Draft narrative for DMI webinar: Embed design DNA
Now, when you use a term such as 'design DNA' that makes me think of my
biology classes - the double strands, intertwined in that classic double-helix
structure. How are you applying that in a business context?
Well, to me, the process of embedding design DNA relies very much on
that double-helix framework. Typically, that framework has been
represented by two dimensions – personal and organisational. And it's
been used to drive transformation within established companies,
companies that might have started with an entrepreneurial spirit but have
maybe shifted into a more production-focused type of organisation.
But surely if a company has reached that more advanced stage, it means it's
more stable, especially from a financial standpoint?
Technically, yes, but it can also mean that the pace of innovation has
slowed or in the worst case, stopped entirely. Of course, some established
companies can make do with incremental innovation, but for real change
to happen within a business, periodically, you've got to push for
transformational innovation, as well. And in my experience, the team best
placed to lead this type of transformational innovation is almost always
the design team.
So, by changing a company's DNA through design, you achieve transformation?
Yes, I think there's a very definite link between design and organisational
change. Following on from that DNA metaphor with the two strands of
genetic code joined together, I've found that design-led transformations
generally have two primary strands: the people, on the one hand, and
positioning and process on the other. Like DNA, these two strands work
together to store information. Or, in the case of a business, they help
generate design equity by putting that information into practice.
In your experience, how do you go about building a team that can help embed
design at a company?
For a start, you've got to look at the basics – make sure you have the
right diversity on your team – the right mix of ages, gender, backgrounds,
But, once you've addressed those, you can turn your attention to the
really important criteria for developing what you might call a
Top of the list is talent. But I don't just mean talented designers or people
with beautiful portfolios. When I'm putting together a team, I tend to look
for people with talents that don't necessarily appear on a CV. If your goal
is transformation, then you need to find people who have rare skills,
something they didn't learn in school or pick up on the job. Maybe they're
good at visualising ideas or maybe they can reflect and analyse in a short
amount of time. The old adage you'll know it when you see it often applies
in these situations.
Obviously, if you're a design manager working inside a company of any size, you
won't be building a team in isolation – you've got to make sure other
departments are onboard with the direction in which you're heading.
Yes, absolutely. You may find that when you first start building your team,
you'll face a lot of resistance. If you can't get HR onboard, you may have
to do a lot of the hiring yourself, using your network to find those rare
talents. Of course, finding those talents brings its own set of problems.
Well, a lot of times, these types of people can be temperamental,
sometimes even egotistical. Not only are they hard to hire, they're also
difficult to retain but I believe, very necessary.
That sounds like a virtuoso team you've just described.
Yes, that's exactly the model. But I think it's what you need if you're going
to pull off a design-led transformation.
So how do you, as a design manager, lead a team like that?
I've found you need to find a balance between individual talents and the
team play. I compare it to a theatre troupe – you've got talented actors
for each role but you need to make sure that one doesn't steal the show
or, that if one drops out, the play will still go on.
And how do you learn to strike that balance?
Well, I wouldn't really say it's something I learned in the 'formal
education' sense of the word – it's not the sort of thing you're going to get
from a textbook. I think it's a skill that's got to come from experience.
I also think it takes time to understand what kind of team manager you
are yourself. You'll only know that after a number of years – in my case,
Based on that experience, what advice would you give to someone who wants to
build a transformational team?
From a personal point of view, I prefer people to be independent. I don't
do a lot of handholding and I expect people to lead with their own
initiative. I think a lot of creative people work better this way – of course,
everyone needs some structure but manage people like this too closely
and you will kill that creative spark.
However, I like to keep a hands-on approach, as well. Even though your
role is primarily one of being a manager, you've got to make sure you're
still a practitioner, as well. That means do some design work yourself –
build a quick prototype to show someone what you have in mind or
illustrate your ideas with some sketches.
I think that designers expect managers to do this – if you get too removed
from the practice of design, I think you run the risk of losing the respect of
That said, you're first and foremost the team leader. And that means
you're the main person who will be acting as the filter to the other areas
of the business – communicating what the team does so that everyone
understands the value you are creating. You don't want the CEO to walk
past your team in the middle of a prototyping session with Lego blocks
and post-it notes and wonder – what on earth are these people doing!?
So how do you make sure this communication happens?
Obviously, that's part of a design manager's role – to go to those senior
strategy meetings and represent your team and its ideas. But I also
encourage members of the team to communicate, as well – and not just
with each other, but also up and down the management hierarchy. They
need to be storytellers, people who can create a narrative about what they
do for any type of audience.
I think we all know that while design and user experience roles attract
clever, talented people, they're not always that great at explaining exactly
how some rough sketches or a configuration of Lego blocks could become
a product used by millions of people around the world.
That's why I think you've got to encourage your team to practice
communicating and presenting all the time, either on a small level, within
the team itself, or on a bigger scale, outside the team, to the brand and
marketing teams, to senior product managers, even at conferences.
If your budget allows, you might even consider bringing in an external
resource to help the team refine its messaging, a writer or editor, perhaps,
who can work with people to polish their narratives and hopefully present
a more cohesive message about their work. That may not be an option if
you've got a smaller team, but you may find there's already someone on
your team who already has those writing skills and you can use him or her
to mentor and train the others.
There are a lot of different communication channels available these days. Do you
find them useful for communicating the team's work?
Definitely. We're designing for people who embrace technology and are
the first to adopt new tools and services. That means as designers, we've
got to do the same. We've got to be where our audience is, whether that's
Twitter or writing blogs or using social bookmarking sites.
On the UE team at Vodafone, we've created a team wiki where all the
team members can blog about their projects and the whole company can
view it and comment. We've also developed physical sets of concept cards
to hand out and we've just finished a mini magazine about one of our
projects. As designers, we should always be looking for new ways to tell
our story and inspire the people who need to hear that story.
Inspiration – that's got to be an important component of a design-led
transformation, hasn't it?
Yes, absolutely. But I believe that if you want to inspire other people,
you've got to inspire yourself. You've got to tap into the emotions that
drive you and your designs and use them to engage the people around
you, whether that's other team members or the head of finance.
Generating this inspiration is all part of your job as a design manager, and
I think you've got to be prepared to look beyond the standard sources. I'm
thinking Picasso rather than Steve Jobs.
But no matter where you take this inspiration from, you've got to use it to
ensure that it's your team generating the IP and pushing for
transformational design, not just relying on external agencies to do it for
you. That might seem an effective strategy in the short-term, but really,
over the long term, no one wins.
You talked about the various tech tools that design managers and their teams
have at their disposal to communicate their work. What other shifts have taken
place that make communicating design easier?
I think one of the shifts has happened in the boardroom – attitudes there
have evolved beyond pie charts and spreadsheets. Now, they're much
more open to alternative ways of visualising information. Again, as a
design manager, I think part of your role is knowing when it's time to push
the envelope. You've got to set the trends at every level, including the
ways you communicate, and secure your team's reputation as innovators.
You say you have to know when it's time to push the envelope. It seems to me
that several of the points you’ve touched on require a sense of timing, of knowing
when to push certain things forward.
Yes, in terms of building your team and moving it forward, you've got to
get the timing right. And again, I think this is something that comes out of
experience, rather than following some sort of formula. You've got to go
through a few rounds of change to learn how to time certain things exactly
Take hiring your team. It's all very well to advocate that you hire people
with unique or rare talents, but if you hire those types of people too soon,
your team will be disjointed and lack focus – you may find you have some
great conceptual thinkers but no one who knows how to articulate ideas
into a workable prototype.
Or, if you wait and hire them too late, your team may never have the
impact it needs to really achieve a transformation in the way your
company thinks about design.
Anyway, I'm going to come back to this notion of timing shortly when we
discuss the other strand, positioning and process…
OK, well, before we move onto that, are there any other elements of the people
strand that you feel are worth considering?
For me, there's an important part of building the team that I call detoxing.
It's a technique I like to use to shake things up a bit, take people out of
their comfort zones, and remove constraints that might be blocking their
It's what William Bridges called 'ending' or 'unloading your baggage' – he
was talking specifically about individuals, but I've applied to this to entire
teams. I think it's necessary if you're going to push a transformational
For a lot of companies, this simply means a re-org – but let's face it, that's
a bit 1990s. I prefer to find different ways to stimulate the people on a
team, to challenge them to work on projects that might be outside their
area of expertise or put different personalities together to create some
sparks that will hopefully lead to creativity.
What you’re saying sounds pretty sensible. Does it work?
No, not always. Like so many aspects of this type of transformation, as a
design manager you've got a fine line to walk. As we all know, people
generally resist change – you sometimes lose people from the team who
find they just can't accept the change in direction… or maybe they need
more structure than you – or even the organisation as a whole – can give
them at a particular time.
We're back to timing again.
Yes, it's timing and experience. If you've been with an organization for a
period of time, you'll have seen the design pendulum swing from
incremental innovation to transformational innovation several times. With
that kind of perspective, you'll be in a position to anticipate what's coming
next. Then, you can act as the trigger for moving the team forward.
Younger team members or new ones might not have this perspective,
which is where you could find yourself leading a team of disgruntled
people. They may be conceptual thinkers who aren't prepared to maintain
the status quo during a phase of incremental innovation or development.
Similarly, people who have been brought in during a development cycle
won't be ready for the transformational process when it's time to push it
forward again. That's why this notion of detoxing the team is so
As always, the key is to communicate – and don't be afraid to tell people
things they may not want to hear. You'll find that the people who can
tolerate some ambiguity in their work lives will be the ones still with you in
6 months or a year. And don't be afraid to change yourself – in fact, you'll
probably have to, since the team you'll be managing will be changing, too.
Of course, detoxing or disrupting your team for the sake of creating chaos
is no way to encourage creativity or transformational design. If you can
see a transformational wave coming, you need to shake your team up
before it hits the beach. Trying to prepare the team once the business is
actually ready to undergo a transformation will be too late. You may still
be able to create value but you'll find the business might already have
Are there any other insights you've gained into timing?
One key thing I've learned, and I wish someone had told me this earlier in
my career, is that you've got to know when to get in, but it's just as
important to know when to get out. And I mean that on a team level and a
personal level. If you spend too much energy fighting for things at the
wrong time, you'll achieve nothing.
Once you've made an impact, you need to move on and be confident that
impact will be sustainable. Any change you've set in motion will still
continue but you've got to make sure you're expending your effort wisely.
You'll save a lot of energy, believe me, if you can learn to do this. Don't
stay in it just to prove a point. All of this is related to the concept of a
'corporate heartbeat', which I'll come to in the next topic, positioning and
Before we move on, then, how would you summarise the people strand?
Well, you've got to have the basics of diversity. Then you've got to look at
the talent – at the skills of the people you hire. And don't be afraid of
creating a virtuoso team – they're challenging but they may be exactly
what you need to embed that design DNA.
I think then you've got to encourage independence and of course
communication – only when you can convincingly communicate your work
will you get buy-in from the sponsors who can help you during the
Plus, I think you've got to be honest with yourself about your
management style and learn how to apply it to reach that 'embedded
design' goal. And finally, don't be afraid to shake things up a bit.
Does anyone have any questions?
Going back this detoxing concept for a minute. What have you found to be the
benefits of doing something like this with your team?
One of the major benefits has to be creating a better output. We'll get into
this more when we discuss design equity, but personally, I've seen a
tremendous uplift in the team's creativity once they've been shaken up a
bit. As I said, they may resist at first but once they start to see some
benefits – and realise they have more autonomy to push a more creative
approach – they really embrace it.
So let's talk now about the positioning and process strand. How do the two
To my mind, the two are completely linked in the value chain dynamic.
How you position yourself and the team will trigger the transformational
process, and your positioning will continuously impact how that process
As some of you listening may know, Vodafone recently launched Vodafone 360,
tell me about the role your team has played in this launch and how its related to
the design DNA concept.
Basically, my team has been working on the conceptual designs that
formed the basis for this service for the past three years. When we first
started, one of the first things we did was to ask ourselves the question
"What's next in 3-to-5 years' time?" We followed this up with another
question: "For whom?"
Because with a service like 360, we knew that to achieve a
transformational design experience, we'd need to position our thinking
within a context that allowed people to shape culture, not merely consume
it. By positioning ourselves as designers for this more progressive
audience – what Eric von Hippel calls 'lead users' – we were able to
optimise the process as we went along.
But surely these progressive types of users don't represent the majority?
That's the whole point! When you've got a large customer base, I’d argue
it's futile to try and design for such a broad range of people. Instead, try
making your design thinking more selective.
To do this, you can focus your attention on people whose attitudes are
being shaped by a unique set of cultural forces, as well as by the rapidly
evolving technology they have at their disposal. These people go beyond
the “early adopter” construct – they're much bolder and more decisive and
they're always looking for ways to control their experiences.
So how do you balance this notion of progressive design with the more basic
requirements of an established company, one that needs to produce – not only
products and services but financial results, as well?
Again, the double-helix metaphor works here. One the one side, you've
got a progressive design agenda and on the other, the production needs of
the business. As a designer, you have to be mindful of both. Focus too
much on one and the other will suffer.
And you have to be aware that the pendulum will shift between the two. If
you're at a stage where the business is undergoing transformational
innovation, you know it's only a matter of time before things will swing
back to an incremental process. And vice versa.
Sometimes, this switch can happen quite quickly. At one point, your team
might be relevant and hold the keys to the company – having an overview
of all aspects of the business in a way that maybe even the CEO doesn't.
And the next minute, your team could be seen as a threat, one that
maybe wields too much power.
Seems like we're back to timing.
Yes, it's what I referred to earlier. As a design manager, you need to
gauge how fast this switch will happen and prepare your team, which
means you need to be attuned to your company's unique 'corporate
heartbeat', as it's sometimes called. And you've got to have confidence
that the switch will happen and be ready when it does.
As I said earlier, if your team isn't in place when the switch happens, you'll
be caught short and it may be too late to hire the types of people you
need to push the change through.
It sounds to me like you're setting the bar quite high – is that really necessary?
Well, technically no. If you want to hit that "good enough" segment of
your market, the one that is happy with a core set of products or services
that meet their basic needs, then of course you can set the bar a bit
But if you want to aim for a premium level, one where you exceed your
customers' expectations and deliver something that is truly innovative,
then you do need to aim beyond your target.
Don't you run the risk of overshooting that target?
No, not really and I'll explain why. Discounting is something that happens
in any company – and often it's a factor of time. Over time, your ideas,
your design agenda will lose value – it's a given. Getting a pure design
idea through the production pipeline is extremely rare because, let's face
it, there's usually a lot of bends and blockages in that pipeline that will
slow your idea down or change it altogether.
So, if you aim beyond your target – or the target set by the company,
then you may find that by the time your idea or ideas hit the market,
you'll actually be at the point you wanted to be.
Can design affect this corporate heartbeat?
Yes, but it's one of the biggest challenges we face. And that's why as a
design manager, you've got to be prepared to put in the hard work of
embedding the design DNA. This is something that won't happen overnight
– it can take several years. It's one thing, early in your career, to hop
from place to place, role to role.
But if you find yourself in a position to effect real change in an
organisation, then you've got to stick around long enough and go through
a few lifecycles to get the pulse of that company's particular heartbeat.
Then, you'll be in a position to prepare your team, to make sure you're
ready for the next wave. If you can see a transformational wave coming,
you know you need to hire more conceptual people.
And if you see a more incremental wave approaching, you can detox your
team and ensure you've got people in place who can handle a more
These days, being a design manager means being a lifecycle manager –
you've got to be mindful of the corporate context – the heartbeat – all the
time. You might not be able to change it but you need to know where you
are on the helix at any given time.
You've used the term context quite a bit. Obviously, you and I are both looking at
this from the context of a very large, very established business. A lot of people
will say that companies like ours view design as an add-on, something that's nice
to have when times are good but first under the microscope when the economic
Yes, without a doubt. Companies that have design DNA at their core are
very different types of companies – places like IDEO and Experientia. But
many design managers don't work at those types of companies – they're
working in companies where design is just one component. To push a
design agenda in those types of companies, you’ve got to play the value
What do you mean?
It's related to value chain dynamic thinking. Look, I know it's tempting to
keep your design team locked in an ivory tower to protect them from
corporate demands or to take an 'us' versus 'them' approach – with the
designers on one side and the MBAs on the other.
Peter Merholz recently wrote an article in Harvard Business Review that
addressed this. As he pointed out, design thinking alone isn't enough –
you can't be afraid to mix it with solid business thinking if you want to
If you bring design out of the ivory tower and are proactive in trying to
integrate it with other areas of the business, you'll find that the IP you're
creating will really have a direct economic impact.
In your experience, what's the best way to do this?
Well, it boils down to a hybrid thinking approach. You've got to strive for
cross-pollination between functions. This means ideating from a human-
centred perspective. It also means being provocative. Personally, I've
found creativity doesn't happen unless you’re able to disrupt people's
trains of thought. You need to ask unexpected questions or put a design
story in front of people that they might not have been expecting.
In a lot of companies, the 'powers that be' often expect design to be all
about making things look nice. As a design manager, you've got to engage
in a certain amount of proposition building - you've got to expose people
elsewhere in the organisation to the hybrid thinking that goes into a true
That way, they'll gain a better understanding of what designers really
bring to the table – and they won't wait until it's too late to give design a
seat at the decision-making table.
In your opinion, is design as a practice full represented in the decision-making
process of most companies?
No, not at all. You'll always be able to find people who "get it", people who
will act as your sponsors elsewhere in the organisation. And you have to
be on the lookout for these kind of people, because otherwise it's going to
be very difficult, if not impossible, to really succeed with a
transformational design agenda.
But at the moment, I think there is definitely a 'glass ceiling' when it
comes to user experience or design thinking being represented at board
level. Jesse James Garrett, in his closing plenary at this years' IA Summit,
said that the overall value of IA and UX will only reach critical mass when
someone from that background becomes the CEO of a company that
champions the user and then goes on to beat its competition.
So what can design managers do to break through this glass ceiling, assuming
they want to, of course?
Yes, you do have to want that, because as I said before, as a design
manager, you can still be hands-on, you can still generate collateral
yourself. When you move out of that and into upper levels of
management, you may cease to be a practitioner. So you need to think
carefully and decide where you can create the most value. Is it influencing
from the bottom up or the top down? Either way, you've got to be a hybrid
thinker and see where opportunities lie for design to play a role in the
business. Generating design equity – putting your design thinking into
practice – is what's going to give you the leverage you need in the
Before we discuss design equity, does anyone have questions about positioning
All right, let's discuss the output of this transformational process – the design
For me, generating design equity is all about building bridges between the
two strands we've just been discussing – the people and the positioning
and process – to make sure you have verifiable outputs that you can point
to. Otherwise, design will never become a lasting part of your company's
Those two strands or dimensions ultimately lead to three main outputs:
They are value, a portfolio and execution.
The first component of this is ensuring you create value – you've got to
position your design in such a way that is has a noticeable impact on your
company's product roadmaps. Ultimately, you want to get buy-in from
product managers because they'll be the ones who will take your design
equity and see it though to market.
Everything you've described sounds incredibly challenging, especially for a
company that isn't used to operating like this. Wouldn't it just be easier to
outsource this to external agencies?
Of course it would. But doing that means you run the risk of losing control
of the IP. IP is a currency, it's something a design team can leverage and
use to make sure you're part of bigger discussions that might be going on
Vodafone as a company knew several years ago that in order to stay
relevant in a global communications market, we'd have to become more
than just a carrier. We'd need to make sure we were in a position to
compete in the same category as Nokia or Blackberry or Apple. And that
meant taking control of the user experience and creating differentiation
based on our interface.
The press response to our decisions has proven we were right. We're now
seen as a credible player when it comes to designing the interface for our
services. In fact, we'd be seen as underperforming if we'd remained as
just a commodity.
I think there's no question that if you can leverage the value of design into
your company's strategic thinking, you'll be ale to help your company
compete in a different market space if that's what it wants.
So does the company have to know it wants to be in that area?
It certainly helps. I think as a design manager, part of your role is to
convince the company that an internal team can pull this off. As I
mentioned earlier, it's often tempting for companies to outsource tasks
such as concept development. The company is just looking to generate
equity, but it's your job to convince them that equity can – and should –
come from inside, not outside, the company.
What does that entail?
A lot of it rests on your portfolio. For a start, you can't focus on a single
product – you've got to have a wide range of projects and initiatives ready
to move forward at any time. This diversification process will create
funnelling, where ideas start out as rather broad concepts and then filter
down into more focused, more practical approaches that product
managers can get their heads around.
And if you're determined to embed design DNA in your company, then
you'll need to make sure you keep on diversifying and driving this
But what happens if the company brings pressure to bear to hit that "good
enough" target, if they simply want to reduce what you're doing to the lowest
Then you need to hedge – you need to shield your team and its outputs
against the discounting effects that can often take place within large
corporations. I think of it as incubating, keep things away from the glare
of the corporate spotlight until the time is right and your ideas can
withstand the scrutiny of questions such as "Who will pay for something
And don't get me wrong – continually investing in your team's design
equity is a hard road – you've got to stay true to a long-term vision. In
some ways, that's the hardest sell of all.
Earlier you had said the team needs to communicate what it's doing to the larger
business. Surely hedging creates that 'ivory tower' effect you mentioned.
Ah, yes, that's true. But I was speaking about design in the larger sense.
Here, I'm talking about a specific phase of a project lifecycle – give it
enough time to germinate and then absolutely, get it out there into the
larger business to help generate buy-in and drive the next phase of
As with a lot of what I've said today, there's a fine line to walk. As a
design manager, you need to keep an ear on that corporate heartbeat and
know when it's time to stop hedging and start communicating.
You spoke earlier about the importance of communicating, both within the team
and out to the larger business. What have you found to be an effective way of
getting that 'buy-in' you just mentioned?
One of the ways we've done this is through design statements. We've
found them to be incredibly effective at showing the business, in a very
real way, how and where we can make a difference. This is something we
decided to do while we were waiting for a brief – we thought, well, let's
just get on with it ourselves and add value on top of whatever the
business is expecting. If you can identify opportunities to do something
similar, I think you'll find that you'll wind up having more influence.
In terms of other kinds of output, what would you say has been the most
Experience prototypes, without a doubt. And it's a trend I'm seeing
everywhere at the moment. In fact some agencies even specialise in it.
In my experience, any time you can give people an understanding of that
process or create a positive impression that your design will work, the
better. And I believe that it's our outputs that are really makes us look
designers – let's face it, we know we're designers but sometimes, it's not
as obvious to the rest of the company (which underscores that
requirement to communicate!).
So are you planning on creating an in-house prototyping capability?
It's something we're evaluating. Obviously, you need the right facilities to
do things properly. It may be that we reach out more to the developers,
and build some bridges there to find more collaborative ways of working.
At the moment, the process is more linear than I would like – develop
concept, hand off to development… I'd like to see that process be more
Which brings us back to the double-helix metaphor again.
Absolutely – it offers a great way to understand a lot of the complicated
dynamics at work, not only in a design team, but between that team and
the rest of the business.
I firmly believe that if existing companies are to weather the current
economic storm and new companies are going to stand a chance at
success, then they must embed design DNA into everything they do.
Questions & answers