Designing a User-Centered Design Department

Justin Jurek Customer Experience Design

It comes down to three things: people, process and projects.

As an experience design and strategy firm, Magnani spends all day every day developing ideas, concepts and solutions that help our clients solve problems. It’s enriching, yet consuming work, so like any other business, from time to time, it’s smart to pick our heads up, examine our own product, and make ensure we’re delivering the best possible work for our clients with the best possible results for our business. We’ve been spending a lot of time on refining the Magnani product over the past year, but we’ve also spent a lot of time retooling the structure of the design department. To that end, here are some quick tips for designing a successful design department.


This seems like an obvious place to start, but any design department is only as good as the people who work there. So picking the right people is a critical skill.

Pick the right people

Keep in mind three key attributes when evaluating talent in the context of your business: scale, culture, growth.

  1. Scale: How large is your organization? Larger companies can afford to employ a greater number of specialists. More compact organizations usually require generalists with deep specialization in specific areas.
  2. Culture: Does this team member compliment or contrast your company culture? Either side can be valuable depending on the purposes of the hire, but keep in mind that it only takes one individual to poison an otherwise positive atmosphere.
  3. Growth: Where is your organization going? Do the people on your team have the skills necessary for the future? Will they grow with the business?

Always be learning

The world of design and technology moves fast, so to be competitive, make sure your team is always enhancing their talents with new skills that complement their core disciplines. Cultivate creative pursuits in and out of the office, because an inspired creative professional will apply that energy to much of the work they do.

Say, “thank you”

Design pursuits require a high degree of mental and emotional energy to produce quality results. Heartfelt gratitude expressed in front of the rest of the team for their efforts goes a long way to creating a culture where people feel safe to explore and push their creative boundaries. So if you’re managing a team, make sure you say (and mean) those two magic words: thank you.


Oh, process. How I love, thee. How I loathe, thee. There are few concepts more divisive in any organization than process. How much is too much? How much is not enough? What needs a process? What doesn’t? But I’m sorry… your design department needs a repeatable process. Let’s talk it out.

Design just enough process… and no more.

I’ll say it again: you must have process. The waste of time and resources to relearn the execution of a deliverable anew each time makes no sense. However… a quality, repeatable design process has some flexibility baked in. That flexibility allows the design team to indulge the exploration of a concept or an idea that manifested as an offshoot of the creative process. Take the time to cultivate those kernels of insight that pop up along, but get right back on track if they don’t go anywhere.

Apply the same process across the organization

Process can be daunting because  it often feels like the organization is constantly relearning how to work. But a quality process should be repeatable across the organization. At Magnani, we’re a big adherent of the design-thinking methodology: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. We use this macro-level process as much as we can across the organization, which helps in two ways. First, it means that your team doesn’t need to relearn steps, they just have to re-contextualize the process. Second, that constant repetition reinforces a cultural touchpoint of Magnani… we are a design-thinking based organization.


Finally a design department is only as good as the work it produces. When designing the department, hopefully you have a team that suits your business objectives and a process that maximizes their creative output. But there are a couple points related to projects that I wanted to bring up.

Be choosy if you can

As the head of a design organization, you may have some amount of say about the type and volume of project work you take in. Be cognizant of choosing the right projects that suit your team strengths, align with your business objectives, and enhance your portfolio of experiences.

Be creative if you can’t

If you don’t get a say in what projects come your way, be creative in your approach to new projects. Always look for an opportunity to reframe a project outside of its stated parameters to inject some excitement or interest into a repetitive or stale project. And keep it on budget, of course.

There’s no secret sauce to designing a great design department. But approaching it as a design problem, with attributes and conditions you can control and tweak, can set your creative team up to do rewarding work that solves problems and moves your organization forward.


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


Want more great marketing info delivered direct to your inbox? Enter your email to subscribe to our weekly and quarterly emails.