The Clearleft Podcast

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Season Four

Design Transformation

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This is the Clearleft podcast.

If you go to the Clearleft website,, you’ll be greeted with these words in large, bold type:

The design transformation consultancy.


There’s just one question then. What is design transformation?


It’s changing the form or function of an organization for the better through the use of design expertise. That’s what we mean by design transformation.


Allow me to introduce you to one of my colleagues at Clearleft.


I’m Chris Pearce and I’m the Managing Director here at Clearleft.


So Chris has given us a nice definition of design transformation. But still. I kind of have some minor alarm bells ringing. I think it’s that word, transformation. I remember when the big buzzword was digital transformation.


Unfortunately, transformation, let’s just take that bit as a word; incredibly overused in this industry and everybody’s transforming something. And if you go back and think about it, okay, I get transformation. You are changing a thing into a different thing.

But I think with design transformation, it’s much more substantive for a start and it’s actually about using design expertise, design principles to actually change for the better the form, the function or the very nature of an organization.


Changing the very nature of an organization. That sounds ambitious.

I asked Chris if he could give me an example of a client that Clearleft has worked with on a design transformation project.


Virgin Holidays was a recent client where we started with the design department. We started with recognizing their ambition was to build better products and services for their users and their customers.

But there was a cultural piece to be done in terms of the organization’s attitude to how they embraced design, how they embraced user experience. There was a coaching role where we were improving the design maturity of that department. And then there was almost a role to evangelize design transformation within the organization to help them influence their internal leadership.

So, I would say over the course of our engagement with someone like Virgin that the organization ultimately did change culturally in terms of its attitude to how they developed products and services for users. But it started with a very small team of design specialists within that organization.


So if Clearleft is the design transformation consultancy, does that mean we focus entirely on organizational change?


I think at Clearleft we go further, and it’s not just about transforming the organization. I think we break it into four levels. There’s an organizational cultural piece, but it’s also about actual products and services. But it’s also about departments’ design capability. And I think finally it could also be about individual careers and transforming design practitioners and design leaders.

Because we also have a very well developed training and events expertise here at Clearleft that genuinely helps to transform people’s careers, not just products, services, or organizations.


One of the events we organize a Clearleft is Leading Design. We’ve held the event in New York, San Francisco, and every year we have Leading Design London. I really enjoy it. It’s a great chance for me to meet design leaders in all sorts of organizations. For example...


My name is Maja Raunbak. I work at the TV 2 Denmark as VP of Experience Design.


Maja has a cautionary tale about previous attempts to transform ways of working.


First there was kind of like transformation to Scrum ways of working. It could be Kanban, it could be more, you know, classical Scrum .

And then, In came Lean and a whole Lean transformation which did not stick at all. You need to work with these boards, you need to work like this. So it’s really a lot of prescriptive how do you need to work? And if you do it like this, you will get good work done.

And it just didn’t stick at all. I mean, you could see people were like, yeah, okay, we’ll participate and we’ll just see when this is over and we’ll go back to how we used to work.

So the fallback from that was Scrum again and having a backlog and be able to work with story points and having some sort of prescription of when might we be able to release what and so on.

But still not a lot of focus on value creation, but more around getting stuff done, which is also good. But in the software context, I mean developing software, reducing risk. And I think along the way it kind of became broader and broader because the whole sense was now we need to do a broad digital transformation. And in came, you know, SAFe, the Scaled Agile Framework with all of the solutions for that. And I think personally that was kind of where the ball dropped for me, because okay, this is just getting out of hand.


So what exactly was the problem? What went wrong?


You need to develop this completely different set of language to be able to talk to each other. So people weren’t able to talk to each other within the same organization anymore because the people within the agile transformation, they were kind of ending up, not intendedly, but building a silo of their own.

So in the eager to, you know, break down the old silos, I just saw that we ended up creating a new silo and, and guarded with language that was difficult to understand and with workflows that made a lot of people feel like they were doing things wrong because they didn’t work like that. So it was really exclusive.

It excluded a lot of people and the rest of the organization.

It’s kind of a religion and if you don’t do it exactly like they say, well then, you know, you’re an outcast.


If agile transformation went so disastrously wrong, does that mean design transformation is doomed as well?


Design transformation, having a more pragmatic approach, having a more focused approach on: we need to understand the problem before we look at the solutions and we need to look at the value that we need to create, who is it for?

So when I talk about it, I spell it out. It’s human centered problem solving. So it’s a human centered approach to problem solving. And then I get people on board and then they’re like, oh, this is cool. And we have people in our service teams and they’re testing with users and they’re doing interviews and they’re getting these huge eureka moments: ah, if we only did it like this, then it’s much easier for them. And it’s like, yes!, good.


Still Maja has some misgivings about the term design transformation.


In Denmark at least, I’m not sure we can call it design transformation and be understood. Because in Denmark, which has a strong furniture and also fashion tradition design is still very much look and feel.

What can you touch? What can you see? What are the fabrics? And we don’t, in general, have this mature way of thinking of design as also the process and working strategically with design in that sense. So I’m not sure we could call it that and be successful with calling it design transformation.

I don’t care if we call it design. I just care that you know, thatwe create value for real people, and people have a success in feeling that I can do this. And I think if we start, you know, just using another vocabulary and a new set of language that’s new for people, I’m not sure we will succeed.

And then we might end up doing the same thing as the whole Agile transformation has been doing. So I’m very cautious about the whole language side of it.


Here’s another leader at another large European organization.


My name is Nick Thiel and I’m the head of the Creative Studio at


I asked Nick whether there was much appetite for change within


When you first join an organization, you don’t know what you don’t know, and it wasn’t until I started actually being responsible for delivering some key brand assets to different teams, in particular product teams or someone who might be responsible for the app or someone responsible for the website, and there is a lot of overhead when it comes to implementing change on those platforms.

And for good reason too, because is a product or it’s a series of products that’s been evolving for the past, what is it? 26 years. And you, you can’t just like, change things on a dime.

The complication with that is that culturally, it can have the effect where it slows down some innovation because you’re not gonna go pursue something if it’s hard to prove.

So what ends up happening is, and, and rightly so, a lot of folks hedge their bets and make small, incremental changes to make things better. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t big bets that come from design or writing or development in engineering. But the point is that it can be more challenging and complicated.

There’s no appetite to do something like a total rebrand. There is appetite to improve, there is appetite to, to refine and polish.


But has been through quite a transformational process already.


So I’m the director of design at


That’s Stuart Frisby speaking at Leading Design London back in 2017. And he told a story of how the culture of changed over time.


So I joined in 2011.

We were deploying the website. We’re writing production code. We’re doing a lot of things which you would think would be the requirements of a developer or a front-end engineer.

And that’s really a reflection of where came from culturally, founded by engineers. When I joined, there were five designers; there were already around a hundred developers at that point and a ratio of around nine to one. So that engineering culture was really entrenched at and it made a phenomenally successful place, the biggest travel website in the world and super strong culture.

But what it didn’t do is provide a forum within which designers could prosper in the broader sense of the word of design that, that we all share rather than the tacked-on end of a process of taking something to production. So fast forward to 2017, our ratios improved pretty significantly. It’s now around four to one.

And in a very pragmatic organization that can only be because of one reason. And that’s because has realized the value of design over this last six years.

So how did we go from making design something that was a small part of the organization to something that was a pretty significant part of the organization. And we did that through measuring the impact of design.

Everything that we put in front of customers in front of our partners is the result of statistically measured A/B tests.


Ah, A/B tests! If this is starting to sound familiar, that’s because I’ve already referred to’s culture of A/B testing in the previous season’s episode on measuring design.

Go back and have a listen if you missed that one. You can find it at

I asked Nick whether that culture of A/B testing is still infused into the DNA of


I don’t believe we’re ever gonna move away and there’s no reason to, from this kind of experiment-driven culture, A/B testing, you know, trying out new things, experimenting in that regard. I don’t think we’re ever gonna move away from it, but I think the difference now is that we have a more, let’s say, intentional point of view.

We’re experimenting more on what’s the difference between this on-brand asset versus that on-brand asset, and what can we learn.


Getting back to Clearleft’s role as the design transformation consultancy, I asked Chris if there were any projects where design transformation wasn’t initially in scope, but ended up being the main deliverable.


An example that springs to mind was a while back we were working with John Lewis and we were brought in to look at a specific product that they were thinking about launching. But what rapidly became apparent that what they really needed was more of a design coaching and design leadership, so that we could empower that department to have the confidence and also the evidence to back up that confidence to really evangelize the power of design in transforming John Lewis’s digital products and services, which at the time were fairly nascent. It was very much a classic retail model back then. It was a little bit behind the curve in terms of digital adoption.

So at times Clearleft has played that role of, of coach, trainer and, and almost imbuing that department with that confidence to be able to influence the wider organization.

It’s almost like a hierarchy from the organization, the product, the service, the department, the individual. How you transform those four things is always through the lens of doing better work on behalf of users of products or services.


On a personal note I have very fond memories of that project with John Lewis. It was really rewarding. One of the most rewarding parts happened maybe a year after the project had ended.

I bumped into some of the John Lewis designers and developers when we were all in the same airport, coming back from a conference. And they too had very fond memories of the project. They told me that they talked about their work before Clearleft and their work after Clearleft as being like two different time periods.

That sounds pretty transformational to me.

But as Chris said, we weren’t initially brought on board to enact design transformation.

So I asked Chris if design transformation is like a Trojan horse. Bring in Clearleft to help you with a specific specific problem but before you know it, it’s a design transformation project.


Well, fantastic analogy. I think I would say a qualified yes on the basis of if, if there is the opportunity and the appetite to take that route, I think absolutely, why wouldn’t you? If you’ve seen the opportunity that we can make a much bigger difference to this organization through a Trojan horse type approach, then I think that’s fantastic.

The reason it was, I guess, a qualified yes is there... I think you’ve gotta be mature enough to recognize there are other times when that’s just not appropriate. It actually, I have been in situations where it’s seen as selling and it actually backfires on you in that they say, look, we’ve brought you in to do a job, we know you’re good at that job. And then often the client will say, stick to your swim lane. You know, you’re overreaching. It’s not your role here.

And either it’s because they are convinced they’re doing it quite satisfactorily themselves internally, or they have other consultants, suppliers, agencies playing that role.

So you have to be, I think, mature about it and you have to be sure that it’s an opportunity that you can genuinely add value and genuinely make a difference, not just come across as cross-selling or upselling which, you know, the role of a consultant, occasionally, you’re not gonna get that right.

But it’s, it’s about spotting the right opportunity at the right time where you genuinely can add to that value.


I guess design transformation, by its nature, is going to be a long-term project.


From the client’s point of view, if you’re brought in to do a, I don’t know, a 12 week project, and it looks like you’re trying to turn it into a two year engagement, unless it’s done for the right reasons, I think that that can come across as that’s just not the right thing to do.

Conversely, there was a example I was reminded of the other day where we were brought in by ADT, Attraction Tickets Demand dot com which is a, a specialized ticket seller for really American theme parks. And we were literally brought in on a two week engagement because there was a problem with the checkout process.

We could look at the data, we could see, yes, there’s clearly some drop off here. But what the client didn’t know was why it was happening. And in two short weeks, I mean, I actually think it’s one of our best design transformation case studies, because what we did was we married agile sprints with primary research, and we managed literally on a day-to-day basis to map out who we’re gonna talk to, how are we gonna understand the problem, how we’re gonna fix the problem, and how we’re gonna leave this organization with at least a blueprint for fixing this issue.

And the cultural change that we saw in that two short weeks was extraordinary. It was partly because I think the client had never worked in that sort of way. I think they were astounded by just how much insight could be generated and how many solutions could be generated in a really short period of time by simply working in a different way, super collaborative and committing wholesale.

I think that’s the other thing. If the client is prepared to commit their resources a hundred percent for two short weeks, you get this incredibly intense period of work.

You hear about getting into a flow state. I would say that’s probably the closest that I’ve seen of, of a team of incredibly motivated people, a combined team, Clearleft folk and the client folk, getting into a sort of, almost a flow state for two weeks to solve those problems and come out with a completely different mindset about how they approach design, how they approach digital production, and also how they approach problem-solving.

I mean, I’ve always thought designers have been problem solvers, but I think increasingly they’re now agents of change. Change agents and problem solvers. I think that is the input that leads to design transformation.


Thank you, Chris Pearce. And thanks also to Maja Raunbak and Nick Thiel

And thank you for listening.