The Design IMPACT Framework
A 6-step process for taking action and driving change in restrictive corporate environments
Hello! I’m Pat and Better by Design is my newsletter sharing pragmatic strategies and tactics for creative innovation through the lens of design. If you’re new here, join our growing tribe of design innovators!
In my tenure at tech companies, I often felt a deep sense of powerlessness in effecting the design changes I envisioned. Despite my aspirations, I didn’t control the product strategy and roadmap, nor did I have the authority to push code to production. This left me feeling stuck, caught in a frustrating state of professional limbo.
The conversations about having a “seat at the table” tempted me, yet they felt hollow – more about talking than taking tangible action. My ambition wasn’t to engage in endless debates over what I thought I deserved; instead, I wanted to be recognized for the concrete outcomes I could deliver. In the corporate world, I learned that complaining doesn’t lead to inclusion. On the contrary, it often achieves the opposite. You don't earn a seat at the table by being a pest; rather, you're invited when those in control begin to rely on your guidance.
Whether I liked it or not, I had to play the game, but in a way that differed from the norm. I had to rethink how I could impact the system. While I didn’t possess hard power in these companies, I realized that I had something equally potent: a formidable skill set for the creation, presentation, and execution of new ideas – a form of soft power, the ability to persuade and influence.
This form of influence might not align with the popular image of power, but when wielded effectively, it’s just as forceful. Over 11 years of experimentation and climbing the corporate ladder, I developed a personal framework to remind myself that I wasn't powerless and didn’t need permission to effect change. I call it the design IMPACT framework. If you’re feeling stuck like I once was, IMPACT can set you in motion.
Throughout the rest of this article, I’ll introduce each step of the framework, allowing us to reflect on where we might focus our efforts.
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The design IMPACT framework
Before we delve into the specifics of the IMPACT framework, let's set the stage for how this approach can revolutionize your role as a designer in a corporate environment. This framework is more than just a set of steps; it's a transformative approach that empowers designers to wield their unique skills in ways that extend beyond traditional boundaries. Each component of IMPACT—Illustrate, Mobilize, Prototype, Articulate, Cultivate, and Teach—represents a critical facet of how you can leverage design thinking to make a tangible difference, no matter the constraints of your corporate structure.
By embracing each element of this framework, you're not just enhancing your design skills; you're evolving into a strategic influencer, capable of guiding, shaping, and inspiring those around you. Now, let's explore each aspect of IMPACT in detail, to understand how you can apply them to magnify your influence and drive meaningful change.
Whether you're designing on a canvas or in code, one thing is clear: you have a superpower – the ability to think and communicate visually. This skill sets you apart in the business world, where many struggle to express their ideas or are outright incapable of doing so. It’s a significant advantage, one that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed countless instances where colleagues failed to secure buy-in for their ideas, simply because they couldn’t express them in a simple, visual format. Abstract pitches often lead to unproductive discussions and stagnation. However, when you harness your skills to illustrate concepts visually, you have the power to stabilize conversations and guide them toward clear outcomes.
The medium you choose for illustration – be it a sketch, a whiteboard, Figma, or code – is secondary. What’s important is the ability to render the intangible tangible and the complex digestible. It's these skills that spark creation and drive alignment where others falter.
In the tech business world, many functions operate vertically. Consider, for instance, product managers who oversee specific feature sets or marketing managers responsible for particular distribution channels. Design, however, operates on a different plane – it moves horizontally, influencing every potential user touchpoint across the organization. This unique perspective grants it an expansive view and access to relationships that can steer the company’s direction.
As designers, we may not hold official decision-maker status in many areas, but we possess a potent form of influence: the power to mobilize these disparate parts of the business using our visual storytelling abilities. Mobilizing is often a challenging and thankless task, but its impact is deep and far-reaching.
The changes you champion might feel incremental, akin to steering a massive freight liner. However, if you exert this subtle influence consistently, you can gradually veer the company’s overall design towards a better destination, often without anyone realizing you’re the one at the helm, guiding the course.
Prototyping is a natural extension of our core power to illustrate, but with added structure and intention. As designers, we’re often called upon to assist teams with on-the-fly visualizations of their ideas. However, taking the reins in prototyping puts us firmly in the driver’s seat, allowing us to guide the development process more directly.
The choice between low and high fidelity in prototyping depends on the specific situation and the nature of the change you’re trying to effect. For instance, I frequently use low-fidelity storyboards to prototype product visions (similar to what Marty Cagan calls a ‘Visiontype’). In the film industry, storyboards are a powerful tool for visualizing how scenes might evolve over time; similarly, in the software business, they can align teams and stakeholders around a unified vision. On the other end of the spectrum, high-fidelity prototyping, especially in code, can be incredibly effective. In software, the designs we create are inherently tied to the data we present. By incorporating real data into prototypes, you can sidestep many of the common disconnects between design and implementation, preventing unusable designs and wasted efforts.
Having strong presentation skills is essential for amplifying your influence. Fortunately, a designer's skill set provides a natural advantage in this area. At their core, presentations are about crafting a compelling narrative for a specific audience, supported by visual aids. This ties directly into our established strength in visual communication.
The first step in effective presentation is understanding your audience. As designers, we’re trained to empathize and focus on the user. This skill transfers seamlessly to crafting presentations. When you put yourself in your audience's shoes and deliver your message from their perspective, engagement and support naturally follow.
The second aspect is storytelling. A well-constructed narrative can captivate an audience and drive your point home. This is where our ability to weave visual elements into a coherent story shines.
Admittedly, public speaking can be daunting. From my experience, confidence in this area only grows with practice. While the initial nerves might never completely disappear, they can be channeled into a dynamic and compelling stage presence over time.
In environments where structural power is limited, cultivating allies becomes crucial to making waves. The cornerstone of this process is building and nurturing relationships within your organization. Fortunately, this isn’t as daunting as it might sound. In the context of tech companies, it’s more about straightforward relationship-building than complex geopolitics. The simple yet powerful act of making friends, going the extra mile for teammates, and using your design skills to support and amplify others' abilities can build strong alliances.
An example from my own career illustrates this well. When I transitioned from engineering to design, I quickly realized the importance of maintaining allies in my old department. Even with a well-articulated new direction, sometimes it was essential for the engineers themselves to champion these ideas. This reality, while frustrating at times, underscored the value of having teammates who shared my vision and were willing to support it. By having each other's backs, we formed a united front that could drive the design conversation forward more effectively.
At one point in my career, I found myself as the sole product designer supporting a team of over 40 engineers – a challenging ratio, to say the least. How did I manage? First, by focusing heavily on developing scalable design systems. Second, by relying on a great team that had my back. And third, and perhaps most importantly, by teaching as much as I could to anyone willing to listen, thereby enabling them to independently tackle design challenges.
This approach of sharing and teaching the skills we've discussed doesn't diminish your role as a designer; instead, it enhances it. By educating others, you free up your own time to focus on the most critical design problems. It also empowers others to approach their work with a design mindset, breaking down barriers and misconceptions about design. Most significantly, it establishes you as the go-to expert, a trusted advisor whom team members know they can turn to for guidance.
Embracing the role of a teacher requires confidence and a willingness to let go of the reins in certain areas. However, when you do, the leverage and impact of your work increase exponentially. By imparting your knowledge and skills, you're not just shaping products; you're shaping minds and, ultimately, the future of your organization.
As we reach the end of this exploration, it’s clear that the design IMPACT framework isn't just a set of steps; it's a mindset shift. It's about understanding that as designers, our true power lies not in the tools we wield, but in how we use them to influence, shape, and transform our environments.
Illustrate, Mobilize, Prototype, Articulate, Cultivate, and Teach - each of these steps is a piece of a larger puzzle. They are the keys to unlocking design’s hidden power in environments that may seem resistant to change at first glance.
Remember, our journey through the business world is not just about creating visually stunning products; it's about creating impact. It's about navigating the intricacies of corporate structures and using our unique skills to steer the ship, sometimes overtly, other times more subtly.
As you apply the IMPACT framework in your own professional journey, remember that each step builds on the last. The ability to illustrate paves the way for mobilization, which in turn increases the reach of effective prototyping. Articulation amplifies your voice, while cultivation ensures you're not alone in your quest. And finally, teaching solidifies your role as a leader and influencer, extending your impact far beyond the confines of any single project or role.
In closing, I know it can be hard at times, but embrace the challenges and opportunities that come with being a designer in the business world. Use the IMPACT framework as a guide, but also as inspiration to innovate and push boundaries. The waves you create might start small, but with persistence, skill, and a bit of courage, they can grow into a tide of change that reshapes the very landscape of your workplace.
Let's not just design products; let's design influence. Let's design change.
Let's make an IMPACT.
Until next time,
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