Are You Design-Driven? Probably Not.

Kevin Richardson, Ph.D. / Friday, January 18, 2013

The phrase “design-driven” seems to be used a lot these days. From design blogs to books on building corporate culture to marketing campaigns, everyone either thinks they are “design-driven” or need to be “design-driven.” I think it’s fantastic that the notion of “Design”, with a capital D, is being discussed. I think it’s great that industry leaders are beginning to believe that there is value in design. Unfortunately, the way in which design is being described, defined and promoted is often wrong. Let me explain.

Design Artifacts and Design Process

Design can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Ask the average person what Design is and they will probably give you an example of a physical object, like a Dyson Air Blade or a Nest 2.0 Thermostat. That’s fair. I want to talk about designed artifacts as well, though I focus on software designed to have utility and used to accomplish a goal (transactional websites, dashboards, portals, business applications, etc.). I am specifically excluding marketing/informational sites that tend to be ends in and of themselves.

However, what is most relevant to being design-driven is not a particular artifact but rather, the design process. Yes, there is a process to design. It’s been around for thousands of years and it’s employed by a wide variety of professions. It’s even taught, to greater or lesser degrees, in design schools. It is by embracing this design process that a company becomes “design-driven”.


Figure 1. Design Process (by Jeff Smith)

Design-Driven Misconception

I read a design blog the other day in which the author, a designer, bemoaned the fact that few companies hire designers to determine their major initiatives, generate ideas and define feature roadmaps. This, the author asserted, is what it means to be design-driven. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Design-driven does not mean having designers, or any other professional, on staff and relying on them to “seed” projects with ideas.

Don’t confuse creativity with “design-driven”. They are not synonymous. The very notion that a company could be so inward-focused that they rely on particular members of their staff for new ideas is the surest way to failure. Can companies start by developing their one big idea? Sure. Can they survive and prosper using that model? No.

When no one is conducting the appropriate research to understand the requirements of your users, the question of which employee is best at inventing those requirements is absurd. Design-driven refers to following a process that uncovers requirements and focuses creativity toward solving specific problems. It doesn’t mean brainstorming or opinions.

Design-Driven Success

Successful, outward-focused companies, especially those responsible for building complex, interactive websites or applications, employ teams of individuals (broadly known as researchers and designers) who apply the design process. These teams collect business and technical requirements and coordinate them with requirements gleaned from a thorough understanding of users, their needs and goals. These requirements then become a set of problems to be solved by clever design. You can question how the data is used to drive requirements, and how those requirements are visualized by new design, but at least no one is making up it up.