Explaining design debt.

More people, in more companies, in more industries are using design.
That’s a good thing.
Isn’t it?
In reality it can mean more fingers in the pie.
More people accessing and using files.
And that means the design you introduced as an asset can quickly become a debt.
A design debt.


A designer’s wish list.

I think it’s fair to say most designers want…

  • to work with large budgets (which usually mean large clients)
  • clients to fully embrace design
  • clients to take ownership of a brand, make it intrinsic to their culture
  • clients to believe in the value of design.

What happens when they get their wish?

  • the client becomes more successful because they sell more products/goods/services
  • the client’s workforce grows
  • the client hires an in-house design team
  • design plays a key role throughout the company.

All that means more people, across far-ranging departments, in a plethora of remote locations, accessing and using brand assets.
The result could be a design debt.

What is a design debt?

Ever done a design audit and found a client with a dozen close-but-not-quite-the-same corporate colours?
Or using a range of inhouse and external ‘corporate’ typefaces?
Or random stock images that have crept into a shot-to-brief brand library?

Inconsistent, incomplete, unmaintained design is a design debt.

And that’s completely wrong – design should be an asset.
Infact many large organisations list ‘brand’ on their balance sheet as a tangible asset.

Reducing design debt.

Designers can be proactive and help reduce design debt by:

  1. packaging and delivering design solutions to ensure assets are easy to maintain – for example is a website content plan.
  2. creating design solutions that don’t quickly date and incur debt. Make design reusable – for example supply dynamic assets that make scaling possible without redo.

Design debt is the result of an accumulation of single-use and inconsistent assets that become impossible to categorise or maintain. As they become more difficult to use and access, teams start their own collection. That’s the start of duplication and version control issues. That’s design debt.

One solution is to build and deliver not just a brand, not just a design, but a design system. (More on that later.)


Disruption from start-ups; rapid change introduced by agile workflows; and remote teams: all instances where design can start as a valuable asset but fail to keep up and quickly become a design debt.

Talking to clients about the possibility of incurring a design debt is talking about the business of design.


Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

Carol Mackay is a graphic designer with 30+ years experience managing Mackay Branson design, a successful Melbourne design studio co-founded with Greg Branson.

In 2018 Carol pivoted from client-driven work to (re)join Greg at the Design Business Council. There she uses her experience to help designers build robust businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

In 2018 she co-founded the Clear Communication Awards, and the Business of Design Week. Both will be run in 2019

Carol has the mindset of a designer and the focus of a business-owner. Her special skill is comprehension – the ability to listen, understand the situation and use design to translate complex messages into plain language.

An archive of her design work at mbdesign.com.au.
Her current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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