Part 2: To be a design-led company

Learn about Automattic’s journey to become a design-led company and the importance of embedding design across the entire business.

Leveraging design across a company takes embedding design across a company.

It’s not enough to keep design to traditional design roles and tasks. To reap the benefits of design and design thinking, it needs to be embedded across the company from within. It needs to be a shared, mutual goal.

In my last article, I gave an account of Automattic’s ongoing journey to become a design-led company. We started on this path where many companies and individuals start, with design as a tactical driver — where individual designers work on discrete projects autonomously. I shared my belief that, in order to become a design-led company, we’d need to stretch ourselves to work together to share lessons utilizing design for system innovation and we’d need to collaborate across industries on culture-building activities with design as a catalyst for transformation. I shared that becoming design-driven takes designers thinking and working towards multiple levels of impact and being able to work with others toward shared goals. I intend to build on those reflections here:

Ask any leader what it takes to manage a thriving company and they’ll say change and adaptation. Companies face more than a few challenges that force them to adapt, including shifting customer markets, product landscapes, hiring pools, technological advancements, and emerging competitive markets. Design, as a path from going from an existing state to a preferred on, is a model for change and adaptation that savvy businesses hope for. To a business, design and design thinking can mean positive, strategic change instead of the more threatening, forced change that seems to be ever approaching from just around the bend.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” ~someone optimistic

If you’re a designer, you’re probably a step ahead of me here, already considering how a designer or design group could possibly get ahead of shifting customer markets, product landscapes, hiring pools… on their own. Your skepticism is valid. A big trick in all of this is that it’s not all up to or in the control of a designer, certainly not by her or himself.

Being design-led can’t happen without:

  • support, or better yet initiative, from the highest levels of the company
    Remember that quote from Automattic CEO, Matt Mullenweg that I shared in my last post, declaring Automattic’s intent to be a design-led company? Remember how Matt backed that up by hiring a global design leader to usher evolution as a change-agent within the company. Yeah, that. Having worked in both the Obama White House and now in Automattic during the early pivots to design leadership, I’ve come to believe that a leader’s belief in design’s ability to facilitate, connect, and empower a business — internally and externally — is a pre-requisite for a design-led company.
  • grassroots buy-in
    A healthy company will engage leaders and employees so that both groups own the results. This often involves a community narrative, a story that clearly outlines the vision, need for change and which can be told and retold. It can also require the company to crowdsource input from its employees while at the same time providing leaders with a sense of responsibility and ownership. Workshops, brainstorms, community conversations, and frequent references back to the results of these are each methods for grassroots movement essential to cross-company, and eventually, cross-experience change.
  • hearing doubts and fears
    In the worst of cases, these mindsets remain hidden impediments to progress and in the best of cases they are aired, heard, discussed, addressed head-first, and their owners are brought further into the fold. It may be worth noting that sometimes the naysayer or doubter is an individual or team, but they can also be mindsets within folks who are mostly on board with a proposed company evolution. A helpful way to air both kinds of blockers is to create an open space — digital or in-person — for everyone to share what they’re afraid of. I’ve found it helpful to ask directly what concerns people have, have each person imagine and share how they think an effort might fail, or the worst thing that could happen. Once concerns are shared, they can be addressed, assuaged, or even put in a better light.
  • working across functional silos
    It’s important to capture ideas and research, allow for information sharing, and support regular communication across teams and divisions. When silos are relied on too heavily, functional goals and the habits that come with them overpower the necessary evolution. Teams have budgets to balance, long-term responsibilities that weigh heavier on their minds, and all sorts of blockers to helpful change. One way to combat this is to create strong, cross-functional groups around goals for advancement and have some of the cross-functional group’s metrics for success share ownership with a functional group. This creates incentives for collaboration between existing structures and new ones and combats an “us vs them” mentality within teams. Ultimately, the goal is to have diversity from various teams working together on common goals. A nice added benefit here is that this presents an opportunity to prepare for a future when the cross-functional team has served its purpose and dissipated but the monitoring the ongoing success of those efforts need to continue within the company. The more folks tracking towards shared definitions of success, the better.
  • involving the audience
    Whether the audience is the customer, future customer, a subset of peers, or each of those groups, it’s essential to work with them toward the vision that will ultimately impact them. This involves building empathy and trying to understand their experience, which can be achieved with journey mapping, talking to them, and by paying attention to their actions. When talking to them, be sure to ask the right questions. When paying attention to their actions, observe how they use the product, website, service, or go about completing the related task. The best designs come from a place of collaboration, which can ensure the future state is as useful, desirable, and as accessible as possible.

I’m in the process of facilitating change within Automattic that I believe will help us on our goal to becoming a more design-led company. It’s an adventure to work with data analysts, marketers, product leads, business analysts, customers, customer support, and many others throughout the process of co-designing a better state. I’m taking my own advice and trying to work across silos, involve our audiences, create space for doubts and fears, build up grassroots buy-in, and do well by the support I’ve gotten from the very top of our company. I hope you’ll consider doing the same and sharing your lessons and experiences with us.

Want more? Read more about knowing your audience from the Woo Commerce blog.

By Ashleigh Axios

Creative director, digital strategist, designer, maker, mentor, RISD alumna, AIGA national board member, Design Observer editorial board member, former creative director & digital strategist for the Obama White House.