The fundamental job of design is not great design

What is the fundamental job of design? This question is worth reconsidering now that design, under the rubric of user experience (UX), has been embraced by organizations of all shapes and sizes. The answer will shape how we think about design, and its role, anywhere that design is needed.

There is an obvious answer: the job of design is doing great design. But this doesn’t account for how UX has gone from obscure to essential. To answer the question we must first acknowledge how the design world has changed.

Organizations have embraced UX

Design has undergone a seismic transformation. A dozen years ago, just a handful of organizations hired UX designers. Now everyone is scrambling for UX talent and assembling design teams with broad capabilities.

The fundamental job of design is not great design

While the UX profession has been growing for decades, the explosion is recent. Jakob Nielsen has charted a 1,000 fold increase since 1983 alone — from roughly a thousand people to over a million. The bulk of this growth has happened in the last decade. In 2014, for example, IBM announced it was investing $100 million to build their UX workforce. A 2013 study by the Design Management Institute (DMI) found that design-led companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 211%.

The rise of UX is everywhere, not just in business. There are UX teams working in nonprofits, universities, museums, and government. In the case of government, hundreds of UX designers have been brought into the US federal government through two groups, 18F and the US Digital Service, where they work on projects that range from Veterans Affairs to Homeland Security. Similar groups can be found in Canada, Singapore, the UK, and other countries.

“The real job of design is changing organizations, and charting a path to the future.”

No longer an outsider, design has become an accepted branch of the org chart, and in all kinds of organizations. Given this new reality, we can identify the three fundamental jobs of design.

Job #1: Integration

Organizations have embraced design because it can serve their overarching mission. But great design doesn’t stand alone. It must be integrated into how the organization works and aligned with what the organization seeks to accomplish.

The fundamental job of design is not great design

Think of the organization as being like the human body. If design is integral to how the body works, then it can’t be an external artifact (like clothing). We swap out clothes as needed. Being integrated means having a deeper connection to how the body functions.

Design is like an organ; a natural constituent of the biological body. But what organ should it be? The spleen is too trivial, the pancreas too specialized, and the brain overly vital. Design is more like the skin or the nervous system. It’s role is to connect and consolidate the body into a functioning whole. In a similar way, design plays many roles, and contributes to the overall health and success of the organization. Thus, the first fundamental job of design is integration.

Job #2: Transformation

The second job of design is to transform the organization as it adapts to new opportunities, markets, and technologies. The design scholar Nigel Cross argues that design provides a distinct way of knowing that is ideal for this task. Science helps us know nature; the world as it is. The humanities helps us know culture; the world as we experience it.

Design is different. Design helps us know the possible; the world as it might be. It’s a mechanism for exploring, evaluating, and shaping the future.

Design integration, the first job, is about serving the organization today. Design transformation, on the other hand, is about preparing the organization for tomorrow.

This anticipatory, proactive stance is the second fundamental job of design: transforming the organization so it can thrive in a world of constant change.

Job #3: Evolution

People burn out if they don’t direct energy to their own health and well-being. In a similar way, design needs to direct energy to its own development and maturation. This leads to the third fundamental job of design: evolving design practice.

It’s taken for granted that UX design includes capabilities such as usability, interaction design, user research, and information architecture. It hasn’t always been this way. The profession has advanced because of deliberate efforts to evolve the field. This must continue. Design must discover new ways of knowing, reconnoiter new technologies, incubate new methods, and merge the most advantageous elements into everyday design practice.

The fundamental job of design is not great design

Now that the bulk of UX design deals with integration and transformation, these evolutionary forces exist within organizations. But these forces are directed at the needs of the organization and not the needs of design itself.

This is precisely why external design studios and consultants remain valuable: as an external driver for advancing design. This is where you find the most fervent efforts to evolve the practice.

Where to next

Design has become essential to organizations and this shift means there are three fundamental jobs of design: integration, transformation, and evolution.

It’s no longer enough to do great design. The real job of design is changing organizations, and charting a path to the future.

This post is a part of “Product Market Fit,” Normative’s new Medium series which will deep dive into the blood, sweat and tears of true innovation work. From finding, identifying and managing risk, to the upsides of getting to working software as quickly as possible — we’ll touch on it all. Each post is based on conversations and consultations with Normative clients, partners, and all-around VIPs. Stay tuned.

Note: Thanks to Karl for the contribution. Originally published on The Rat’s Nest, the blog about software innovation from Normative.