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Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz, Kristin Skinner

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Why We Wrote This Book

Design books typically discuss design practice—tools, processes, and methods for doing design work, and case studies that show how that work has been applied to real-world problems. These books are meant for design practitioners who are looking to improve their craft.

This is not that kind of design book. Instead, this book responds to a profound shift that has occurred within enterprises over the past 10 years. Businesses and other organizations have realized that design, like sales, marketing, and information technology, must now be a core competency. Design has proven vital to business success, whether reducing costs and customer churn, or increasing revenue through creation of new value. This has driven companies to seriously invest in internal design capabilities.

The thing is, design is way less mature than other corporate functions, and its practice and impact suffer because of its lack of sophistication. Companies aren’t realizing the potential of their design investments. Most business leaders are not designers, and so don’t know how best to establish design in their organizations. Many design leaders, with backgrounds in the practice of their craft, don’t understand managerial and operational issues, and struggle with the organizational aspects of building and leading teams.

Org Design for Design Orgs is for those business and design leaders. This is the book we wish we had as we began our careers building and managing design teams. Like so many others, we figured it out as we went along, stumbling toward a set of approaches that work pretty well. We share what we’ve learned not because we have it all figured out (far from it!), but because it’s time to elevate the dialogue around design operations and management.

This is a handbook for making the most out of design organizations within enterprises, regardless of their present size and sophistication. Instead of design practice methods and tools, it features maturity models, organizational frameworks, guides for staffing and retaining talent, and recommendations for successful cross-team collaboration.

The Authors

Peter Merholz’s career in design management began during the first web boom at Internet startup Epinions, where he built a small team and realized that the best thing he could do was get out of their way. He followed this with establishing Adaptive Path, a world-renowned user experience consultancy. In helping it grow from the original 7 to nearly 50, Peter led much of the recruiting and hiring, scoped and led dozens of projects and programs, and codified the key roles and responsibilities of project teams. After leaving Adaptive Path, Peter tackled a series of in-house challenges, most notably as VP of Global Design at Groupon. There, he took a team of nearly 30 product and communication designers in three different locations, and grew it to nearly 60 in six locations, while improving their effectiveness and shifting design from an afterthought to a critical function.

Kristin Skinner began her career in design management by working at a slew of Bay Area startups in various design capacities, and then took a Design Program Manager role at Microsoft at a time when there were just 400 designers at a company of 90,000. After an initial stint in the Server and Tools division, she switched to a Design Manager role focused on user experience strategy, and device and services design at Microsoft’s Pioneer Studios, which was created to incubate new business opportunities for emerging consumer experiences in gaming, entertainment, and media. She managed the end-to-end work of a team of 25 UX, visual, and motion designers focused on strategy, vision, prototyping, and design for mobile.

After four years at Microsoft, she joined Adaptive Path, where she spearheaded its program management efforts, streamlined operations, co-programmed and co-hosted its annual Managing Experience conference, and shaped and led over 50 projects and programs. After Capital One’s acquisition of Adaptive Path, she remained, focusing on transitioning the consultancy to an in-house specialty design team while establishing and leading a new Design Management practice across the entire design organization with a team of 15 design managers (and growing!).

How This Book Is Structured

Org Design for Design Orgs contains four thematic parts:

Part I

Because design is a squishy term that means different things to different people, the book begins by grounding the reader with a set of core concepts and definition of design. Chapter 1 explains the forces behind design’s ascension within business. Chapter 2 redefines “design” with a far greater purview than it is typically given, and discusses the organizational implications when design is granted that expansiveness.

Part II

This part is made up of just Chapter 3, which outlines the 12 qualities of effective design organizations. This chapter stands on its own as an overview of the many concerns that must be addressed, serving as a kind of maturity model against which any design organization can be assessed. If you only have time to read one chapter, make it this one.

Part III

The next two chapters tackle matters of organizational structure and evolution. In Chapter 4, we discuss centralized and decentralized approaches, and propose a hybrid model that enables the best of both worlds. With that as a foundation, in Chapter 5 we share our thoughts on the roles that make up a modern design organization, and how a design team evolves over time, from the initial 2 members to 60 and beyond.

Part IV

The remaining chapters focus on the brass tacks of running a design organization. Chapter 6 provides step-by-step detail of establishing headcount, sourcing candidates, and navigating the interview process. Once on the team, employees need to know how they can grow. Chapter 7 outlines a flexible skills-building and levels framework for designers, supporting a myriad of career paths. Key to the success of a design organization is a strong sense of identity, and Chapter 8 shows how a team’s values, environments, and activities lead to making it a great place to work. With a solid culture established, designers are better suited to collaborate cross-functionally, the subject of Chapter 9.


Both authors wish to thank Mary Treseler for bringing us onboard at O’Reilly, and Angela Rufino and Nick Lombardi for sticking with us throughout. Our writing benefited from the many conversations we had with design and business leaders: Chris Avore, Bob Baxley, Sara Beckman, Leah Buley, Dave Cronin, Catherine Courage, Mike Davidson, Kaaren Hanson, Sabine Junginger, Braden Kowitz, Chris McCarthy, Lesley Mottla, Kai En Ong, Margaret Stewart, Milissa Tarquini, and Secil Watson. And we are grateful to early readers and reviewers Ellen Beldner, Andrew Crow, Adam Cutler, Erik Flowers, and Lori Kaplan.


This journey would have never taken place without my coauthor Kristin, and I’m grateful for our chance to once again work together.

In addition to the people mentioned above, I want to thank those with whom I had less formal, but still informative conversations, including Richard Dalton, Priyanka Kakar, Jared Spool, Russ Unger, and Todd Wilkens.

And I’m most grateful for the support of my wife Stacy Kozakavich, and our children Jules and Dorothy, who still don’t really know exactly what I do.


As design practitioners, we can design experiences, organizations, communities, our lives. And as design managers, we naturally focus on others—our teams, customers, and the participants in the design and delivery of the experience. As we design not just screens, flows, processes, and services, but focus across fields to design systems, beliefs, and organizations that make up great experiences, we recognize that we rarely go it alone. We become obsessed with what works for the customer and how to prove it; we measure feedback and learn from it while optimizing for both speed and scale. And we are driven to get the most out of our teams by focusing them on their best skills, connecting the right efforts for impact, and ensuring value of the experience and efficiencies in the work. This book is meant to be a playbook to help guide that journey.

In late spring 2015, Peter and I were having an informal chat about design organizations. Having similar but complementary experiences, we half-joked “we should write a book!” which soon turned into an outline, which turned into a proposal, which turned into Org Design for Design Orgs some 15 months later. We approached the process in the best way we knew how—draft an outline, make a plan, identify and talk to experts, incorporate feedback, adjust the plan, refine the outline, create some talks, have more conversations, incorporate more feedback, teach some workshops, adjust the plan again, and actually write the thing. Exceptional support, willingness to share, and thoughtful discussions by everyone Peter mentioned (and deadlines!) helped bring us to this point.

Thanks to Peter for his perspective and energy; thanks also to my colleagues over the past six years at Adaptive Path for their wealth of knowledge, especially Brandon Schauer for the guidance, support, and clearing of pathways when needed, and Scott Zimmer for recognizing the value and potential of the field of design management applied at scale to a financial services organization, and for giving me the opportunity and latitude to establish and lead this discipline.

Thanks to my Design Management team and their wealth of perspectives, contributions, support, and encouragement. I’m honored to be surrounded by such a motivated, passionate, and dedicated group of GSD (get shit done) experts.

Finally, I’m thankful for my family and my daily inspiration, my boy, Vaughn KS Miller, who unwittingly and effortlessly reminds me that I have much to learn from his perspective—you motivate me, teach me patience, and make me laugh every single day, and for that, I am grateful beyond words.

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