Ask a UXpert: What Does Design Culture Mean to You?

The term “design culture” gets thrown around a lot these days, but what does it mean and why does it matter?

We asked a number of user experience design experts their opinion on what exactly constitutes design culture. While opinions were varied, one constant that remained throughout was that in design culture, design matters. Though that might sound obvious, the way a company thinks about design can have a direct impact on a product, team or company’s success.

Here’s how our experts defined design culture and why it matters to them.

Collaborative, Creative Connections
Design culture is greater than the design team. It is defined by the connections between people, which arise naturally and adapt as individuals collaborate to solve big problems. Designers perpetuate their unique skill-set and approach throughout an organization.

In my opinion a great design culture:

~ Andrew Coyle, Design Leader, Flexport

Understand the Value of Design and Install Solid Design Leadership
At its very essence, design culture understands the value design has on the organization’s overall objectives. This understanding must be engrained not only in every person that is building your next customer experience, but, more importantly, embedded as a core pillar in the organization’s culture. The company should be able to articulate why design is valuable and what steps are being taking to ensure that value is added to each interaction in the product lifecycle.

Of course, for the above to be successful, there absolutely needs to be strong design leadership within the organization. A team can be made up of passionate designers and empowered developers, but if this devotion and excitement is left with no backing, no budget, or no importance in the organization, the once sought after design culture can easily be dissolved. A strong design culture needs that high-level investment to propagate the value of design to others.

~ Tracy Barmore, UX Design Lead, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Create An Environment Where People Legitimately Love Design
I always prefer the simpler, jargon-free, plain-English definition for these terms. Design culture, to me, means an environment where people love design.

To break that down in a few layers:

~ Fabricio Teixeira, Creative Director, R/GA San Francisco

How Design is Positioned Within an Organization in Relation to Other Aspects of the Business
Design culture is how design is positioned within an organization. It’s about how design is perceived in relation to other competencies such as technology, marketing, R&D, etc. There is a desire to utilize design principles to solve problems as well as appreciation of the value design adds. Design culture is about taking the designer’s lens and toolkit and applying it where it makes the maximum impact across the company. Things like cross-functional collaboration, storytelling, iterating and working closely with users all evolve from design activities to organizational priorities.

There are differing levels of design culture in relation to the maturity of design within an organization. A young (in terms of years), or less mature design culture is usually brought in very late in the process and provides more of design as a service to the business team. A mature design culture is an integral part of crafting strategies for new products or enhancing existing products. I recently wrote an article listing qualities of mature design organizations for UX Mastery that can be found here:

~ Andy Vitale, UX Design Principal, 3M Health Care

A Combination of Design Disciplines Working Together to Realize a Collective Intent
The best way to think about culture is to consider the norms, ideals, behaviors, rules, and how and what a group celebrates collectively. It helps to identify trend lines and the magnetism some ideas generate over others.

For example, in a design culture, you should expect to hear more about user experience, user research, talking to users, understanding their problems and how they think about the world, and adapting products and solutions to fit their needs. In contrast, in a data-lead culture, numbers and large-scale analysis tends to be the go-to source of direction and validation. Personal anecdotes might be useful to bring the data alive, but it’s the numbers that tell the real story. In an engineering culture, you’re more likely to talk about constraints and feasibility and timelines. There’s likely more bargaining taking place between different groups who are all jockeying to maximize the output of their effort to fit the timeline of the engineering roadmap.

At a high level, a design culture is about bringing together diverse disciplines to realize a collective intent that serves human experience while existing within engineering constraints.

To be clear: a design culture isn’t about the tools used or visual artefacts produced; design culture is about the woven synthetic understanding of diverse perspectives into results in a coherent product output that resonates with and meets the needs of a target user base. It’s the design culture that makes creating breakthrough products likely and achievable.

~ Chris Messina, Independent

How do you define design culture and is it something that matters to you in a workplace? Do you think more companies should adapt a design-driven approach? Share with us in the comments below.