Articles · · 8 min read

Introducing a culture of design inside existing company culture

I have never been in a position where I could declare culture change is going to happen. Here's how I've successfully introduced a culture of design anyway.

This post was originally published on on September 22, 2016. This was the post that caught the attention of Aarron Walter while he and Eli Woolery were building out Design Better at InVision.

I’ve spent the last 10+ years setting up design practices inside of cost centers. It’s my job to build product design teams, develop the practice of design, and integrate those teams into existing cultures within organizations where resources (headcount, money, etc.) are very limited.

My experience has been inside enterprise organizations like Customer Experience (CX), R&D, and IT. I believe this background provides a very unique perspective as to how environment shapes design.


I have never been in a position where I could declare culture change is going to happen. The only person who can attempt such a change is the big boss and it ain’t easy when they try. Culture is what it is and it ain’t going away. That doesn’t mean you can’t influence and shape it though. I’d like to share some thoughts on what I’ve learned and done.

Design is still the new kid on the block

Culture is a hot topic within the design community. It has been for a while. There are countless articlesblogsbooks, and workshops about developing healthy design practices and articulating the components that make up a healthy design culture. While many of these articles are relevant, smart, and helpful, they are primarily focused on the internal workings of a design team. That’s one half of the equation. The other half is selling design to colleagues and peers on other teams.

The job scenario I’ve encountered time and time again is incorporating design into existing organizational cultures. Existing, long-in-the-tooth, and sometimes Crab mentality (“if I can’t have it, neither can you”) cultures. Integrating a successful design practice would be much easier if everyone cared about design, but not everyone does. It would be much easier if design was everyone’s responsibility, but it’s usually not.

Products can be made without design teams. Products can not be made without engineering and development teams. Compared to the other functions within the software lifecycle (architecture, engineering, development, project management, etc.), design is still the new kid on the block. It’s been my responsibility to introduce a new level of design standards, develop people, and incorporate good practices into an established process. I won’t beat around the bush. This shit is hard.

What I’ve learned

With that in mind, here are a few things I’ve found helpful for the other half of the equation; fitting design in with existing organizational cultures.

1. Embrace the cultures around you

The tech industry still does not know how to incorporate design into existing product, development, QA, and UAT processes. Culture is a manifestation of process. It’s on us, as designers and design leaders, to do a better job of articulating how design should fit into organizations and greater processes. I spend a lot of my time understanding the work of my peers. I aim to understand how they work and ensure my team is providing design assets in formats that fit their workflows.

Storyboards are great for task-based documentation
Storyboards are great for task-based documentation

2. Sell something else

My biggest takeaway from the last 10+ years? I sell design, but there are few colleagues buying design. Most are buying something else. I’m always adapting my approach.

I’ve spent countless minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years selling design. The need for it. The power of it. The risks of not haven’t it. While many colleagues, leaders, and peers have agreed with my selling points, no one has bought design for design’s sake. What they are buying are increased revenue, cost reductions, time savings, and user adoption.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Design systems are a valuable tool in providing holistic color, tone, layout, patterns, and brand across a portfolio of products. Here’s how I sell the value of having a design system:

Super awesome “Time is Pain” graphic created by friends Little Thunder Co.
Super awesome “Time is Pain” graphic created by friends Little Thunder Co.

Figure out how to sell increased revenue, cost reductions, time savings, and user adoption, or whatever other derivative they’re buying and include your best design practices and processes into those. Don’t know where to start? Start with the past. Investigate and understand what is and isn’t working, and know what your peers are buying.

3. Practice what you preach

I like to leverage known design practices and use them as a means to solving “other” problems. For the most part, I act as facilitator to the events, meetings, workshops, etc. and invite others to join me.


4. Accept things won’t change

“If only he wasn’t here, then things would be perfect.”

“Why are they doing that? They’re idiots!”

“If only they listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

How often have you said something like this? How often do you hear something like this? There is an urge to make statements like this ALL THE TIME and it’s takes a tremendous amount of effort not to do so. Instead of fighting things out of my control, I ask myself a simple question:

If I accept that nothing will change, what will I do to be successful?

By asking this question, I am able to treat frustrations as design challenges. I am able to understand what is and isn’t a real constraint. I am able to keep my sanity when PEOPLE CONTINUE DOING THAT!!!

5. Go for a walk


No doubt, there will be moments you’re on the brink. Get up, shut up, and go for a walk. I have never been able to successfully sell design or integrate design culture in those moments. Go for a walk (it’s beautiful outside!), take a breath, and come back refreshed.

If you make good things, you’ll influence culture

If you make good things, people will come. They won’t argue with your process. They won’t think you’re trying to change them. They’ll want to make good things with you. If culture is a manifestation of process, influencing the process of making good things, through design, will influence culture.

Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it.

— Terence Mann, Field of Dreams

Design has become mainstream, or at least talking about design has. As a result, design is showing up in companies/teams/organizations where it has not traditionally played a role.

As design continues to become more relevant, perhaps it’s inside these organizations where design can further establish itself as a fundamental partner to well known practices of development, engineering, quality assurance and testing.

In my experience, it's inside environments like these where design culture can influence organizational culture. So far, it’s been working for me.

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