Death Of The Department

Design professionals are moving away from singular specializations and toward a broader understanding and appreciation of multiple fields. Welcome to the age of the digital polymath.

Death Of The Department

by Glen Jeffreys

Posted on 08-18-2017

This article is part of’s October series about creativity and design-led thinking. Click here for more.

As we travel further along the path of design thinking and agile methodologies, digital professionals are discarding traditional roles and relationships in favor of more collaborative, team-based responses to problem solving.

The days of client briefs cascading down through the various departments of an organization are gone, replaced by small teams of polymaths who can meet the rapidly evolving needs of each project. In the coming years, this will affect how businesses are structured and the place of digital professionals within them.

As a user experience (UX) designer, it can often be tempting to place information, experiences, and even people into categories. When trying to create a structured, intuitive experience, this can seem like a logical place to start, creating neat little silos that can be grouped, related, expanded, or discarded. At the start of my career, I used this process to create information architecture diagrams and user personas that would form the basis of my eventual design. I’d kick around ideas with clients and internal teams and then knock out some wireframes, write up a specification, and slide the document over to the graphic designer for the next stage of production.

Of course, things have changed. Design thinking and agile development permeated mainstream digital culture. Collaboration, ideation, and iterative development highlighted the importance of empathy, flexibility, and testing. UX professionals quickly realized a fixed “waterfall” approach to design, and user feedback exposed the inherent bias and inaccuracies associated with our carefully scripted audience personas. Thankfully, we’ve responded with new techniques that help us to discard assumptions, recognizing and designing for the people and behaviors that fall outside set processes, categories, or personas. Our approach has become agile and collaborative, and our work has become richer and more innovative as a result.

This rapidly evolving digital landscape is producing a workforce that is naturally uneasy with categorization and fixed processes. Job titles and organizational departments that once sought to define how, when, and where people were included within a project’s lifespan are being discarded. Multidisciplined teams are becoming the norm, and the people that form these teams are demanding to be included from the very beginning of each project.

In this new reality, roles and responsibilities are overlapping; UX must understand and collaborate with strategy, design, and engineering to make informed decisions, and vice versa. As design professionals, we are moving away from singular specializations and toward a broader understanding and appreciation of multiple fields. Welcome to the age of the digital polymath.

Responding to this new reality is a key challenge for every organization.

Historically, it has been the younger, smaller companies that have coped best with the agile requirements of modern digital production, particularly during their startup phase. Yet when these companies begin to grow, they typically find that scaling their fluid practices is challenging. Organizational structure quickly emerges in response to growing business complexity. Hierarchies are created, roles are defined, and before they know it, that young, agile startup has a COO, CTO, CMO, and separate departments for accounts, strategy, engineering, and (my personal favorite) creative.

Why does this happen? Why do so many organizations default to structures and processes that feel solid and secure yet fail to reflect the way their people work and the outputs they want to achieve?

Social psychologists may be able to help us out here. Research has found that at a consumer level, we tend to copy the choices of others when we lack information or are unsure of what to do next. This behavior quickly leads to socially accepted norms that can have significant effects. Perhaps at an organizational level, the same behaviors are occurring? Small, agile companies are forced to scale rapidly but are unsure of how to go about it. With no firm model and a general lack of information, what else can business leaders do but default to copying what others have done in the past?

Interestingly, the same research found that when consumers were more informed, they could break free of these default choices and make decisions for themselves. I’d wager the same trend will be observed across the digital landscape as our industry matures and pioneering businesses discard their traditional structures in favour of flexible cultures rewarding creativity, freedom, and individual responsibility.

The challenge will be to avoid the temptation of replacing one organizational structure with another. Moving from fixed departments to multidisciplined project teams might not always be the answer for future projects and emerging media. We need to accept the fluid nature of our industry and create organizations that place people at their center, rather than departments or roles. Above all, an understanding of design and a willingness to review, test, adopt, and discard processes, tools, and methodologies must exist across all levels of the business.

The digital organizations of tomorrow will be shape-shifters, immersed in innovation and possessing a strong culture of design thinking. Departments will die and position descriptions will become increasingly meaningless.

But don’t worry. With a bit of luck and the right attitude, you’ll be too busy collaborating to notice.

This article is part of the “2017 SoDA Report.”

Topics: Insights & Inspiration, Leadership, Tends & Research, Experience Cloud, Insights Inspiration, Creative Cloud, Future of Work, Creativity, CMO by Adobe