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Design Leadership: How to Advocate for Design Language

Eager to establish a design language? Learn how to best share the importance of auditing product families and distilling brand attributes to stakeholders.

Sam Moon

October 11 th 2019 | 7 minute read

Making the Case for Design Language

Design language: The articulation of a brand’s identity or DNA through consistent visual elements and user experiences.

Here at M3, we’ve been banging the drum about the power of design language in the product development process for some time now. For design leadership, it’s intuitive that establishing a cohesive look and feel, ensuring consistent usability, and reinforcing brand values are all critical for improving the user experience and streamlining development. This holds true whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a fledgling start-up.

However, these benefits may not be immediately obvious to the C-suite and other stakeholders. So how do you, the design lead or manager, go about demonstrating the value of design language to the rest of your organization? And which problems might you encounter along the way?

Confronting the First Wave of Common Challenges

The saying goes that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Convincing your organization that a change is necessary can be a formidable barrier, and it’s safe to say that implementing a design language within your product development process qualifies as a big change. There are numerous ways the process can be derailed before it has even begun. One of the most common early objections is the amount of resources involved. Yes, creating a visual brand language requires time and money. However, this line of thinking takes a narrow view of a bigger strategy. Consider the long-term organizational benefits that come from having a fixed target for each product development effort. Teams save time by not re-inventing the wheel, which helps them stay on schedule and within budget. User experiences become more consistent, reinforcing the brand in the customer’s mind.

The cost of creating a design language is amortized across all future efforts over its lifespan, essentially paying for itself in a relatively short period thanks to streamlined workflows and a narrowed solution space.

Another common source of apprehension relates to the overall portfolio. “How can I apply a language to a family of hundreds of products?” Let me assure you, it can be done regardless of the scope of the effort. M3’s techniques for auditing product families and distilling brand attributes scale to accommodate any program. In our experience, the larger the portfolio, the more critical it is to have a unifying language – and to start defining one as soon as the need is identified. In this case, it is helpful to think of design language as not just a specific look and feel but a vehicle for creating a consistent experience that becomes associated with the brand.

Alternatively, you may only have a handful of products and an unsettled brand identity. This is actually the ideal time to lay the foundation for a visual brand language. Each subsequent effort is hard-coded with the brand DNA. The key here is to build in flexibility for future programs.

Assembling Design Allies for the Vanguard

Generally, getting the ball rolling involves convincing someone influential to join the cause. Let’s call them an executive “champion” – someone who can push the project forward and hold others accountable. This individual may or may not have design expertise and almost surely does not have the time to devote their attention solely to the language development effort. M3 frequently begins by helping our clients organize an informal “design council” composed of influential stakeholders from the different phases of product development (i.e., design, engineering, marketing, sales, supply chain, etc.). Ideally, these folks have the ability to view problems from 10,000 feet while not losing sight of the details. The early part of the process can be fuzzy, and it is important not to get stuck in the weeds. Whoever is chosen, establishing the council from the outset is a necessity. Doing so safeguards against dissension later when a course-correction would be much more detrimental.

Unfortunately, assembling this group can be tricky, especially if your organization works in silos. Some stakeholders may feel uncomfortable providing input on something that is not completely within their area of expertise. Explain to them that this is the exact reason they should be involved. No individual has the knowledge or skill set to create and implement a product look and feel single-handedly. Design may be a driving force, but it takes a village. In a sense, we’re talking about applying stakeholder-centered design principles to internal processes. This ensures the entire organization feels the impact of the language. M3 assists in this process by recommending which specialties should participate, getting everyone on the same page, and facilitating conversations between groups.

Internal design and engineering teams are also important stakeholders as they will be executing the language moving forward. This brings up another uncomfortable question: Why not just use internal resources to generate the visual brand language? While this is a perfectly acceptable path, the simple answer is that an outside perspective can provide a necessary gut-check that calls an organization to action. Companies like M3 don’t have the built-in biases that form after years of experience in a single field. We have the ability to objectively evaluate a product, portfolio, or brand and ask critical questions. Internal resources may also be occupied by ongoing project work, limiting their ability to focus exclusively on the involved task that language development can become.

Defining Your Brand’s North Star

As anyone in product development can tell you, few things can be equal parts exciting and frightening like a blank canvas. Now that you have your design council assembled and executive champions in place, M3 can serve as your guide. So what comes next? We get you started by taking a hard look in the mirror: who are you (as a company) and what do you want to become? The answer is the bedrock on which the design language is built. For a variety of reasons this can be the most challenging part of the process. Not only is it difficult to put a stake in the ground for what you represent as a brand, but you may also be feeling pressure from other stakeholders to start generating ideas.

So, let’s get one thing out of the way – when done well, the process of creating a standard look and feel  does not start with developing concepts immediately. It’s understandable why that feels uncomfortable. However, a lack of unified vision of what the brand stands for makes it difficult to create a tangible embodiment of core values. This absence of direction leads to a language that is unstable and devoid of depth and meaning. M3’s regimented process helps our clients avoid the pitfall of jumping straight into concepts. Instead, we encourage you to focus on establishing your values and how you want to communicate those values to your customers.

This is one of the emotional high-points of the M3 design language process. Defining who you are takes time and energy and can lead to some uncomfortable conversations. However, if you’ve made it to this point you’ve cleared some of the most difficult hurdles: convincing your organization of the value of design language, gathering a group of motivated and influential stakeholders, and getting them all on the same page.

Just know that the fun part is about to start – next time we’ll discuss how M3 can help you select hero products, develop concepts, and document and distribute the language.

About the Author

Sam Moon – Design

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”
-Picasso