Explaining design.

I’ve always thought that being a designer is better than working in PR. At least we produce something tangible.
Most often, when we’ve finished a project, we have something to show.
Something we made: be it a process, a product or a service.

So, the end is the easy bit.

The hard bit is in explaining our offer to a client at the beginning.
What we can do.
Where we can add value.

That’s part of the reason we embarked on some research 18 months ago … we were hunting a better way to explain design and how it can be used. Many designers find it hard to explain what they do. It’s problematic. It’s always helpful to offer an example, but as soon as we do, we’re pigeon-holed. Oh, you’re the annual report designer, or interesting, you work in the aged care sector. Sometimes that’s helpful. Often, it’s not.

So how do you define design?

We found – right at the beginning of our research – a large part of the problem is understanding what constitutes design. Design means different things to different people. That makes defining it imperative (but not easy). We identified 26 different design disciplines – and that was 18 months ago. Now we could add a few more. We’ve got a diagram of all 26.

Levels of design.

The next challenge is communicating the level of design use. Many clients think they’re accessing the full abilities of a designer when really, it’s a transactional relationship. There is so much more we could do. But it’s difficult to talk about what you could be doing without something tangible. We think we’ve fixed that. We’ve got a way of illustrating five different levels of design use in a business.

Where can design be used?

It’s not up to the client to think up ways to use design. That’s the designers role, but it can be difficult without knowing the intricacies of an organisation. It’s easier if you think about activities that a client might do, rather than departments. Not all clients have a human resource department, but all employees do human resource activities. We’ve got a way of illustrating design activities in a business.

When you bring this together you get a picture of design maturity in a business.


The official title of our research is the Design Maturity Index. The unofficial title is ‘How to get more business from existing clients’.

It’s interesting because the research proves there’s a lot more work that can be done for, and with, clients.

We’ve got a case study that explains – step by step – how to get more work from a client.
We’ll be stepping through it at our next UNseminar on next Tuesday, 25 June.

Hope you can come – register here.

We’re 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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