Book Review: Org Design for Design Orgs

July 19, 2021

Cover: Org Design for Design OrgsAs the strategic business value of design as a methodology gains recognition, so has the importance of the structure and leadership of Design teams. In fact, I describe my own career as having started out with my designing Web sites, then digital solutions, then systems, and finally, designing business models and teams.

Fortunately, many business schools and thought leaders within the UX community have recognized the importance of the structure and leadership of Design teams. We see this in discussions that focus on topics such as soft skills or the UX maturity of organizations, as well as in a number of books that focus on the management of Design teams and an increasing number of business writings that discuss design.

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In their book Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-house Design Teams, Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner apply their knowledge about managing Design teams, which they acquired at the consultancy Adaptive Path, then following the acquisition of Adaptive Path by Capital One, at a large enterprise.

Book Specifications

Title: Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-house Design Teams

Author: Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner

Formats: Paperback, Kindle, Audiobook

Publisher: O’Reilly

Published: September 13, 2016

Pages: 198

ISBN-10: 9781491938409

ISBN-13: 978-1491938409

An Omni-Design Approach

Rather than delving into the intricacies of User Experience and the myriad of disciplines within User Experience, Merholz and Skinner take a broad, inclusive approach in their assessment of Design organizations. Because UX design is an interdisciplinary practice, people in many roles influence the delivery of designed experiences, including developers, writers, and others. Thus, the siloing of design specialties according to the types of deliverables they create—for example, videos, wireframes, or prototypes—can lead to missed opportunities and conflicts within an organization.

An interesting assertion that the book makes early on is that all design is service design. Despite the apparent differences in the job titles and descriptions of various UX roles, when we consider the reality of today’s economy, products, and experiences, it becomes clear that this seemingly bold statement is actually obvious.

Of course, this might beg the question, what is a service? Some may bemoan the rise of the service economy as manufacturing has declined, conjuring images of baristas and servers who work for tips. In fact, research has suggested that, as of 2018, 67% of the US economy comprised service jobs. However, this shift does not necessarily denote a decline in people’s wages or professionalism. Indeed, the services sector includes financial services, legal support, marketing, consulting, and software development. Furthermore, IT (Information Technology) has progressively shifted to more and more cloud-based solutions—including SaaS (Software as a Service), infrastructure, and business processes—which we expect to achieve a 12.5% compounded growth rate from 2018 through 2022.

In fact, many of the products that consumers buy—including cars, televisions, and security cameras—enable the consumers who purchase them to add features through subscriptions or networked connectivity. So, more than ever, product design has become tightly integrated with the delivery of services—along with concerns about onboarding, use, and support that come along with service design.

These new realities are challenging the traditional approach of siloing product design and marketing design. As Merholz and Skinner describe in Org Design for Design Orgs, product design was historically coupled with Engineering, while customer awareness and acquisition were the primary focus of Marketing Communications and Advertising departments. These departments understandably have somewhat different skill sets. But, in today’s world, products can themselves be a channel for acquiring customers. Thus, Design’s focusing exclusively on human factors can limit an organization’s potential for growth.

History of Management

Merholz and Skinner describe the history of management in organizations. They recognize that Design teams are frequently at a disadvantage because this function has not had the same focus on career growth and leadership that we see in other functions. This lack can lead to an inordinate focus on design skills rather than adequate consideration of soft skills.

The book provide the example of the Golden State Warriors, an NBA team that, until the 2012 season, had been a mediocre, mostly losing team. But the 2012 season brought important changes to the franchise, with the addition of new, highly skilled players, whose performance contributed to two winning seasons in a row. Despite the team’s improved performance and consecutive appearances in the NBA playoffs—the first in decades—their raw talent wasn’t enough to turn the Warriors into a championship team. Because of that, the franchise replaced their head coach with Steve Kerr, whose leadership style starkly contrasted with that of his predecessor. Of course, the lesson here is that players’ skills are not enough to deliver outsized results. You need effective leadership skills to create high-performance teams.

The design leader has an important role within an organization. Merholz and Skinner advocate strongly for a singular leader at a high level in an organization rather than a collection of directors. Ultimately, this leader should be accountable for the team’s performance and have direct access to the highest levels of leadership within a firm. Only in this way does the leader gain sufficient authority and buy-in from the organization.

How to Lead Design

Design teams and their leaders need to work against certain impulses that can undermine their ability to deliver strategic value. Merholz and Skinner describe a tendency for designers to want to make people happy, leading them to say yes to every request. However, it is more likely that people in other roles would recognize the value of a designer who sometimes says no—and, thus, ensures that scarce resources remain better focused. Designers should resist the urge to accept all tasks—such as making PowerPoint slides look better—and instead focus their talent on design work that would deliver sustaining value.

Likewise, designers have a tendency to dislike seeing poor-quality work ship, so they may intercede in an attempt to make it better. Unfortunately, such well-meaning attempts could be reactionary, leading to design solutions that are not well defined, that slow things down, or that add little to no value.

Merholz and Skinner stress the importance of Design teams’ defining quality standards rather than the rest of the organization having a say about them. Designers are best positioned to identify what good design is, while others may rely on their subjective biases—for example, “I like that shade of red.” Plus, while having a well-defined Design process is valuable for managing delivery and can contribute to quality, process alone is not a valid proxy for quality. Two different people could follow the same recipe for an entrée, but there might very well be vast differences in the quality of their outcomes.

Design teams frequently celebrate product launches as capstones to their work. Unfortunately, this can have the negative consequence of increasing the emotional risk that a launch may go poorly. But, more importantly, it also ignores the reality that, in today’s world of connected products, many products are never truly finished. In contrast, the continuous delivery of improvements to products can minimize teams’ anxiety and continually build value for customers and organizations.


Org Design for Design Orgs provides an excellent foundation for the leaders of internal Design teams. The book’s broad consideration of design rather than just User Experience provides additional context and greater potential for those who need to design a design organization. 

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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