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Designing a scalable design organization

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
9 min read
Designing a scalable design organization

Design is finally getting the spotlight it has deserved for a long time. Designers are in high demand at the moment. This is partially due to an overall strong market for tech talent. It’s also because companies are increasingly recognizing the value of design in shaping the experience of a product. This has been especially true in business to business (B2B) and enterprise companies.

The accelerating demand creates its own issues. This is especially true for companies setting up design teams for the first time or giving design its “seat at the table” for the first time. In addition to the accelerating increase in demand, design talent has historically been limited, for many reasons. Design leadership talent that understands the business and is capable of building scalable design organizations is even harder to find.

I’ll start by stating that there isn’t a single structure for a scalable design organization. The environment and dynamics within an organization could dictate a lot of what’s possible. However, in the below examples, I’ll try and share a structure for a scalable design organization that has worked and delivered high quality results, especially in an enterprise setting.

A well designed organization should deliver better outcomes for customers, the business, and team members within the organization. Delivering better outcomes for team members is more important than ever. With demand for designers increasing, they have a choice of which organization to join. Their growth and role within an organization becomes a determining factor in which design organization they’ll join. The way you structure a design organization within a company, in that context, could be the determining factor of what talent you end up attracting to your company.

Design’s structure within a company

First, it’s important to recognize the different types of design organizations that exist today.

Generally, there are three typical structures for an in-house design team:

  1. Centralized service organization (or commonly known as the agency model). In this structure, designers report centrally and design talent is fungible based on the most important priorities of the business at the time. This type of setup is focused on reducing costs, not increasing quality. Since it is no different than contracting an external agency, the key value of this type of a setup is bringing costs under control and ensuring control of timing and resources. The work for a team structured this way is focused almost exclusively on craft and on-demand work to improve user interface not user experience. Designers in this type of an organization face challenges in developing long standing relationships with PM and engineering. They also struggle to develop deep domain knowledge. They are not seen as partners and instead seen as “helping hands” to achieve outcomes that are decided without their input. For an organization focused on delivering excellent experiences to customers, this is no longer a valid way to build a highly functioning design organization.
  2. Decentralized design teams scattered across engineering and/or product management teams. This way of organizing design within a company came as recognition of the importance of embedding design in the work and ensuring that designers build domain knowledge and cross-functional relationships. In this structure, designers either report to product management or engineering managers across the organization. They are embedded and focused, which is good. However, this model silos designers within a team that generally doesn’t fully understand their function and provides them with little opportunity to grow their craft and design skills. This model also doesn’t get the benefits of design’s ability to break silos across product teams. Although this might work as a temporary setup as an organization matures, it is not a long term setup for building a successful design team in an organization that aspires to be experience-led.
  3. Centralized partnerships. This has been a proven model for a successful way of positioning design within a modern experience-focused company. In this structure, design reports into a central design team with a single design leader. This leader generally reports either directly to the same leader as the engineering and product leadership or reports into product leadership. The reporting structure isn’t as important as the role this organization plays. Designers in this organization are generally embedded to lines of businesses. Their central structure, however, enables them to build a community of practice, recruit and retain top talent, and establish and grow design advocacy within the organizations. Designers feel the benefits of this organization and partner teams get embedded designers that understand the domain, build long lasting relationships, and are accountable to the business not just the design team. This is truly the best of both worlds.

Although every environment is different, I’d argue that centralized partnerships is the only path forward for design organizations.

If you’re interested in exploring these structures further, I recommend reading more here. For now, I am making the assumption that centralized partnerships is the right model for a mature design team focused on delivering end to end experiences to customers.

How could a scalable design organization look in a centralized partnerships model?

Within a centralized partnerships design organization, designers and design leaders are expected to work with many partners as they drive a vision of a more experience-led company. To be effective, they need to balance the role of the design team as a creative organization and their role as a business partner in delivering experience strategy and executing on it.

Here are the roles on a design leadership team reporting directly to the VP of Design in this model:

  1. Head of Design Operations and Chief of Staff: this leader plays two important roles: a chief of staff to the leadership team, and the operations lead for the entire design team. In their chief of staff role, they’re responsible for the leadership team’s rhythm of business. In their operations role, they’re responsible for three key areas of operations: team, design, and research operations. Team operations is focused on the work required to keep a strong design culture, team culture, and works closely with design’s Human Resources business partner to build the necessary programs like career ladders, promotion cycles, etc. Design operations is focused on horizontally defining the design operating model and helping train and empower design managers to execute on it. They also work closely with design directors and managers to understand challenges design teams are facing and help solve them through process changes, training, or better communication. Research operations is focused on enabling the research team and more importantly, enabling every single designer in the organization to do more research.
  2. Head of Experience Platform: an experience platform team is focused on work the design team delivers either directly to customers or to internal stakeholders. This is focused on one or more of three key areas: design systems, accessibility, and content strategy. Having an independent team leading experience platform is critical to ensure it is treated, funded, and empowered as an independent product area. These experience platform areas should have a clear backlog, a roadmap, and an independent funding plan. Although the work an experience platform team is doing is important, it’s important to plan funding for this team in context of other needs across the organization. Design teams sometimes tend to overly focus on areas in this team as opposed to other areas of the business where designers and user researchers are embedded because they feel a sense of direct accountability to the deliverables of this team.
  3. Product Design Architect: this is a growing area of a design organization’s role. A product design architect leads the work in defining the end to end experience across the company’s product portfolio. They’re also responsible for shaping experience strategy and driving the North Star experiences across the business. To be effective, they need to drive the definition of the different pieces of the product portfolio that need to come together and a strategic plan to make it happen. This requires working closely with engineering leadership and most importantly, engineering architects. Although many designers can help lead strategic work in their area of focus, there is a need to think through this at a higher level across the product portfolio. This is a design leader’s right hand person in driving strategy work. They’re generally an individual contributor at the Director, Senior Director, or VP level.
  4. Director(s) of Product Design: these are leaders of design teams focused on different areas of the business. It is generally best to align this organization as closely as possible to the way the product management team is organized. This limits the number of stakeholders that each design director is required to work closely with. This does not mean, however, that you need a one to one alignment with the PM, especially in cases where the PM organization isn’t yet aligned around customer experiences.

At Splunk, for example, we have 8 total members of the design leadership team, myself included.

Within each product design area under a director of product design, there are a few key roles:

  1. Area Product Design Architect: this is a product design architect that’s focused on this specific line of business (LOB) or customer experience area. They work closely with the lead product design architect and generally end up working on a specific North Star that ladders up to the ultimate experience strategy. Their role is similar to that of the lead product design architect with the main difference being the vertical focus of their work on their specific area.
  2. Product Design Manager(s): they lead execution, delivery, and strategy work for specific sub-areas in this product portfolio. In their role, they work closely with the area product design architect and design director to ladder up their work to the overall and area north stars. They also work closely with design operation leads to implement the design operating model as it fits the maturity of their line of business and cross-functional partners.
  3. User Research Manager: they are focused on user research strategy for a specific area of the business and work closely with the area product design architect, VP of design, lead product design architect, and the product design managers. They generally have user researchers reporting to them that are embedded within specific sub-areas of the product. They also have user researchers working on larger end to end work that influences the overall product area.

An important aspect to note is the structure of user research as an organization matures. Starting by embedding user research within key lines of business areas gives user researchers and the function itself clear accountability and increased exposure to cross-functional teams. With a growing demand for user research, however, it is likely that there is a need for an additional role for a head of user research on the design leadership team. I would caution, however, from including this role too early without clearly defining the expectations of strategic research outcomes at that level to make sure the role of a head of user research does not become isolated to people management and function-focused outcomes.

That said, I’d advise any design leader to think through the above categories well and in particular, invest in design architecture as an IC role, equivalent to that of directors and senior directors.

What does the VP of Design do?

This is a topic on its own, however, it’s important to highlight some key aspects of the role in the context of scaling the organization above:

  1. Provide clarity and direction by clearly understanding the business direction and working with their leadership team to define and communicate the key experiences driving the work.
  2. Design the org, growing, and recruiting its top leaders: as a leader at this level, recruiting isn’t a task you outsource to your recruiting team. Designing your organization, recruiting your leadership team, and continuing to grow and recruit the right design architects, managers, and leaders across the organization is a key aspect of a leader’s role.
  3. Partnering with design architects on experience strategy: this is a key part of why having an individual contributor product design architect reporting directly to you, as a VP of design, is critical. They are your key partner in helping shape experience strategy for the company over the next few years. They are your partners not only in sharing the vision but in working with engineering architects and product management leadership in putting together the necessary changes, systems, and engineering innovation that will get you to the experience of the future for your product portfolio.
  4. Influencing and shaping business context by being a business partner to engineering, product management, and other business leaders in the organization. You cannot build an experience-led company without helping to shape the business strategy of that company.
  5. Advocacy and relationships. Much of the role of any leader is building relationships across the organization. This is even more true for a design leader considering their central role in the organization.

Final words

Organizations are different and your starting point may vary. However, regardless of where you’re starting, putting a vision in place for the type of organization you want to get to is critical in helping you understand the necessary steps to take to get there. Like any other vision work you’re doing within your organization, designing a design organization is part of that work.

What does your organization look like now? Where do you want to get to in a year or two? What are the steps in between? Who do you need to work with to get there?