If design is in flux and it’s difficult for designers to understand, is that good for non-designers?

?Download the 2019 Design in Tech Report

Design confuses both designers and non-designers.

  • The value of design is in relation to the other parts of a company’s operations.
  • Alone and isolated within a company, design is a microworld of aesthetic high-fives.
  • The complexity of design interests designers, but the rest of your org doesn’t care.
  • Design is all too often used as an attractive costume for a so-so idea.
  • Programming isn’t as important as understanding how computers work.
  • We’re in a golden age of quant-qual data tools — for those who seek to understand.
  • Success is when Design receives the “Best Supporting Actor/Actress” prize.

Is a college degree necessary for a professional designer in tech?

In my year-long survey where 94% of the respondents had a college degree, the majority questioned its value to getting a job in the tech industry (but it’s important to note that they all have one and can more easily say that). Because of this fact, it means that each year with new graduates from design programs all over the world that come into the market, they all quickly discover that they’re not qualified for the jobs that are available in the tech industry. Furthermore, for the existing veterans in computational design, it exacerbates confusion in the organizations in which they are practitioners because the new incoming graduates can be so far behind the existing talent level that the veterans’ trust — earned over many years — can easily get eroded.

How should a new grad start out as a designer today?

Here are a few career path recommendations for a designer just starting out in the industry today listed in rank order by aggregate respondents.


“Join a small agency that is about three years old.”


“I definitely don’t recommend agencies. I’d recommend startups or a big company that has a relevant product.”

Big Company

“Join a big company to learn how diverse the discipline is,
then specialise and find a meaningful startup.” 


“Every 3 to 6 months there’s a new project = new problems = many problems over a few years = knowledge on how to solve the next problems that are coming.

In short, there’s no single, easy answer. I like to tell new graduates that if they are lucky to live a long life, then to simply try one out and then if they don’t like it, try another flavor of creative worklife. And, relatedly:

You can pre-order How To Speak Machine: Laws of Design for a Computational Age from IndieBound to support independent book stores, or Barnes & Noble as a non-Amazon alternative, or Amazon because 80% of us tend to choose this route.

McKinsey: Design in Business is more than just “a feeling.”

The four clusters of design actions that showed the most correlation with improved financial performance: measuring and driving design performance with the same rigor as revenues and costs; breaking down internal walls between physical, digital, and service design; making user-centric design everyone’s responsibility; and de-risking development by continually listening, testing, and iterating with end users.”

McKinsey Design Index?

I’m a fan of the work being done by McKinsey being led by Hugo Sarrazin. So I reframed their design survey into my own format and have run the McKosmo Quiz for a year, and the results have been interesting to watch.

How does your organization make design decisions?

  • “Based on leader opinions.”
  • “Using semi-subjective metrics.”
  • “Objectively (using design metrics).

Majority: “Using semi-subjective metrics.” Close 2nd: Boss said …

How brave is your product portfolio? 

  • “We’re bloated and incremental.”
  • “We’re improving and killing bad ideas.”
  • “We make bold products and accept that some may fail.”

Majority: “We‘re bloated and incremental.”

McKinsey: Design is learning, testing, iterating with customers.

The best results come from constantly blending user research — quantitative (such as conjoint analysis) and qualitative (such as ethnographic interviews). This information should be combined with reports from the market-analytics group on the actions of competitors, patent scans to monitor emerging technologies, business concerns flagged by the finance team, and the like. Without these tensions and interactions, development functions may end up in a vacuum, producing otherwise excellent work that never sees the light of day or delights customers.”

McKinsey Study?

When do you undertake user research? 

  • “Early qualitative research.”
  • “Early qualitative and quantitative research.”
  • “Qualitative and quantitative research throughout.”

Majority: Both throughout.

What do you do with research findings? 

  • “We report what the customer tells us.”
  • “We assess what the customers want.”
  • “We interpret what the customer actually needs.”

Majority: Interpret what the customers need.

Does this sound familiar? It’s my favorite non-blah-blah-blah POV.

“We embarked upon this year’s report knowing that we must be even more critical of our work, with a deeper awareness of our responsibility as designers and an understanding of our broader impact on society.”

UX Trends 2019

My favorite are the top three in bold because it’s a common conundrum “on the ground” in technology companies for designers today. The root cause is the fact that the many kinds of designs are jumbled within large organizations so the act of “defining design” can easily take up a great deal of time. In addition, because the traditional managerial structures within a rapidly moving tech company aren’t a perfect fit for the broad range of designers and the broad skill levels of computational designers there’s often a leadership vacuum produced – necessitating the best of computationally-minded designers to need to choose a path of leading/managing, because their practice area is so ill-defined and often misunderstood. But there often enough designers to lead at any given time … because they are so scarce.

  1. Everyone is a lead
  2. Designers are too busy to design
  3. Design is not saving the world
  4. Designing for less
  5. Our obsession with methods
  6. Should design tools code?
  7. Thinking outside the artboard
  8. Embracing the open kitchen
  9. Making tech work

Designers generally excel at introverting together.

(? This makes them a little different than most devs. And a lot different from business folks.)

I like to say that designers and developers are similar because they’re generally introverts. But designers differ in that they like to introvert together. So the question of creating a culture where such people can thrive has to be top of mind for any design leader.

The most successful design leaders are investing in personal growth, helping them scale themselves and their teams. They’re challenging assumptions about how organizations work and creating the way for more healthy, inclusive teams to thrive.”

Mia Blume?

Design Ops has become critical for medium and large product companies. But every kind of organization benefits from a horizontal role, specifically managing tools, workflows, processes, governance, critique and collaboration, end-to-end employee experience, cultural and inspirational activities, and much more. DesignOps is contextual work that improves aesthetic work, with the ultimate goal of making the business more efficient.”

Josh Silverman?

Automattic.Design’s philosophy is people-centric.

01 / Design Culture

You need a CEO who cares about design, and recognizes that good design is good business. It’s because the customer wants it.


02 / Design Talent

You need a strong designer hiring leader. They will be, “Someone who you wish was designing instead and loves talent, too.”


03 / Design Leaders

You need a primary design lead who cares about leadership and enjoys fostering new leaders.


04 / Design Systems

You need a few computational designers who work inclusively. Plus listen to Nathan Curtis

Our design system offers [kit scope] released as [kit outputs] and documented at [kit doc site] produced by [people] in order to serve [products] products and experiences.  ††


05 / Design Ops

You want to product- and project-manage design as a service inside the org. And we’ve recently hired for Design Ops.


We keep the “Four Planets” in mind at Automattic. It’s not easy.

Concept by Adam Becker and Brie Anne Demkiw / Images by Marly Gallardo / Text by Ian Stewart

In an agile, developer-centric culture it gets easy to be caught up on “Planet Deliver” — the place where pull requests are moving at the speed of light, and high-five emojis abound! So it’s helpful to consider how there are four planets in the universe of product creation: Planet Discovery, Planet Hypothesis, Planet Deliver, and Planet Listen. You need to orbit all four planets and don’t stop moving — and if you do so, you’ll make cloud-based products that customers will truly love.

Illustration by Marly Gallardo

Planet Discovery Where we go to understand product landscapes and find the real problems that need answers. Its pull seems safe, but that’s a mistake. Orbits decay quickly, and it’s easy to use up your fuel crafting solutions. Remember — you’re not actually building anything here. Gather information, then move on before you burn up, leaving nothing behind.

Illustration by Marly Gallardo

Planet Hypothesis Visit to test at a rapid pace, using the information mined from Discovery as fuel. The more tests the better; speed now makes you more effective on the further-out planets. Prototype, test, and go. Don’t get too attached to any one test or look for any perfect solutions — you’ll miss the launch window for Planet Deliver.

Illustration by Marly Gallardo

Planet Deliver It’s time to build. This enormous planet offers massive rewards, tempered with massive dangers. As soon as you enter its orbit, the lights start flashing. The smell of ozone hits the air, the walls shake, and the ship feels like it could blow at any time. Here’s where things really start to happen — but beware the seduction of endless discussions and insignificant changes that lead to entropy. Go in with a plan, and get out fast. You can make it.

Illustration by Marly Gallardo

Planet Listen A secretive, resource-rich planet on the outskirts of this system, only accessible by shippers that made it to Deliver and got out. Circling Planet Listen can feel like inactivity, but the precious fuel mined here will power multiple expeditions — usage is like oxygen for ideas. You may need to warp back to Deliver again and again for the energy to extract it all. It’s worth it.

Closing Advice: Earning “Best Supporting Actor/Actress” is the goal.

via my maeda.pm blog

Regina King, Jennifer Connelly, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mo’Nique,Cate Blanchett, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Hudson, Tilda Swinton, Penélope Cruz, Renée Zellweger, Melissa Leo, Octavia Spencer, Anne Hathaway, Lupita Nyong’o, Patricia Arquette, Alicia Vikander, Viola Davis, Alison Janney, Benicio del Toro, Jim Broadbent, Chris Cooper, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, George Clooney, Alan Arkin, Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger, Christoph Waltz, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, Christoph Waltz, Jared Leto, J.K. Simmons, Mahershala Ali, Sam Rockwell are all Academy Award Winners from 2000 to the present day. But they didn’t win for being the best Leading Actors or Actresses. They won for being voted the best Supporting Actors or Actresses of their respective years.

So these days, I believe that the supporting role is what best describes how design can have the greatest impact in the technology industry today. It’s not the leading role. It’s the supporting role.

The role of design is to not aspire to be a leading actor — it’s goal should always be to become a great supporting actor. Imagine a movie or TV show without any supporting actors. It wouldn’t be a particularly interesting piece of entertainment. Yes?

So indeed — I don’t believe in “design led” as the winning paradigm. My primary goal in leading Design at Automattic is to aspire for design to be as awesome a supporting player as Jennifer Connelly or Mahershala Ali. Not bad, huh?

Closing Advice: Every Boss of designers should go visit “Planet Listen.”

What would you tell your boss if you could be “radically candid”? I’ve collected a few thousand anonymous statements from folks out there on the Internet as, “Advice you would give to your boss if you could be radically candid …” and it’s a great thing for me to look at all the time as a boss of creative folks. Why? Because it’s fantastic form of critique — and eventually I plan to wrap it all up as an app called “Hey Boss.” If you’re interested in getting it, just signup to my monthly briefing and I’ll let you know when it’s finally out.

?Download the 2019 Design in Tech Report

You’re done with section 2 of the report. There’s 4 more to go.

Next up is …

? Awesome Humans:
Yes We Can

Published by John Maeda

I'm a learner.

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