Journal

Scaling your organization’s design capability: Creating your design community

The Last Samurai image for Creating Your Design Community piece by Patrick Kennedy
Originally published on "Matters" by Designit

Time to return to our movie analogy from part two of this series: the heroes training the citizens. When it comes to design, the personas, journey maps, patterns, templates, and design systems are the guns, bows, and arrows from the movies. They give you a way of capturing some of your knowledge and expertise and packaging it into something that can be used by others who are less skilled.

These things are a great starting point, one which many designers will be familiar with and have already produced, but a toolset doesn’t make a design community. More is needed.

The more value the community can deliver, the more individuals and teams will participate and contribute.

Because you’re looking to effectively decentralize your design capability, some ground rules are needed to create both alignment and autonomy. These aren’t specific instructions on what to do but more like overarching principles that define how the design community should work in the absence of traditional hierarchy and ownership. Here are some suggestions and tips.

Not a one-way street

It’s not a “council” where people are coming to get sign-off or approval (you may need a mechanism like this, but that’s not what the community is for). The mantra should be “Come together,” not “Come to me.”

Invite the doers

Participation in the community needs to be from the people who are doing the work. It should not be a working group of people who make decisions without any knowledge of what is required by those in the trenches. You want the people who are part of the practice to be part of the process.

Seek commitment

The community will quickly unravel if you have people turn up once and never show their faces again. The facilitators of the community should seek a commitment from the members of the community, through the good times and the hard times.

Broad representation

You want participation and contribution from each team and area of business, so that their needs can be taken into account, but also so that they adopt practices and make a commitment. Otherwise, it’ll be too easy for them to ignore what’s agreed upon.

Take turns

The last three points notwithstanding, you can rotate representation in the community, if done with care. This might be useful if there are many people from some parts of the organization who want to actively contribute to the community, or if you are worried about only a few people shouldering the burden.

Equality

Everyone has equal rights in the community, because a good community has no head or center. You do not want a cult of personality to exist, as this encourages people who may be judgmental or take charge for the sake of perceived efficiency.

Avoid single points of failure

Building on the previous point, if your community fails to function if one particular person isn’t there, then you have a problem. Avoid leaders who may not be consistently available and who might bring with them a cult of personality.

Cater to different personality types

If you only use large meetings where outspoken people will dominate, your community will be ineffective and others will back out of participation. Use other modes such as anonymous voting, written submissions, rostering of speaking time, or even a “talking stick.”

Reward collaboration, not silos

The community should ensure it recognizes and applauds success in a way that drives meeting the collective outcomes of the community, not individual work that benefits only the creator.

Move forward together

Lean towards living documents/practices rather than something that one person created which needs to be defended and adhered to. Favor iteration. Adapt to change with a growth mindset.

Show don’t tell

When it comes to the design tools and techniques you want the community to use, it’s more effective to demonstrate them in use rather than lecturing. For example, this might include allowing people to observe the design team in action, before taking the reins themselves.

There may not be one answer

Build an ecosystem of tools rather than compete with each over which is the one tool.

And lastly, remember that this should be a self-propelling solution! The more value the community can deliver, the more individuals and teams will participate and contribute. You teach them and give them the tools, they use and give feedback, and you all discuss and iterate. Rinse and repeat.

Over to you

It’s unlikely that what works for your organization will be exactly what works for another; it’s definitely a case of making the commitment and experimenting. If that seems daunting, it might be comforting to know you’re not starting from square one. In fact, you’re already part of a meta-community! Right now you are reading about creating a community. This sharing and discussion helps everyone in the meta-community.

Happy scaling!


This is final installment in a three-part series by Design Director Patrick Kennedy on scaling your organization’s design capability. Read part one, on the limits of a design team, and part two, on the the power of a design community. Interested in training colleagues across your organization in human-centered design? Bring in Cooper Professional Education!

Patrick Kennedy
Patrick Kennedy
Design Director

Patrick Kennedy is a Cooper Professional Education instructor and Design Director at Designit Sydney.

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