Business professionals of a “certain vintage” have a tendency to misunderstand the role of design. They’ve looked at designers as disposable or simply nice to have.

But now, digital transformation is pushing us into a brave new business frontier—one where product expectations, unique business needs, and advancements in technology require a new way of thinking.

These new circumstances are pushing designers to focus more on the invisible rather than only the tangible. In this new business world, human-centered design will take shape as our discipline evolves toward an ever-present sense of empathy for our users.

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The Specialist Problem in Design

As a young designer I was very concerned with creating pretty pixels. Although my job in many cases was to be both UX and visual designer, the work that mattered to me and to many of my peers was centered around how something looked rather than how it worked. It was hard to find a visual designer with ux design chops and vise versa.

Design teams in those days were often broken down into specialties such as information architects, UX designers, visual designers, etc. And from there, companies perpetuated the idea of hyper-specialized design, further narrowing the skillsets of so many design professionals.

As design proves increasingly important for driving business value, you’ll start to notice that hyper-specialization has weakened the design talent pool and created a great rift between business and product—two issues that require a new definition of “designer” to overcome.

Tomorrow’s Designers Will be “T-Shaped”

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Human-centered design requires multi-faceted designers. The way we like to think of modern designers is as “T-shaped.”

Being “T-shaped” means designers have 3 core discipline strengths—research, user experience, and visual design. For each designer, one of these disciplines will be strongest and act as the central point of the “T.”

When you look at a well-rounded design team filled out with “T-shaped” designers, you’ll see a spider chart of skills. Everyone will have some combination of the core skills and fill in each other’s gaps.

User experience and visual design are traditional values for the discipline, but research is what really sets us apart from simple pixel pushers. Design can’t just be rooted in a gut feeling—we have to be data-driven if we want a seat at the strategic table.

The Designer as Anthropologist

For design to prove that it’s more than simply art, we have to make research a critical part of any project. Once you recognize the importance of design thinking and gathering the right data to drive decisions, you can start asking the right questions of both users and the business.

The crux of any successful product is empathy for its’ users’ experience—why are people using the product in the first place? If you can understand the “why,” you can do more than just design a good experience, you can truly democratized design. Anyone can install Photoshop, but not everyone can leverage the design toolkit that includes research, observation and data analysis.

If there’s no intentionality behind our designs, we can’t blame business professionals for dismissing the discipline. But if we act like strategists—not just doers—we can defeat the long-standing stigma and make sure that businesses are truly design-led.

Getting Back to the True Meaning of Design-Led

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“Design-led” has become a buzzword in the wake of digital transformation and the rush to establish businesses as forward-thinking. The true meaning has been muddled by misguided claims that a company is a “Design First, Design Thinking Company.”

But design-led doesn’t mean that a designer has to be a CEO or that a company is only focused on form before function. It means that from the top down, everyone in the organization is making purposeful decisions that balance the needs of human customers with business objectives and technological realities.

We may have lost sight of the human interaction portion of design in favor of pixels in the past, but designers must bear the burden of making sure it’s not just meaningful pixels that we’re creating. Designers must ensure that the underlying processes and interactions within a project are both purposeful and optimal.

Saying that designers must drive empathy in an organization isn’t anything new—and yet the discipline still doesn’t have a seat at the table in many companies. Today’s designers have to evangelize the human-centered way of thinking and prove to executives that the discipline brings more to the table than pixels.

If you want to learn more about how design can better integrate with the business to improve products, increase customer satisfaction, and drive more revenue, download our free ebook, Designing for Business Outcomes.

Free eBook: Designing for Business Outcomes

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