Let me take you back, briefly, to an uncomfortable time when you had fickle skin, fickle friends, and a crisis of personality and personal style, thanks to a growth spurt that left you with a closet full of ill-fitting clothes. This is best known as an “awkward phase,” and it usually occurs during the tumultuous years before full-on teendom.
It also appears to be a phenomenon familiar to adults in the design industry. “Design is experiencing its awkward moment,” says John Maeda, head of inclusion and computational design at Automattic. For the last five years, Maeda has released his annual Design in Tech report, a 100ish-page deck filled with observations and facts about where design as a practice fits into the larger technology industry.
Unlike previous editions, Maeda’s newest report focuses less on proving design’s value and more on how design’s “seat at the table” has left designers wedged between corporate cultures, ever-changing skill sets, and constant self-reinvention. That does sound pretty awkward.
Part of the problem is that in the five years since Meada began extolling his “design matters” mantra, that mantra has been taken up at a dizzying pace by large companies who were eager to buy the competitive edge that design thinking, doing, and strategizing could give them. As a result, design as a practice has experienced a contraction in one sense and a growth spurt in another.
The en masse designification of business is old news by now for those who’ve been following the trend, but it’s worth repeating because the numbers are striking. According to Maeda’s data, since 2004, large consultancies and corporations have acquired more than 100 independent design-related companies, with around 60% of those acquisitions occurring since 2015. In this past year alone, Maeda counted 19 acquisitions of “design-related” companies, including Deloitte’s purchase of branding shop Brandfirst, Bain’s scoop of digital agency FRWD, and Adecco’s acquisition of for-profit UX education organization General Assembly.
Scaling design is possible at a slower-than-desirable velocity.
“All the consultancies designed-up. They bought, bought, bought. And now that they’ve got [design], they’re realizing it’s not a machine they bought—it’s culture” Maeda says. The McKinseys and Accentures of the world brought designers into the organization to help influence the company’s way of making products and services, but how that manifests as day-to-day work culture is a lot more complicated, mostly because humans are complicated.
Maeda argues that scaling design at the speed of Moore’s Law isn’t possible. People aren’t computer chips; it takes time and a lot of trial and error to see how design teams fit into the large ecosystem of a business. And oftentimes, it’s not in the way a company might have first imagined. “Scaling design is possible at a slower-than-desirable velocity,” he says.
For companies like McKinsey, who largely bought their way into the design world, that transition will look different from IBM, which built its 1,600-person design team from the ground up, dividing them into various product teams but physically centralizing them in design studio on its Austin, Texas, campus. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum are Silicon Valley-native companies like Airbnb, who are almost post-design in their approach and have been championing an anti-design-led company culture for years. What works and what doesn’t? All this to say, there’s no blueprint for these things, which is a tension Maeda acknowledges but doesn’t necessarily have a solution for.
Ultimately, Maeda argues designers should aim to play a “supporting role” in organizations, akin to the way Tilda Swinton and Christoph Waltz make every movie they’re in better without commandeering the plot. It’s an unusual metaphor, and one that undermines the design leadership agenda he’s been pushing for years now, but the thrust of the argument is fair: Designers with C-suite ambitions are important, but it’s more important for designers to work harmoniously within the complexities of multi-disciplinary teams, especially when it comes to building scalable tech products. As he writes in his report, “Alone and isolated within a company, design is a micro-world of aesthetic high-fives.”
Alone and isolated within a company, design is a micro-world of aesthetic high-fives.
Maeda’s background as a programmer-turned-designer makes him susceptible to taxonomic breakdowns of design-types, which he sorts into three buckets, including “classical designers” (those who make posters), “design thinkers” (those who make design systems and businesses), and “computational designers” (those who make the stuff people actually use). These are handy, if limiting, definitions meant to establish a loose theory of design Darwinism in which classical designers will go the way of the Dodo.
Computational designers, those who know how to code, or at least speak the language of computation, have the best chance of navigating the challenging path designers now face, Maeda says. But even they aren’t exempt from the awkwardness and the sometimes helpful learnings that come with it. “I think there was once a Tumblr about me called ‘awkward John Maeda,’” he says. “I’m not sure if it was an insult, but I took it as a compliment. As a designer, investor, engineer, I’m pretty okay with being awkward.”