Hi Uplifting Crew!
For the next three months, I'll share an excerpt from each chapter - getting some of the main ideas of the book into the world for inspiration, dialog and discussion. This week I'll share the entire prologue, as it set's the stage for what's to come.
Before I do I also wanted to mention that one of my Chief Design Advisory clients is just about to write the next chapter in their journey of uplifting design, and I could use your help. Alaska Airlines is looking for an extraordinary Design Director to lead their 25-person strong UX Research, Design and Content team. The role will be based at HQ in Seattle, and I'd love to talk to anyone who is interested or you think would be amazing. Alaska Airlies has a brilliant history, an even brighter future, and has values that include Be Kind-Hearted and Be Remarkable: a wonderful foundation for human-centered innovation!
Without further ado, let's start the Prologue:
"People ignore design that ignores people."
Welcome! I’m so glad you’re here. It is gratifying to know that there are others out there who get excited by the nearly impossible task of bringing the empathy of design into the realm of business. Whether you are a design-curious CEO, a member of their leadership team, a design leader trying to set up your company’s first Chief Design Office, or a design student who will drive the next generation of innovation, this book is meant to encourage you on your journey to elevate design. And whether you look at economics, society, politics, the environment or education, this world is clearly in need of the transformative power of uplifting design.
Before we jump in, let me first share what I mean by uplifting design and how the next twelve chapters will unfold. In brief, uplifting design is about helping organizations get better at design and also about designing things that make the world better. The book begins with beliefs and ends with tactics. Let me tell you why.
For the first seven years of my career I thrived in the creative environments of design agencies. Then, after I gave a talk at a conference around the emerging practice of “Experience Design”, a Microsoft recruiter approached me and asked if I’d like to come out to Redmond and see what they were up to. “You have designers at Microsoft?”, I honestly asked. “Because when I use your software it doesn’t seem to me that there are many people on your teams who focus on the people who use it.” The recruiter said they knew this was a problem, and were hiring a new generation of designers to change things. They invited me to come out and see for myself.
Several years earlier the documentary “Triumph of the Nerds” had come out where Steve Jobs said, “The only problem with Microsoft is that they just have no taste”, and went on to describe a lack of design sensibilities at the company. But when I flew out to Redmond and interviewed with teams as diverse as Microsoft Network (MSN) and Windows Server, I was blown away by a palpable sense of urgency to change how Microsoft creates software to be more thoughtful. I ended up accepting Microsoft’s offer, moved the whole family across the country, and spent the next eight years redesigning Hotmail, Mac Office, launching the first Surface, designing computing concepts for global emerging markets, and setting up a design studio in the Microsoft Research Lab in Beijing.
In that first year, I remember the design team gathering together into a conference room to watch the launch of Mac OS X Tiger, Apple’s next operating system for the Mac. Apple’s keynote addresses are a source of inspiration to designers everywhere, as they are a powerful reminder of a company that is design-driven not just at the feature or product level, but in everything they do and stand for. And particularly for designers at Microsoft, where everyone at the time had a personal office to foster focused coding and productivity, we needed to find ways to come together in an open space to spark creativity and connections.
As Steve started his unveiling, he mentioned that Apple was having a bit of fun teasing Microsoft for being so far behind and always copying Apple’s design. Apple had billboard-sized posters saying things like, “Redmond, start your photocopiers”, and “This should keep Redmond busy.”
We were devastated and delighted at the same time. We had a deep conversation about why Microsoft and Apple were so different when it came to design. We were friends with many of the designers at Apple. We had all gone to the same design schools. We used all the same design tools and had the same skills. The statements we were making revealed a subtle vulnerability and assumption, one that is often made in large companies: we must not be great at design as a company because we must not have great designers. We were hired to help Microsoft become better at design, but no matter how hard we tried it seemed like we just couldn’t overcome the left-brained tendencies of the culture.
What we recognized at that moment was that Microsoft, like Apple, had great designers. The only difference was how design was understood, valued, prioritized and practiced at the company. So I spent the next two decades of my career leading design in companies that don’t really “get” design but know they need to be better at it. In all those years I’ve never come across a design team that fundamentally needed replacing or fixing, because the problem with design in the world of business is not the quality of their designers but instead how the business doesn’t nurture conditions for great design to flourish.
Do pockets of weak design talent exist at companies that aren’t known for great design? Sure. But more importantly there are also incredibly resilient designers who were so attracted to the purpose and mission of the company that they were willing to design in a design-unfriendly environment. In my last role as Chief Design Officer at the 5th largest company in the world, UnitedHealth Group, the vast majority of designers were there for the mission of helping people live healthier lives, not because it was known as a design-forward company. When I lived in Denver, Colorado I remember being surprised to learn that runners would flock to the mile-high city to train in its oxygen-poor air. This deprivation gave them an edge when they would then compete in regular race conditions. Many of your designers are like these elite athletes, just waiting to be unleashed.
This is great news both for design teams dealing with impostor syndrome and an inferiority complex, and for business leaders who have at least something very precious to start with when it comes to their design transformation. If companies already have great designers, the question then becomes how can we elevate how we understand and use design? This is precisely why I wrote this book. While uplifting design requires paradigm-shifting thinking, it is easier to clean, cut, polish and set a gemstone than mining and discovering one in the first place. This is the first meaning of uplifting: changing the way a business values and thinks about design to unleash the great design talent they already have.
Unfortunately, there just aren’t many design executives to help business leaders shift their thinking about design and designers. In a conversation with Gordon Ching, Founder & CEO of Design Executive Council (DXC), the 2023 DXC 100 report revealed the current state of corporate design leadership: from 2021 to 2022, the Fortune 1000 saw a 1.5% growth in design executive roles. In 2022, only 5.3% of Fortune 1000 companies had a design executive. Gordon emphasized that CEOs who aren’t investing in design leadership stand to miss out on a lucrative opportunity to make their businesses more successful. Decades of research and evidence has proven the superior business value of design excellence. It’s time to recognize design as a critical competency in corporate leadership by retaining Chief Design Officers on leadership teams and boards.
The second meaning of uplifting is a nod to the idea that we are living in a world that is increasingly aware of the need for businesses to positively impact the world around them. We see this in the rise of Chief Sustainability and Diversity Officers who are helping companies deliver on their responsibilities to address inequalities in the societies they serve, and contribute to a more sustainable world. Design will always be an important force in moving beyond its minimum value of simply making products and services look better and feel easier to use, to helping businesses understand how they better serve society, unlocking a company’s deepest purpose and meaning.
While this book will focus more on how to elevate design in an organization in order to unlock business value, there will undoubtedly be an increasing need for design to focus on uplifting the lives of the people the business serves; and I will touch on this theme with most of the case studies.
Design is inevitable
Now that you have a better sense of what I mean by uplifting, let’s talk about design. When I posted on social media that I was writing a book called Uplifting Design, my high school English teacher sent me a two-word request: “Define design.” I loved this, as it revealed two truths: one, that design is not generally well understood; and two, that designers often forget to educate those around them about design. I responded that in the general sense design is a solution to a problem. Any time people create something they are designing. In this way design is ubiquitous. The only real question is if the design is thoughtful or careless, simple or confusing, useful or unnecessary. In this light, questions about whether businesses can afford good design can be balanced with questions about whether they can afford to continue suffering the consequences of bad design.
Book designer Douglas Martin put it this way:
“Questions about whether design is necessary or affordable are quite beside the point: design is inevitable. The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.”
I also sent my English teacher a Wikipedia article about Human-centered Design, which is the more specific field of design I studied and was working in. He commented that “This seems like the answer to all of the fear of AI”, to which I wholeheartedly agreed!
What comes to your mind when you think of design? Many business leaders immediately think of design as the team of those mysterious creative people wearing black turtlenecks who make things look good. Don’t get me wrong, designers can make gorgeous things! But thinking of design as simply a decorative art robs it of its true power. It would be like thinking of technology as mere function.
Beyond the generic meaning of design, or the particular field I’ve pursued, I like to define design as thoughtfully improving lives. Unlike artists who might work from a vitally important self-rooted place of creativity to challenge problems they see in the world, great designers work from a selfless place of thoughtfulness and care to solve problems they see in peoples’ lives. They are only successful when the things they create bring simplicity, clarity, joy, ease, connection, or meaning to the lives of the people they serve.
When I was leading design at Walmart I remember listening to Kathleen McLaughlin, Chief Sustainability Officer, say these profound five words: “Business exists to serve society.” This simple phrase is so obvious, and was so powerful for me as a design executive trying to bring a more human perspective into the world’s largest company. Ultimately everything that businesses have to offer (products, services, experiences, profits, intellectual property, value to shareholders, etc.) is only supported over the long term by providing something useful to people. And the only way to deeply understand peoples’ lives and needs is through the skill of design.
Values > Vision > Strategy > Tactics
I’ve organised the twelve chapters of Uplifting Design into four sections: Values, Vision, Strategy and Tactics. This sequential framework is how I’ve come to elevate design at the companies I’ve worked for. It is based on the idea that our values shape how we see the future, that vision determines our design plan to create it, and that strategy guides our design tactics (prioritisation, staffing, outcomes, methods, etc.). Put simply, our why leads to the where which determines the how and ultimately what we do.
While this may seem straightforward, I’ve found that when it comes to design, most large companies work in exactly the opposite way. The car of design is moving, but no one really knows why or where it’s going. Design teams are usually at the brink of burning out as they become submerged in an overwhelming load of projects at the tail end of implementation, without the ability to answer the question of what strategy or vision these tactics are serving. Designers are scattered across the organization, tucked deep into technology or product-led implementation teams. Design is rarely asked to contribute to vision and strategy efforts that business, product or other executive leaders formulate. And as a result, design work is mostly tactical and delivery-oriented, focused on making the guesswork of others simply work or look better.
To make matters worse, design teams in this configuration are bereft of senior leaders to ensure that a meaningful design strategy exists, and are usually poorly staffed relative to engineers and product managers. To fill the design void at more senior levels, leaders in marketing, product, or “consumer” organizations who have a peripheral understanding of design at best, end up creating poor customer journey maps or design priorities that are disconnected from the lives of the people the business serves.
And the final insult to this disempowering set of dynamics is that the quality of designers themselves explicitly or quietly comes into question, as we’ve noted earlier.
But here’s the real truth: the lack of a human-centered strategy at the highest levels of the company, the lack of adequate design staffing, and the tactical-only expectations of design are the true culprits of poor design outcomes. The Values > Vision > Strategy > Tactics framework is designed to be the practical antidote to this mindset mediocrity.
Within this framework, each chapter will outline a core design principle, a thought exercise aimed at shifting perceptions, a case study and finally a design method that any organization can use to begin uplifting design. Six of the case studies focus on designing internal organizational approaches and structures, and the other six focus on designing external products or services. Three of the external cases could be considered design failures, and the other three were commercial successes. I included this diversity to the case studies to demonstrate that design is as much of an organizational and cultural activity as it is a superpower for creating exceptional products, and that we often learn more from our failures than our successes!
And one final note on the 12 methods I chose: there are hundreds of design methods out there, and even the ones I offer could each have a book written about them. Therefore, think of this less as a comprehensive reference, and more of a selective tasting menu from the Chief Design Office kitchen. If you use this as an inspired and flexible playbook instead of an encyclopedia, you’ll be able to jump right in!