design-literacy-in-organizations

Pedro Canhenha

Design Literacy or the establishment of this discipline, is a designation that has become a typical expression within the arsenal of industry-laden jargon for Designers these days (on par with the lexicon which includes, Design Thinking, Omnichannel, Multi-Platform, among a few others). It’s typically associated with the process of educating and disseminating topics associated with the Design Discipline across an Organization, specifically across different teams, of different natures (including, but not limited to, Product, Development, Sales, Customer Support, among many others). The intent of this article, is to provide some reflection points, and hopefully some informed recommendations/suggestions on how to define a process by which Design Literacy is effectively done, based on past experiences, studying and observations.


Design Literacy. Wikipedia has a lengthy definition of Literacy, but I’ll quote this snippet as a form of clarification for the meaning of the word itself: “literacy is an ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” I first came to understand Design Literacy during my own Academic studies and post-college training, which I managed to deftly apply in one of my first jobs as an Educator/Teacher of Multimedia Programs and subsequently, diverse Design Software training programs. As a fundamental part of the curriculum of the courses, it was my responsibility to provide context to the Design Discipline, funneling the focus from Design as a broad subject, to Interactive Media in particular (which were primarily the courses I taught). The curriculum for these courses was rich and quite substantial, but one of the key aspects to them, was the creation of a common denominator level of understanding into the context of Design (Interactive Design), and how that was essentially being distilled into the program that was being taught. This required an obvious process of mapping out classes, and their respective content, thoroughly (both theoretical and practical aspects), always keeping in mind, that the information being shared, was aimed at an eclectic group of attendees, with different levels of knowledge towards the Design discipline in general, and the tools that were part of the courses in specific. The reason I’m outlining these past occurrences, is solely with the intent of building this analogy: context creation, education, mapping out Interactive Design training sessions, is in reality quite similar to the process that Designers currently take upon themselves in order to educate their peers in the organizations they’re a part of. I’ve been given the opportunity to work with a wide variety of companies, from large Fortune 500 to incredibly dynamic, and vastly smaller, startups, each one of them possessed of different levels of education when it came to Design, Designer roles, expected outcomes from Design-related initiatives, collaboration venues, communication processes, among many other Design related items. I worked with organizations where Design had already claimed its place, and started a process of disseminating its processes, its relationship building venues, and even in those situations, the Design Literacy topic, was always something being fine tuned and finessed. The way by which Designers educated their peers on the discipline, was in the case of these organizations, part of semi-established process, which included the utilization of tools such as Design Systems, solution driven Design Thinking processes, Design Sprints methodologies, and a variety of tools which essentially, documented and consequently, informed team members of the philosophy of the organization towards Design, and how to best utilize the outputs of that same discipline. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I worked with organizations where Design Literacy was barely existing. Design was in these cases, primarily contemplated as a service driven discipline, without much reach or depth, in terms of influence, impactful outcomes and overall healthy partnerships with other groups within the organization. In these cases, the challenge was, and has been, to create context into what the Design discipline is, how it integrates and ingratiates itself within the tissue of an organization, how it can revolutionize the narrative of Products, Solutions and Relationships with Users/Clients. Design Literacy is something that, much like any topic these days related to technology in particular, and society in general, is constantly evolving. Designers have the responsibility and duty to keep abreast of what is happening not only within their organization, but also in the sector they work in, the larger macro-economic sense of the reality of the world, the social responsibility associated with Product Design, with inclusivity, among many other factors, which permeate Design Literacy constantly, making it evolve continuously.

Reality Check. Establishing Design Literacy in an organization can be challenging, and time consuming. It’s a necessary investment, one that produces results across a variety of subjects, which include, more relevant and accomplished solutions, effective team integration (which as a side note, also implies swifter on boarding processes), brand awareness, among many others. Below are some points worth considering when tackling an endeavor such as this one.

1.Transparency — I’ve addressed the topic of Transparency in the past, but I’d like to reinstate that it’s a cornerstone of this endeavor. Design Literacy is all about being transparent and communicating with different teams, on a variety of topics, which includes definition of processes (specifically, what is Design Thinking, Design Sprints, Workshops, Research, User Interviews, Usability Testing, and the list goes on), team integration, how problems are defined, expected outcomes (of different natures, including for instance, artifacts produced by Design teams), assessing friction points (both external and internal), defining retrospective analysis (reflection on how processes have taken place and measuring their outcomes), and this list also goes on. Without transparency, there’s less ability for participation, for collaboration, for questioning, which dampens the process, warping the solutions that are created.

2.Communicate and Educate — Designers have to understand, now more than ever before, that their role has a large component tied to education, on top of the catalyst and alchemist ones. In order to be able to bring out the best of each team one collaborates with, everyone has to understand the journey they’re embarking on, and the language everyone is speaking. This means for Designers, detailing what Design Thinking processes are, discoverability processes, research processes (also topics I’ve written about previously), all neatly tied with effective documentation tactics. By documenting, by reinforcing collaboration, seeking participation, communicating expectations and requirements, Designers can successfully start educating and disseminating what Literacy is about, and how it informs the hopeful, successful outcomes of the initiatives taking place.

3.Listen — Literacy will never be achieved if Designers don’t listen. And listening comes from multiple sources, namely from clients, from internal stakeholders, peers, anyone that comes in contact with these professionals. Education is a relationship, and as such, it’s a communication, an interchangeable process by which information gets passed around, where Designers transmit, but also absorb knowledge about the tissue of the Organization, teams, and their users. The education process, the literacy that is accomplished, should never be done in a siloed context — it’s an eminently social process which requires Designers to understand the context where the organization lies, and consequently, where they’re inserted.

4.Outcomes — The output of Design Literacy can take a variety of shapes. As mentioned previously, being able to document and share what defines Design, its language, its vocabulary, its methods, is fundamental to this type of initiative. Design Systems, Style Guides, Design GuideBooks, Confluence Pages, Wiki Pages, all these different artifacts which are produced these days, are a manifestation of how this Design Literacy takes place. These are but a small outcome of this bigger endeavor, one that as the previous points urge and highlight, should be democratized across the entire organization.


Another Reality Check. Being a Designer these days is an enticing opportunity. It allows for professionals on this field to become aware of so many topics, not just for the sake of a trend or a superficial gimmick. Professionals are now empowered to understand more about the organization where they’re embedded, about the users they’re relating to, in essence, becoming powerful storytellers. These stories can only be told effectively, if we’re all understanding the plot and where we expect to be led. And nothing helps more in that path definition, than Design Literacy.


I’ll conclude with the following quote, from William Butler Yeats on the topic of education, which is one of the topics of this article:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”


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