/   Design

The Team Sport of Scalable Design

Caroline Lee   |   Nov 14, 2018

Design is everywhere. We know, we’re a little biased- but hear us out. It’s in all aspects of our day, whether visible or not. It’s what inspires the visionaries leading huge companies, and the ones rowing hard to keep up momentum for a startup. And it’s a huge part of how we all think, solve problems, and communicate effectively with each other. But in terms of the “design” we tend to reference colloquially – such as sleek or minimalist UX design of a mobile operating system’s newest update, perhaps, or the logo designed for a new coffee shop that just opened down the street – defining what constitutes “design” as a discipline and a mindset can get a little messy.

Design isn’t always visual, but it is always about holistic process. With this in mind, we believe that anyone can bring their skillset to the table to contribute to the collaborative effort that is thorough, impactful, and ultimately great design.


A Brief History of Design, in Modern Language

As origin translates to use, the idea of design seems purposely vague. After all, it has to encompass many different industries, methodologies, and intentions. In understanding our role in design, it’s best to break it down as much as we can. One definition of this slippery, formless idea is “the purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.”

On some level, this definition harkens to design’s roots in modern language. The word design experienced an uptick in common use near the end of the 19th century, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer.


Graph representing design as a function of time in years and usage

Coinciding with the end of the Second Industrial Revolution, one might posit that the use of “design” was implemented in describing massive socioeconomic impacts coming to light through successes in public health initiatives, information and invention, and communication. These milestones and the changes they ushered in were process-oriented in a growing, post-industrialized age, creating systems and methods that would consistently and iteratively create and revise new states of being for the world. This, to some degree, arguably laid the foundations of design as a concept tied to efficiency, creation, and procedural improvement.

These process-driven changes by means of design are not unique to this time period. Stanley Wood, formerly of the Spotify Design team, describes his group’s shift in approach toward design as one that benefited from a strategic perspective.

“We decided to write some principles to turn this group of individuals into a team with a shared point-of-view.” (Stanley Wood, Design Doesn’t Scale)

The lasting victory of this move? It provided a springboard to launch a unidirectional design effort from the Spotify team that users would love. According to Wood, the success of authoring design principles was that the team tailored them to their domain – being music, and their expertise in delivering that to listeners – and tied those principles back to Spotify’s business goals “in terms that would resonate with non-designers.” Design principles hold teams accountable, certainly, but they also provide a set of universal truths that ground a product, team, or company’s offerings in ways that can then be flavored to resonate with different audiences more effectively. This is design; establishing a baseline (purpose), and iterating through the details with a goal and a game plan.


What makes a designer?

“(Aspects of design) should not be siloed in people’s minds – even if you work in a siloed business with verticals that don’t communicate, you shouldn’t let that impact the way anyone thinks about a product. (Gabe Duncan, Senior Data Scientist at Spotify)

Design wasn’t meant to be siloed, even by designers. By cross-checking our efforts through introducing and empowering other disciplines to the process of design, we ensure the success and longevity of what we are working toward designing or improving. In a recent talk given as as part of thirteen23’s Ethos design-centered speaker series, Gabe Duncan offered a group of designers a compelling set of beliefs, principles, and actionable takeaways centered around the resulting successes of collaboration between data scientists and designers. By introducing multi-disciplinary dimensions to design efforts, not only can we bulletproof our prototypes through multiple perspectives, but we can also empower others to continually participate in new and unique ways and expand design beyond conventional (or colloquial) settings.

From here, design might seem untethered from its discipline. How do we determine who qualifies as a designer? Does the prolific rhetorician, charming new business with brand storytelling and forward-thinking vision and leaving investors starry-eyed? We might call them a narrative designer. Data scientists, in their understanding of where the walls of a box might lie, help translate design sketches and hand gestures into the team’s breakthrough reality – and in this way, they practice design, too. Information architecture and how it “looks” and reads is design, as is the way businesses are designed to operate.


So, if design is a team sport, can I play?

Well, not all design is visual, as we’ve learned. Through history, whether in reference to creation or sweeping changes, it’s a discipline that has lived and breathed with those who practice it. Sometimes they look the same as us, and other times, their concept of design is wildly different from our own. But design is unified as a process and purpose best played as a team sport — one with principles and intention to make something great and make great things even better. And after all, process is how we scale.


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