Illustration of two doom clouds cycling back and forth, barely changing.

Why and How to Avoid the Design Cycle of Doom

Are you looking to hire designers or enhance your team's design competency? Or improve how design can significantly contribute to your objectives?

Design has evolved. A common misconception is assuming that the sole purpose of design is to make things look good. This belief is holding back the ability to engage design. Design = style is not only an outdated cliché but also undermines the value of design and reduces it to the trivial and subjective. The value of design goes beyond aesthetics. 

Cycle of doom

When companies lack an understanding of design they usually hang onto the aged belief that design is only about aesthetics leads to behaviors that can ultimately backfire. These beliefs and behaviors may trigger the self-fulfilling "design cycle of doom."* 

This lack of understanding design leads to the following cycle of doom stages: 

1. Lack of investment
When operating under the assumption that design is about making something look good, design gets underfunded, leading to hiring less experienced designers reporting to non-designers from other disciplines (such as Engineering or Marketing, Development or HR ).

2. Lack of strategic involvement
When lacking design leadership, design is omitted from strategic decision-making and means design is brought in later in the project. Lacking autonomy undermines design's ability to scope and direct strategically effective and valuable work. 

3. Lack of autonomy
Hindering design’s autonomy subverts proven design strategies and activities. This hindrance means design is prescribed tactics that react to satisfy other workstreams. 

4. Lack of results  
Lacking opportunities leads to a lack of examples of design's value. This perpetuates a belief that design does not contribute to success and is merely a “nice-to-have” – that design is for other teams or companies.

Start with why

What’s the primary step toward updating beliefs about design and avoiding the design cycle of doom? Come to a common understanding of design and design’s value. Below are several recommended strategies. I find it helpful to flip the design “what” and “why.” In other words, think of design as a means to achieve strategic outcomes vs. tactical output. 

“Starting with why” emphasizes the importance of beginning with a clear understanding of the purpose that fuels design engagements.

A shared definition of design’s role.
Establish a shared understanding of design within your company, project, or team. Discover roles that help address existing challenges, particularly changing customer behavior. 

Purpose-driven design
Define the value of design beyond the visual or surface. Challenge assumptions and seek the value design brings to your situation. Establish shared expectations. Examples: Increasing customer conversion rate, reducing customer support calls, reducing customer brand confusion, etc.

Measuring success
Once a role and purpose of design has been established, collaborate with stakeholders to document measurable success criteria based on outcomes (the change in customer behavior that impacts objectives), not activities and outputs. Criteria ensure helpful ways to manage progress and impact.

How

How does design succeed? These specific strategies, actions, or approaches are taken to realize that purpose. These shape effective workstreams and guide which activities ensure effective outcomes. 

Investment in expertise
Allocate adequate funding for design that prioritizes skilled professionals and appropriate leadership, avoiding reliance on the cheapest options.

Metaphorical perspective
View designers as architects, emphasizing their early role in problem definition, problem-solving, planning, and enhancing human experiences rather than superficial adornment to the existing. 

Early design involvement
Integrate design from the beginning, before building, instead of treating it as a late-stage add-on, akin to building a house and then hiring an architect to redesign it.

Leadership advocacy
Acknowledge the need for leadership that comprehends and champions the unique value and approach design provides.

Tailored management approach
Recognize that design requires design-specific approaches, activities, and inputs distinct from other disciplines.

Outcome-oriented approach
Identify customer behaviors impacting business outcomes and explore design's role in changing those behaviors.

Key outcome measures
Develop measurable key results focused on changing customer behavior, shifting the focus from activities to tangible results.

Feedback anchored in outcomes
Structure design-related feedback discussions around key results, measuring the change in behavior resulting from design solutions driving desired objectives vs. personal subjective opinions.

Design as coordinator
Innovation thrives when design is a hub coordinating and connecting efforts among disciplines (e.g., engineering, marketing, product, manufacturing, strategy, etc). This model, found at Tesla and Apple, adds agility and connectivity. 

What

The “what” of design is the tangible visual artifact that represents the purpose and the actions taken. These are the things people focus on when discussing design; things like logos, packaging, user interfaces, etc. Properly engaging design helps predictably change customer behavior and drive business impact. These are the net outputs of a strategic process aligned with achieving business objectives.

As repeated here, the path to harnessing the true potential of design goes beyond aesthetics. But why should you bother with changing how you and your team currently think about and engage design? Besides unlocking unrealized value, it will help you avoid experiencing the costly design cycle of doom. Updating how you define and engage design will help minimize the frustration you and your designers experience, enhance how you engage with and satisfy customers, and effectively achieve objectives. Not modernizing how you engage design lets design off the hook from business accountability. It means design = lipstick on a pig. 

Bottom line, do you want to avoid the cycle of doom for design, update your ability to satisfy customer needs, or not? The strategies outlined above are a call to action for improvement. They speak to the need for purpose-driven design, proper investment, appropriate leadership, and an integrated approach to elevate design's role in achieving business objectives. Recognize design as the architect of improving customer experiences, not merely as the decorator. All other competencies play a role, and so should design. 

Like the most valuable companies in the world, put the proven transformative power of design to work for you as a catalyst for innovation, impact, and meaningful improvement.

About The Author

James Wondrack is a design leader and design process innovator with more than 30 years of experience with companies like Amazon, Corning, and Ogilvy.  He has a proven record of demonstrating the value of elevating design to the C-Suite, and making design a source of innovation and value.

*Concept inspired by Ryan Scott and Mike Monteiro of Mule Design.

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