“Design culture” is a loaded term—often used, rarely understood. It seems like every company claims to embrace it, but few even understand what it is.
Admittedly, it’s a difficult phrase to define. Ask 5 different designers to explain design culture, you’ll get 5 different answers. Is it about aesthetics? Process? Philosophy? All of the above?
Perhaps it means something different for different organizations. While the particulars may change, though, design culture boils down to several overarching, universal themes.
Understanding and respect
In an organization with a healthy design culture, everyone in the company is taught to understand and respect the value of design.
Elsewhere, design is often misunderstood or maligned as being about “making things look pretty.” When design isn’t properly understood or respected, it often plays second fiddle to engineering and business decisions, resulting in poorer outcomes. In a true design culture, the whole team—including and especially non-designers—understands that design is a holistic and process-driven discipline that should be integrated throughout the organization.
Design culture hinges on an understanding that decisions should be made intentionally.Even the smallest details can add up to produce a massive impact, so a design-centric organization is biased against leaving anything up to chance.
In a healthy design culture, design is applied not only to the product or service an organization produces, but also to the organization itself. Seemingly small details—the lighting, the communication tools, the placement of the coffee machines—are thoughtfully considered. To paraphrase Conway’s Law, products tend to reflect the structure and character of the organizations that produce them. So, a well-designed organization will result in well-designed products and services.
In a recent interview, Chloe Park of OpenTable described some of the cultural changes that occurred after the company was acquired by the very-corporate Priceline:
“But I think that design has increased the level of intentionality behind the company’s culture. I was just talking to another designer about this, and she was commenting about the little things that have changed throughout the office—things that seem so fundamental or basic, but make a difference. We get flower deliveries, for example, and our receptionist separates them into multiple arrangements throughout the office, especially in the larger open spaces where people congregate and talk. We also have this thing where people don’t have individual trash cans; we only have group trash cans in open areas, and I’ve heard that was to get people to come out and talk to each other.
Little things like that, or the placement of coffee, add an increased quality of presence to things. When you’re talking to a very design-centric company or a smaller startup where everyone has control over these things it’s kind of like “duh,” but when you’re scaling this large and no one is being intentional or careful about the little things, it can get quite messy. And so I feel like design has introduced a certain level of care.”
Design isn’t just for designers. In a healthy design culture, everyone in the organization should feel empowered to participate in the design process. And everyone should be encouraged to apply design thinking to problems that aren’t obviously design-related.
Freedom to fail
Design cultures have a high tolerance for failure. Employees are encouraged to experiment and iterate, with the understanding that this will occasionally lead to mistakes. They should feel free to take risks when appropriate and learn from their mistakes, without fear of being reprimanded or fired.
A true design culture recognizes that what happens after an error is more important than the error itself, and values course-correction more than constantly playing it safe.
Design has the greatest impact when it’s proactive, not reactive. It’s about making specific decisions rather than constantly responding to incoming issues and tasks. In a healthy design culture, the designers spend more time on constructive tasks—creating something new or iterating on something that already exists—than fixing problems and digging the organization out of a hole.
Design culture is about rediscovering the human side of business. For much of the 20th century, businesses were driven solely by data and efficiency decisions, often to the detriment of their employees and customers. Things were only valued if they were measurable—if something couldn’t be represented by a point on a graph, it didn’t matter.
In many ways, design culture is a reaction against this data-driven mentality. Of course data is a valuable part of everything—in fact, design should rely on quantitative research as often as possible. But design rejects the idea that efficiency is the sole purpose of an organization.It recognizes that the unmeasurable can be just as important as the measurable, and that emotions are as valid as intellect.
Perhaps there are no measurable gains from developing brand guidelines, or ensuring that an organization’s materials all adhere to the same design language. But reducing frustration and making an organization’s culture and output a little more pleasant—a little more human—displays a level of care and craft that’s worth pursuing on its own merits.
Design is a gestalt discipline. While individual changes may not be measurable, when taken cumulatively they often lead to big gains that can influence an organization’s bottom line. Design culture isn’t a boondoggle—it’s a launchpad for future successes.
Design is becoming an increasingly valued part of all kinds of organizations, from tiny startups to legacy enterprises. We find ourselves in a transitional period, with all the growing pains that go along with it. Plenty of executives in the C-suite know “design culture” is something they need, but they don’t know what that means and do nothing more than pay it lip service.
As designers, we can choose to only work at places that have a strong design culture, but we also have an opportunity to bring those values into new territory. Our way of thinking is becoming increasingly recognized as a huge driver of value (did you hear that design-driven companies outperform the S&P by 228% over 10 years?) and companies are finding that impossible to ignore.
We have a chance to spread the values of design throughout the corporate world, making our organizations both more human and more successful.
That’s a priceless opportunity.