Design Management Office: How we got here and what lies ahead

Design Management Office

How we got here and what lies ahead

Design has moved from the “Explorer Age” to the “Settler Age.”

John Devanney November 10, 2017

The following is an excerpt from The Design Management Office: A guidebook for delivering design at scale. Go here to download your free copy.

Over the last couple of decades, digital product and service design have gone through periods of rapid evolution. During the rise of the internet, the work largely focused around the desktop computer and browser. With the mass adoption of the smartphone, we added mobile platforms to our work. Now, as designers, our current area of focus is around multi-platform products and services.

These last 20 years of digital design have been, in a sense, an “Explorer Age,” where designers and colleagues in adjoining disciplines have worked without a map. Each disruptive turn through a new technology or platform was a discovery that seemingly could only lead to exciting new experiences. Just think back to when the first iPhone and iPad were released. The possibilities felt endless.

Design's “Explorer Age” vs. “Settler Age”

Design is no longer the vast unexplored territory it once was. We’ve moved from the “Explorer Age” to the “Settler Age.”

Designers who grew up in these heady days remind us of America’s early explorers—regular folks who left other lives, attracted to new territories by endless possibilities. Much like the farmer who left his land in the East for the vastness of the West, these were graphic designers who gave up print for web, writers who left their posts for jobs in content strategy, and industrial designers who gave up the physical for the digital.

While the exploration is far from complete, it’s time to recognize that there are many areas that have been mapped fairly well. Our space—where innovation and discovery are the norm—is no longer the vast unexplored territory it once was. Paradigms have been set, patterns created to be reused, behaviors sorted out. In many places, we’ve moved from the “Explorer Age” to the “Settler Age.”

This is most evident when it comes to designers themselves. Designers entering the field today are no longer making it up as they go long (as we once did). They’re digital natives who have broad, user-centered skills and an intuitive understanding of well-established interaction paradigms. Instead of scouting and probing unknown digital environments, they comfortably inhabit these spaces.

We’re currently at a point of convergence in the world of digital product and service design. The shift from “Explorer Age” to “Settler Age” in digital design coincides with a bigger development in design’s business trajectory. After decades spent advocating for design-led approaches, thought leaders in design and business have progressed the conversation from how design can be valuable, to how to effectively deploy it.

In The Design of Business (Harvard Business School Press, 2009) Roger Martin argued for design thinking as the secret ingredient that helps companies innovate and ultimately win. Since then, you’d be hard-pressed to find a business leader that argues the opposite, yet the design community often still fights the same old fight: evangelism. It seems that some of us are the last to realize that business at large has moved on and is now focused on operationalizing design.

We’ve been given a seat at the table to realize the value of design for business. Now is the time to shift our energies from evangelism, toward operations.

What’s going on now

DMO design teams

Scale and growth add uncertainty among interdependent design

Design’s new seat at the business table has created new problems for designers and design leaders. If we all agree that design is important and drives value, how do we consistently deliver on that promise? As organizations mature beyond design awareness and invest in design capabilities, design leaders are the ones being held accountable for the return on investment. That means they’ll have to build and manage large, often global, design teams. These large teams are also in a state of transition. They’re moving from making interfaces, capabilities, and experiences to take on the larger challenge of bringing everything together to help their organization build relationships with users and customers.

There are a few things that companies with large design teams are up against: scale, careers, and measurement. Before any team can even attempt to take on the monster task of strengthening customer relationships, they need to first address these three pain points. For tips on how to address these painpoints, download the free DMO guidebook.


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John Devanney

Managing Director