Tassia Pellegrini

March 2, 2021

Design-led or design-embedded?

I hear many designers talking about wanting to be in a company that is "Design-led". I thought a lot about that too; my bias, as someone working with design for 10+ years, is that it would be a good thing.

Designers generally embody a good understanding of the business and tend to be great communicators, system thinkers, and human-centered. Leaders with this kind of background are great culture shapers, so the hope here is that having designers at the top generates not only a profitable business but a beautiful and forward-thinking ripple effect through the rest of the organization (and sometimes the society, too).

But is having the (goddess help me) "a seat at the table" enough?

I ask this rather innocently. As food for thought.

For example, I believe it's undoubtedly a good sign — for any role, really, but I speak from my experience in design — to be somewhere where the (design) discipline is properly represented in an intentional manner (instead of being something that "just happens").   

And considering the relevance and impact of the design role at large, making sure diversity is being accounted for is undebatable. 

Those are the fundamentals.

But when we ask for companies to be design-led or at least give the design discipline the same voice as they often do to their data-gods and money-printing machines, which changes are we asking for?

What are we expecting from having formal and high-ranked design leadership?

Going back to the idea of culture shaping, I actually would like to think about this more from a design-embedded point of view.

Maybe it's the same thing everyone else is talking about but from a slightly different angle. I'm not saying anything new.

For example, I would rather be somewhere where everyone talks and acts "like a designer" (holistic thinking, vision, and human-centeredness, to name a few things I like) rather than at a place where there's a bunch of design leaders with authority but entangled with corporate politics, pointing fingers at each other. 

At least for me, a design-embedded scenario would imply that design is a respected discipline regardless of how many directors or VP levels it has. Regardless of the CEO's professional background (which can very well influence how design is perceived, don't get me wrong).

Design as an embedded discipline without pulling rank doesn't dilute the design role's relevance; I think it amplifies it. It democratizes thinking without banalizing specialized skills. 

So maybe it's not a 1 or 0 scenario; because then some places might need first to be design-led so they can become design-embedded. And the road to get there will be different for each group.

But my tendency to think holistically drives me to grasp the design-embedded scenario more than the design-led one.

I also tend to be naive, too.

This is not a finished thought. It's me wondering about the impact and implication of the words we use and the actual things we want.