When design *doesn’t* add value

I believe, and have seen, that design adds huge amount of value for business. So it was interesting to read this study in the Design Studies journal that found that, in some circumstances, using design can reduce the profitability of companies. It’s always hard to read things that go against your beliefs

The study has two interesting findings:

  • Over three years, businesses that invested in design gained more customers than those that didn’t invest in design. (That makes intuitive sense)
  • Over three years, businesses that invested in design were less profitable than those that didn’t. (Wait what!?!!)

Some definitions used in the study:

  • Silent design is the design work that gets done without design practitioner involvement
  • Overt design is design work done by design practitioners

This is what the study says in it’s conclusion:

Firms favouring silent design have significantly higher profits and higher turnover per employee than firms favouring overt design. This suggests that the costs of overt design, namely the costs of employing designers or hiring design consultants, outweigh the potential benefits gained from overt design.

Read that again. Companies that don’t use designers have “have significantly higher profits and higher turnover per employee“. Ouch. That hurts a bit, I’m not going to lie.

Maybe those ignorant middle managers who just don’t get design but want to know the ROI of their design spend where right after all? That probably hurts even more. (Maybe us designers were the ignorant ones that didn’t understand design enough 🤔) … let’s move on.

How does this happen?

Basically designers are expensive (as are all employees). And non-designers can still do a passable job at designing (silent design). So the money saved by not paying designers goes towards higher profits.

Put like this it’s feels obvious. It’s important to question when, where, and how professional design adds value. (Or adds the most value.) And that doesn’t happen enough in design discourse.

What are the limitations of the study?

The data is from 2007 – 2009. This is the big one. That’s a loooooong time ago in digital design, and professional design practice has developed hugely since then. More on this in a moment.

The data in the study was gathered over three years so it doesn’t show any long term effects. It’s a reasonable hypothesis that the effects of good design will be cumulative and increase over a longer period of time.

What’s changed since the study?

A lot! The digital design industry has matured.

Design practice is much more professional – we now have large design team, design systems and patterns, design ops. All helping to deliver design at scale more efficiently.

We also work with business much more deeply – better UX design and research, Service Design, Business Design, Design Thinking and friends. Design is much more integrated with other disciplines.

The average person’s understanding of good design – and their expectations of good design – have grown enormously. People know good digital design and good digital service. Uber, Netflix, PayPal, Asos, Monzo; the best natively digital companies have set very high expectations and this seeps into our cultural understand of baseline good design.

Finally the tools, templates, and frameworks available for non-designers to do ‘silent design’ have improved and are more widely available.

The study is old and has limitations, but the basic idea of design doesn’t always add as much value as we’d like it to and it also has costs that need to be paid for is still relevant.

Final thoughts.

I’m interested in how design creates value for businesses. And if we are going to have good conversations about the value design creates it means recognising that design can fail to add value. The alternative is to ask for a religious-like faith in design from business leaders, appeal to data-less holy texts from McKinsey and sulk when business talks business – “they just don’t get design!”

But design isn’t special. It’s not above the reality of profit margins. It’s not unmeasurable. As an industry we need to do much better partnering with business to measure the value we create at a tactical project level.

Another way design isn’t special is that it can be done by anyone. (It probably is done by everyone). It’s interesting (to me at least!) to frame silent design – the design done by non-professionals – as competition for professional design. If the silent design is good enough there’s no need employ expensive designers. A better understanding, and respect for this competition will help us shape design practices in ways that create more value.

And the best thing about this ‘competition’ from silent design is isn’t not a zero-sum game. If we can collaborate with our non-designer colleagues and more effectively help them do better design, more good design gets done and we amplify the value we create. Not silent design but quiet design perhaps.

Dieter Rams said “Good design is as little design as possible”, that holds true for our design practices as well.