Your Chief Design Officer Is Not A Savior

And more insights from Artefact’s first survey of more than 300 organizations on “design maturity.”

Your Chief Design Officer Is Not A Savior

Doubts about the business value of design are evaporating. Look at investments companies ranging from Google to GE have sunk into design. But methodologies on how to measure and improve design’s effectiveness are virtually nonexistent. To close that gap, we created the Design Maturity Survey, a tool that helps organizations evaluate their design maturity and, in doing so, devise strategies to strengthen the impact of design across the organization.


Since September 2015, when we launched the survey at the Design Management International Conference, people from more than 300 organizations have taken the survey, representing 36 different industries. And while it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about how individual industries compare, some patterns are starting to emerge, giving us unprecedented insights into how design is perceived across different seniority levels in organizations both large and small.

Before I dive into the insights, let me give you a brief overview of the survey methodology. The Design Maturity Survey prompts people to quantify the maturity level of their design capabilities in five categories: empathy, mastery, character, performance, and impact. We scored each category to calculate an average design maturity level ranging from “initial” (1) to “design-driven” (5). The average design maturity score for all people who took the survey was 2.78, or slightly under the neutral “managed” level, and no organization scored lower than 2.1, suggesting that some level of maturity is perhaps required for people to even take an interest in the survey in the first place. In any case, the goal of the survey is not to determine the organization’s quantitative score but to provide reference points across the categories and over time. Hopefully, it offers a starting point for deep conversations about an organization’s priorities and pain points.

1. Smaller is (sometimes) better.

The highest maturity rating was given to organizations with fewer than 20 people. Survey participants from smaller organizations (under 100 people) consistently rated their organizations as more mature. The lowest maturity score was for organizations of around 1,500 employees. They ranked themselves lower than large corporations with more than 10,000 employees.

This result reinforces some ideas about the nimbleness and openness of small teams. Presumably, larger organizations struggle with entrenched processes, complex organizational structures, ambiguous politics, and hierarchical decision making. One possible interpretation for the fact that the largest organizations outperformed the medium-size ones is that the design teams in large companies are well established and have more leverage to impact the company’s overall direction.

Recommendation: If your company is stuck in the middle, think about how to organize your teams so that design has a clear voice across business practices and product teams.


2. Designers have a (design maturity) midlife crisis.

People in mid-level positions tended to give their organizations the lowest maturity scores, while senior folks rated organizations significantly higher compared with everyone else. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that leadership is disconnected, but it could be equally plausible that executives have the best view of what really matters to the organization.

Recommendation: Mid-level executives are instrumental to the culture and processes of your organization, regardless of the industry. They need to be empowered and incentivized to help the organization improve its design maturity.

3. The Chief Design Officer is not a savior.

Here is a surprise. Organizations that scored high on hiring executive design talent had the lowest level of maturity. There are two ways to interpret this. One is that the organization hired the executive design talent to amend its low level of design maturity. The alternative interpretation is that the executive talent was ineffective in improving design maturity. Regardless of which interpretation you subscribe to, one thing is clear: Just hiring an executive is not enough.

When we talked to people who participated in the survey, we identified several challenges that undermine a design executive’s effectiveness: unrealistically high expectations (“she will fix everything”) as well as not factoring in the time it takes to establish influence and build networks and alliances, as well as the difficulty in changing systemic issues and cultural barriers.

Recommendation: The impact of hiring a CDO mimics the Gartner Hype Cycle–a peak of inflated expectations is followed by the trough of disillusionment. You have to be patient to get to the slope of enlightenment and become a more mature design organization. But to reach the plateau of productivity, a CDO needs more than time. Which leads me to . . .


4. Design maturity is associated with rigorous training.

The strongest correlation we observed was between design maturity and cross-disciplinary training. Regardless of size or industry, the organizations that ranked high in training were more likely to report greater design maturity. Our experience supports that. General awareness of design and design thinking might increase across an organization, but it is not enough to overcome a lack of formal training in best practices and methodologies. That is perhaps one of the reasons why companies whose offerings are based on design best practices, frameworks, and methodologies (such as 10,000ft) and online design training programs (such as Ideo U) are thriving.

Recommendation: If you want to make a difference in your organization (and increase the return on that CDO hire), train cross-disciplinary teams in design thinking. Choose tools and collaboration methods, like 10,000ft Insights, that support design thinking.

In Conclusion

The data so far confirm some intuitive observations. B2C companies are more mature than either B2B companies or companies that have both B2C and B2B orientations. Having a more direct relationship with a broader and more diverse group of mainstream customers facilitates great design work. Mainstream consumer design also requires a higher proportion of designers to other disciplines. The role of design is better understood and supported in its traditional delivery context at least. As we continue to collect data, it will be important to follow up with a more in-depth comparison of industries as well as to discern finer patterns within less design-centric industries such as enterprise and health care.

For now, we hope the survey starts a conversation within organizations about how to improve design maturity. After all, if good design is good business, then it is time for us to be able to say how good we are in building organizations, in which design drives the business.

Want to take the survey? Go here.

About the author

Rob Girling is a co-founder and principal of design and innovation consultancy Artefact, where, together with co-founder Gavin Kelly, he sets the company’s strategy and vision—to design exciting products and experiences that inspire positive changes in human behavior.