care about their products. They care about requirements, features, product innovation and building products. They work closely with engineering to make it all possible and this in itself is often a hard fought battle. Their design goal for a product is to be modern and pleasing to the eye. But, they don’t have a design education either and will not be able to challenge the status quo or differentiate if this is a good or great solution.
Therefore, in many cases the front door of an organization looks very different than the actual product. There is no internal urgency in aligning them. How well both departments work together solely depends on the members of each team. In some cases, it works great but in many cases it does not.
In the heat of ongoing deliverables, design teams usually have little or no influence on what they build nor is there someone who whole hardily promotes a coherent brand strategy and product vision. Design departments feel increasingly deprived of creativity and turn more and more into production entities fulfilling other people’s objectives instead of stepping up and creating meaningful exciting initiatives.
In turn, executives lose confidence in their teams to create original work and start to look for external help in the form of consultants and agencies to uplift their appearance. From this point on, it can only get worse because there is no internal trust or positive energy and the design teams have little interest in supporting executive directions which they feel will only stifle them more. Designers are then rightfully disappointed that organizations don’t utilize the potential their employees carry right in their house.
The results end up as baked, boring corporate solutions with no empathy for customers or any type of drive. The process is missing a clear effort of excellence and coherent coordination.