Episode 127 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with my friend Audrey Crane. Audrey is the Head of Growth at DesignMap, a product and strategy design firm. She’s also the author of What CEOs Need to Know About Design, a book that helps leaders understand and tap into the power of design in their organizations.
In this, Audrey’s second appearance on the show, we discussed the concept of “shadow design” and how organizations can ensure they are getting the best design work for their money. Audrey provided insights into the challenges and reasons behind organizations engaging in shadow design, as well as potential solutions to address this issue.
“Shadow design” refers to design work that happens outside of the designated design team within an organization. This isn’t necessarily strategic design work, but non-designers performing design tasks that are meant to be the final steps in the design process, such as workflows or screens destined for production. It’s not a good use of resources. As Audrey put it,
the shadow design argument is, “Let’s stop talking about ‘give us more money, give us more headcount, see our value.’ Let’s all measure how valuable we are.” … Let’s just talk about the money that you’re spending today and the money that you’re spending today is not being spent well. So, let’s measure how much money you’re spending poorly today, and let’s spend that money, at least some of it, a little bit better by moving that from wherever design is happening in the organization through shadow design into a design team that can, support products better with better quality work, more efficiently, right?
It’s happening in lots of organizations, some of which are more mature than others. Audrey laid out a four-stage maturity model for how receptive organizations are to sponsoring a professional design function. Shadow design happens in all but the highest level.
Audrey encouraged listeners to complete a survey that allows them to assess the degree to which shadow design might be happening in their organizations. She also discussed strategies for addressing it.
Shadow design often stems from limited awareness and resources. By becoming more self-aware about their degree of maturity, organizations can be more effective in apportioning their resources for effective design work. This conversation – and Audrey’s work more generally — can help them get there.