Design and culture change

“Culture change is hard.”

It was probably the fifth or sixth time I’d heard that design director say that. And I wouldn’t slight him, because he had his work cut out for him — the organizational culture he was trying to change had no history of design being part of it. (And, honestly, it struggled at just keeping focus. A sales-led, win-customers-now organization sees little value in the long game of building a design culture.)

I’ve never disagreed with him. But I have wondered if culture change is the proper goal for a design team to have.

If you work in downtown Seattle, you’ve seen the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

As you come out of the bus tunnel transit stations, you see these Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on the street around a well-designed bookstand labeled with “WHAT DOES THE BIBLE REALLY TEACH?”

They are always dressed for Sunday. Women in long dresses and winter coats in the winter, sun dresses in the summer. Men always in suit jackets and slacks.

In a town like Seattle, where the hoodie is de rigeur workwear, they stand out.

It’s a strange form of evangelism. Make yourself present, but don’t present yourself. It’s not low-pressure, it’s no-pressure. Look nice, stand out, and maybe someone will engage you. They rarely initiate the conversation themselves.

I see some people try to push their design culture that way. Make the design enticing, stand there, and eventually maybe someone will come ask you what Don Norman Really Teaches.

Every once in a while Mormon missionaries will show up at our door. White shirts, name badges, usually college kids. Eternally nice. The epitome of low-pressure. Can we talk to you? No? Can we pray for you? No? OK then, have a great day.

You hear the stories every once in a while of the people moving house when the Mormon missionaries roll up… and the missionaries help them move. They will do what they can to remove the impediments you have from hearing them out.

In Protestant evangelism, the concept is called “winning the right to be heard.” You make friends, you listen to them, and you share your Gospel when it is time. In the meantime, you do everything you can to make yourself valuable to a person.

Some design teams are like that. They say “yes” to anything that will get them and their process exposed to people in the organization. They are looking to win that right to be heard.

Sometimes, this leads to a a lot of tangents, a lot of work that the design team shouldn’t be doing. Teams get into the business of t-shirt design, or program management, or other things the organization may already have resources for and/or the team isn’t competent at doing themselves. Learning to say “no” becomes a skill they must utilize, even as they’re trying not to disrupt the relationships they are trying to forge.

There’s another idea popular in Christian evangelism circles: People need to be met where they are, not where you would like them to be.

Instead of standing there with a Bible preaching hellfire and brimstone, you listen. You ask questions. You observe. You understand the culture of the people, learn what they value, learn the language they speak and the idioms they use.

And as you learn the sort of people they are, you start speaking like them. You start thinking like them. And now you can preach your gospel in ways they can understand, in idioms they can grasp, and they may be more likely to listen to you.

The most successful design teams I’ve seen act as translators. They know how to take the principles of good design and tie them to the things the business values — in the cultural vernacular of the organization.

For some who want design to be spotless and devoid of “money,” it creates a muddy syncretism between “pure” design and “dirty” business. It can lead to bad design ideas being put to use for the “good of the business” — witness the prevalence of dark patterns and the glorification of A/B testing by media and sales businesses. You have to be very careful not to become what you are trying to convert.

But, if you learn the cultural vernacular and learn how to frame the values of design within the values of the organization, you stand a much better chance of transforming a culture towards a design culture, or at the least make it more infused with culture.

If we want to create a design culture and we’re not lucky enough to have the ear of an executive sponsor, we’re going to have to evangelize design. Whether it’s the various parts within what we call UX — interaction design, information architecture, etc. — or it’s a broader cross-function concept, like service design, we will have to be missionaries of design to the organizations we provide design for.

So, how will you get your message heard? And how will you know?

You need to understand first what the organization considers valuable. How do they measure success? What do they reward? What do they punish?

I’ve seen so many designers slam into this wall at this point. The values design finds valuable are not the values most organizations find valuable. And so they’re trying to spend pesos when only francs will do.

The values aren’t always money. OK, they are always money. But it isn’t by the bottom line all the time. Some other secondary currency will stand in for it. Political capital, for instance. Or net promoter score.

If you don’t learn to match design values to business values, you’ll spend your career careening from one UX job to another, endlessly dissatisfied and frustrated.

When we talk about converting what’s valuable about design into what’s valuable to the business, we usually look to metrics and KPIs at this point, but it’s not just about that. Generating more revenue for a business is a huge win for design, but most of the time the relationship will only be tentative and indirect. A fully functioning design system that’s design led and user-centered is a powerful thing, but so much of the time it’s merely the end result of years of drive.

We make design valuable by pricing it in the currency of the organization. And that means doing all the things you do in the design process — observation, creation, iteration, reflection, repeat — to create a design product that solves the problems of your users — the business.

If you can keep at it, you will make progress towards building the design culture you want. Things that become valuable to an organization become indispensable to an organization. And when design is valuable, when it is indispensable, the culture will start to bend towards and around design as the mass of its importance increases.

Most organizations don’t have a design culture edict coming from high-level executive sponsorship. They have a need for design they can’t quite articulate, a sort of itch that comes out in arguing about the color of pixels.

Only rarely does someone in the C-suite see the power a design culture brings, either from past experience, or from competitors, or from colleagues in the industry. Even more rarely is there a Road To Damascus conversion where the scales fall from the CEO’s eyes.

In every organization, we designers struggle with making our value known to the organizations we’re providing design to.

Leah Buley says it best:

I am sorry to say it, but I found that UX people were often the least precise in explaining and conveying their own value. (Sorry boo, you know I love you.) Too many UX professionals still don’t have a clear and quantifiable explanation of the benefit of UX, still haven’t rationalized how their source of customer insights squares with the other kinds of customer-focused work that organizations do, and still approach UX in entirely too territorial a fashion. The people who told the story of design best? Often, it was marketers, channel managers, product managers, even operations folks.

I run into designers all the time who are angry that the org doesn’t understand the value they deliver. And it’s a problem of evangelism. Some designers are not very good at being missionaries. We think about at what volume we need to preach when we should be asking what makes people want to buy into a design culture.

Instead of preaching, we should listen first. And then we need to apply our design skills, our design process, to the organization so that we can understand how to align what we find valuable with what the organization finds valuable.

It’s slow, and it’s often painful. As that design director said, “Culture change is hard.” But the reward is an organization that finds design, and you, indispensable.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at