Business leaders know that design is the chief differentiator of our digital epoch. That said, the principles and processes that govern design problem-solving are foreign to many. The onus is on designers to convey design’s benefits—but it takes more than shiny deliverables to bridge the knowledge gap and build trust. Designers must translate design value into business value.
Design has a seat at the proverbial table but many designers struggle to describe how their skills complement business goals. It’s easier to present aesthetic choices and experiential improvements than explain design’s impact on the bottom line.
Aesthetic and experiential excellence are indispensable but business leaders are more concerned about expanding their customer bases. To gain trust, designers must be business-minded and demonstrate the business value of design to an array of non-design stakeholders.
What’s the Relationship Between Business and Design?
Designers are passionate proponents of change. They desire to build intuitive experiences and compelling products that improve lives. They’re detail-oriented, visually curious, and fond of experimentation.
The business realm has its own rules. Profits are the primary basis of decision-making. To thrive in business, designers must acknowledge that design isn’t a pursuit unto itself. It’s a commitment to serve customers and differentiate companies from their rivals.
Design Serves Users and Customers
It’s a long-standing challenge: designers fixate on users yet companies prioritize customers. What’s the right approach? It’s a matter of context and designers must balance both.
If usability is emphasized but conversion isn’t, profits will lag. If conversion tactics eclipse usability, sales will stagnate. And if designers fail to demonstrate how focusing on users leads to paying customers, they’ll lose business leaders’ support.
Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success. Thomas Edison
Design Exists to Drive Sales
Design departments exist to help companies stand out and generate sales. Business leaders invest in design to gain a competitive edge, not out of an altruistic appreciation of creative excellence. Designers who can’t explain how their ideas will increase profits are viewed with suspicion—no matter how magnificent their work is.
Design Presentations Must Demonstrate Business Impact
Designers are hard-working and meticulous but, sometimes, their preoccupation with details leads to wasted effort. They’ll stay up late fine-tuning prototypes and pitch decks, only to receive lukewarm feedback when they present their ideas.
There’s more to design than aligning pixels. A significant amount of important activity takes place away from the computer, such as:
- Building relationships with internal and external stakeholders
- Meeting with non-design teams to learn about their problems and priorities
- Staying abreast of company goals, values, and policies
In these ways, designers gain tangible opportunities to show how their work meets needs in their organizations. Within this frame, presentations aren’t dead-ends, they’re conversation starters that unlock doors.
Business and Design Need Each Other
When healthy organizations succeed, team members share the credit. Salespeople, marketers, and engineers need project managers, accountants, and designers—and vice versa. What makes company cultures crumble? Siloed teams that care only about their performance metrics.
For decades, design was a corporate afterthought. That’s changed but there’s room for improvement. Designers can do more to teach other business functions the beauty of the creative problem-solving process. Likewise, the business side can show a greater willingness to learn about the discipline their products depend upon.
5 Ways to Elevate Designer Value
1. Ask Questions Often
Designers have to be willing to ask questions regularly, especially at large organizations where business functions may have divergent priorities. If answers don’t provide sufficient clarity, keep probing. To ensure that design aligns with strategic vision, center conversations with stakeholders around companywide goals or product roadmaps.
2. Look for Gaps to Fill
Designers should be proactive, looking for problems to solve within their organizations. Company meetings and casual conversations are great ways to learn about inefficient processes, user pain points, and areas of poor performance. With prototyping, designers can quickly generate potential solutions to share with business leaders.
3. Practice Workplace Diplomacy
Most companies have some degree of bureaucracy. Egos and competing initiatives are ever-present. To navigate these interpersonal pitfalls, designers need to lean on their soft skills and practice workplace diplomacy. Humility and a willingness to collaborate are essential. Knowing when to be deferential or double down is key. Active listening is the mark of true professionalism.
4. Find an Advocate
An advocate is someone in senior management who invests in their protege’s progress and advocates on their behalf. There are many occasions in which an advocate is useful. For example, a designer may have an idea that will increase profits but a decision-maker proves hard to convince. In such a situation, an advocate might speak to the decision-maker and articulate the value of the designer’s idea from a different angle.
5. Join a Startup
Startups are the ultimate sink-or-swim experience. Survival lies in the ability to navigate uncertainty and creativity is mandatory. Where better to learn lasting business lessons? Startups are fertile ground for professional growth. They’re also volatile: many more fail than succeed. For designers willing to brave the odds, startups provide opportunities to perform multiple roles and contribute to high-impact projects.
Advocate for the Business Value of Design
In decades to come, design will advance to all corners of industry. The importance of craftsmanship won’t lessen but designers’ insular concept of quality will. No longer will design departments operate as separate entities within larger organizations. Design principles will drive customer satisfaction, design processes will dictate company success, and designers will be more influential than ever.
Let us know what you think! Please leave your thoughts, comments, and feedback below.
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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
Understanding the basics
Design is a broad field and its impact extends to every form of industry. Today, more companies than ever seek to profit from digital products—all of which are “designed” in some manner. The role of designers is to ensure that these products are easy to use, aesthetically pleasing, and solve real-world problems.
Designers exist to convey meaning and messages with visual elements. Some designers specialize in typography and color, while others excel at bringing structure and hierarchy to information. The importance of designers is most noticeable wherever attempts at visual communication fail.
Ultimately, the value of design is judged by how well it meets people’s needs. Whether digital products or brand identities, good design can be simple or exceedingly complex. By contrast, poorly designed products and experiences are superfluous and confuse the people they are meant to help.
Design is a competitive edge that helps businesses reach their goals on several fronts. From a communication standpoint, it helps companies promote their unique advantages to customers. From a product standpoint, it ensures that users’ needs are adequately understood and addressed.
Good design teams are highly creative, organized, and collaborative. One indicator of designer value is a willingness to contribute new ideas and receive critical feedback. Additionally, designers on teams need to be able to produce and iterate on deliverables quickly.