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How To Put Design At The Forefront Of Company Culture

This article is part of our October 2018 series about the state of design and creativity. Click here for more.

Design-led businesses consider design a strategic differentiator, according to Debbie Millman, designer, author, and podcast host of “Design Matters,” who moderated a session at Adobe MAX—The Creativity Conference, in Los Angeles, on Tuesday.

Design-led businesses also have formal design processes across the organization, as well as an ambition to always doing better, she said. They have collaborative processes and tools, and use design principles at the strategy level to tell a consistent story across the user experience.

Elizabeth Kiehner, global leader and design principal at IBM, talked about her company’s digital transformation, which started a little more than five years ago. The aim? To put design at the forefront of company culture.

To operationalize design thinking, IBM started with what Kiehner called the 3 Ps: people, practices, and places. Beginning with people, the company hired hundreds of designers and then taught them its design-thinking approach through in-person and online training.

For practices, the company looked beyond its design team and implemented agile methodologies to be able to deliver on a continuous delivery cycle. Additionally, IBM designers embedded themselves in all the different facets and areas of the business.

In terms of places, IBM revamped its offices, adding a lot of modular walls and customizable spaces to fit the needs of agile teams. “It’s a fun, different experience,” Kiehner said. “… [It gives teams the] flexibility to think and play and interact in a different way.”

A shift in mindset, of course, also was in order. IBM needed to stop thinking about design as a tactical driver and instead elevate it to an organizational driver. “[We wanted to] move beyond evangelizing design to a culture of invention and visioning,” Kiehner said.  

That meant new rituals, new habits, and new ways of working. It also meant giving people space and permission to work in whatever “mode or madness” they need to do.

“Not everyone is best-suited strapped to a desk for eight hours,” Kiehner said.

Making design cross business-unit barriers was key, too. IBM did so through breakfast reviews during which employees gathered to discuss projects and provide feedback and guidance. In the process, relationships and bonds formed, helping to transform the business culture.

Collin Whitehead, head of brand at Dropbox, shared a similar story. The company began with more of an engineering culture. But as it expanded and added new employees, it decided to do something very different than what it had done in the past: It talked to teams.

Dropbox learned its teams outside of creative were feeling burnout. The solution? Institutionalizing design thinking and creative problem solving.

The first program the company put into place was called “Creative Culture Experiments,” with the goal to help teams find ways to feel more creative and less burned out. Employees who were not designers were brought in to make collages and other creative assets to give them a break from what they were doing at their desks.

Additionally, Dropbox put into place “No Meeting Wednesdays,” banning the entire organization from having meetings that one day of the week.  Another program, called “Spark,” was all about taking some time away from work and letting employees share their hidden talents with co-workers .

Today, Dropbox’s company mission is to “design an enlightened way of working,” Whitehead said. The fact that “design” is the first word says a lot, he added.

“Design process is our power,” he told attendees. That’s why the company has been so keen on having designers teach other people in the organization how to participate in the design process.

Finally, Kat Holmes, director of user experience at Google, talked about how inclusion is shaping design and how inclusive design is making things that work for people—all people.

Her advice to attendees was to always remember who they are designing for—and who might get excluded. One example she provided was a public toilet with a flush mechanism that required a hand gesture. She showed a photo of one such toilet, with a sign directing people to wave a hand to flush. But that design isn’t inclusive, she said. Someone who is blind, for example, wouldn’t see the sign, and someone who in immobile might not be able to wave.

For Holmes, “inclusive design is an innovation engine.” She pointed to inventions such as audiobooks, flexible straws, curb cuts, subtitles, and captioning as innovation-driven by inclusivity.  

“[Ask yourselves] who faces the greatest degree of exclusion,” she said. “Who might have the most to lose? [And] whose voice is missing?”

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