3 Keys to Effective Design Teams: Empowerment, Environment, and Research

February 10, 2020

In both private and public sectors, people are realizing that design is a competitive advantage. Good design can have a huge impact on the customer experience and operational efficiency—not to mention the success of products and services. But what makes an effective design team? How do leading organizations maximize the impact they get from their investment in design?

To answer these questions, my company Clearleft recently ran a study during which we surveyed 400 designers in 37 different countries across six continents. We wanted to find out the current state of design and determine the conditions under which design can make maximal impact on an organization’s goals. Almost every industry sector is represented in the survey, including health, education, entertainment, travel, utilities, and government, as well as charities, private companies, and public organizations.

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We asked 26 questions to assess designers’ current ways of working, their relationships with developers and their management, and how design fits into their organization. As Figure 1 shows, the designers that we interviewed represent hugely differing organizations—from micro to multinational companies and commercial organizations to nonprofits—that have anything from just a single designer to a vast design team.

Figure 1—Clearleft surveyed designers in hugely differing organizations
Clearleft surveyed designers in hugely differing organizations

Design Impact

We asked designers how much design has contributed to their organization—whether in increases in sales, competitiveness, or brand loyalty. In other words, is design having a real impact on an organization’s business goals?

As Figure 2 shows, we found that a significant majority of designers agreed that design has had a positive impact on the success of their organization. A small minority felt that design was not having any impact. A quarter of designers weren’t sure whether they were making a difference. (Their not knowing tells a story in itself, but that’s for another time.)

Figure 2—Most designers agree that design has had a positive impact
Most designers agree that design has had a positive impact

What Makes a High-Performing Design Team?

In addition to assessing the answers that designers reported directly, we used in-depth statistical analyses to uncover the patterns and correlations behind those answers. We concentrated our data analysis on answering this question: what day-to-day organizational practices are most prevalent within companies where design has contributed to an increase in sales, competitiveness, and brand loyalty? We found that nearly nine of ten organizations in which design is making a positive impact have the following three characteristics:

  1. Empowerment—Executive management empowers design teams to identify and pursue unplanned or unrequested ideas.
  2. Environment—The physical work environment supports collaborative design activities.
  3. Research—Design research occurs on a regular basis, and researchers communicate the results throughout the organization.

Of these three factors, the two that most strongly predict an impactful design function are executive empowerment and a collaborative environment.

A Model for Design Effectiveness

Taking empowerment and environment as the basis, we adapted the Danish Design Ladder to illustrate an organization’s level of design effectiveness, as follows:

  1. Transformative: Empowerment and Environment—About a quarter of design teams are both empowered by executive management and have a collaborative physical environment, enabling design to have a transformative influence.
  2. Strategic: Empowerment—Only 13% of organizations are strategically aligned. While their design teams are empowered by management, they don’t have a collaborative workplace.
  3. Tactical: Environment—About a quarter of designers have a collaborative workplace, but are not empowered to seek out new solutions, and the impact of design is likely limited to tactical improvements.
  4. Emergent—Over a third of designers are in a far more challenging position. They have neither executive empowerment nor a collaborative workplace. Design is emergent, but nowhere near to reaching its potential.

Figure 3 depicts our model for design effectiveness.

Figure 3—A model for design effectiveness
A model for design effectiveness

The Impact of Our Three Factors on Design Effectiveness

How do these three factors impact the effectiveness of an organization’s design team?

Design Research

Through our study, we found that the presence of design research alone is not enough to predict an effective design team. However, there is a strong correlation between organizations in which design makes little impact and those that do little or no research.

Over half of design teams that have contributed to increases in sales, competitiveness, and brand loyalty do design research regularly or at scale. In contrast, of those organizations where design is not making an impact, 95% do little or no design research.

Companies with the most effective design functions have integrated research and design teams. The results of design research feeds directly into the design work and the design function shapes the research the team undertakes. Because these teams share the results of their work with the organization’s employees, research and design become fundamental to the organization’s decision-making and strategy. In some high-performing organizations, research and design are distributed throughout the organization.

The Environment

The physical environment in which a design team works sets the scene for how they do their work. At its best, design is a collaborative undertaking. The formative stages of design in particular are messy, scrappy, and noisy. Design is a physical act as much as an intellectual one. Designers in all specialties benefit from visual stimuli, talking through solutions, standing and huddling, sketching and pointing. They need to come up with ideas quickly and just as quickly dismiss them. Working together as a team fosters the cross-fertilization of ideas, encourages creativity, and opens up previously unseen lines of inquiry. A pristine, desk-bound environment does not allow this to happen and can lead to the fetishization of the deliverable and encourage designers to apply unnecessary polish and fidelity to untested ideas.

The most effective teams—even those comprising just one or two people—design out in the open. They cover walls in sketches, printouts, and of course, Post-its. These teams display their in-progress designs so colleagues from across the organization can pass by, see the designs, and comment on them. Their design process is more transparent and inclusive of those outside the design team.


We found that the greatest predictor of design teams having an impact on their organization is their empowerment by executive management to identify and pursue unplanned or unrequested ideas. In organizations where design teams are not empowered in this way, the impact of design on sales, competitiveness, and brand loyalty is considerably lower. This suggests that, while the impact of a collaborative workplace is significant, it is even more important that design teams be able to go beyond tactical improvements and explore more strategic, long-term, experimental ideas.

Stepping Up the Design Effectiveness Ladder

How can organizations step up the effectiveness of their design teams? Getting management buy-in is key to a design team’s ultimate success. However, executive mandates can be hard to come by. But high-performing design teams have other common characteristics that are more readily achievable. You can still replicate the ways impactful teams work. If and when your design team starts to demonstrate greater effectiveness, you might just get the leeway from executive management that your team needs.

Let’s look at some common approaches that help high-performing design teams make greater impact on their organization.

Collaborate with Developers

Forge close relationships with your counterparts in development, and find ways to work closely together throughout the design and development process.

Design Iteratively

Empowered design teams have the time and freedom to improve their design solutions iteratively rather than leaders’ expecting them to get their designs perfect the first time. If you’re a design leader, encourage your teams to start working with this mindset. Plan your work using a test, measure, and learn approach, scheduling design iterations ahead of time. This approach can help you introduce hypothesis-based thinking.

Iterative design usually requires help and buy-in from the technical side of the organization—building upon your collaboration with developers. Ultimately, collaboration leads to cross-disciplinary business goals that get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Share Design Work Broadly

Successful design teams share their design work across the company—in all-hands meetings, important executive meetings, and other influential gatherings. Work in the open, making your team’s progress visible on walls—both physical and virtual—and proactively share your research findings and design progress.

Take a Customer-Centric View

Employees outside the design and research teams have a good sense of customers and their needs. Invite people from around your organization to observe user research. Write up your findings in an easily understandable manner and share them widely.

Have Pride in Your Work

Empowered design teams are proud of the work they do. Designers’ pride in their work is one of the most important drivers of workplace engagement. Teams who have pride in the work they do achieve higher levels of productivity and have greater employee retention. Work out some ways of assessing how proud your design colleagues are of the work they’re doing, and you can get a sense of your team’s progress.


Design teams that have all of these factors in place have the potential for their impact on an organization to be transformative. Bringing these factors together can raise the importance of design in your organization—from emergent, through tactical, then to strategic. Ultimately, with executive buy-in, design would be well placed to take a truly transformative role that not only increases sales, competitiveness, and brand loyalty, but is also a determinative element in the organization’s overall business strategy and success. 

Download the Design Effectiveness 2019 Report and sign up to participate in the next survey.

Co-founder at Clearleft

Brighton, UK

Richard RutterRichard started designing Web sites in 1995. At the beginning of his career, he designed the user experiences of Web sites for numerous dot-com startups, as well as large organizations such as Barclaycard. He later became the user experience lead at Multimap, Europe’s most popular mapping site, which was acquired by Microsoft. In 2005, Richard co-founded Clearleft, a digital design consultancy that has since helped hundreds of clients across five continents embrace digital and become more efficient and competitive. He helps the team at Clearleft work with clients to create new and improved digital presences through a pragmatic combination of research, delivery, and digital transformation. In 2010, Wired UK named Richard one of the UK’s top-100 people shaping the digital world.  Read More

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