Designing for Growth

My dad never thought I was going to be able to make a living as a designer. When I came home after college enrollment and told him I was going into graphic design, he was flabbergasted—and angry. I hail from a Latin American country where every third person with a college degree is a doctor, an engineer or an MBA; so a career in the visual arts was a real departure from the norm. Even today, if you ask how we ended up in the US of A, he will gladly tell you that he moved here so his eldest daughter (me) would get a paying job in her career of choice and eventually make enough money to move out of his house.

After graduation, and having a first job in the national office for UNICEF, I moved to Colorado and started my career, as many designers do, in an in-house creative department for a large corporation. I started at a small photography studio, moved on to a magazine publisher and after that to a movie theater advertising agency.

Having the foundation of my professional experience happen in-house means I quickly learned what my place was within the structure of the marketing machine. Brochures, sales sheets, emails, newsletters, trade show materials—over time, I have done them all.

The process was simple. The marketers would determine all strategy and would provide creative with the necessary parameters and desired deliverables and budgets. The creative team would set to work on concepts, and after some back and forth, the design would move into production.

Every time there was a larger, more interesting project, like a rebrand or a publication redesign, the company would bring in what corporate America calls a “subject matter expert” which usually means either a consultant or an external creative agency to develop the larger, more interesting project while the internal creative team was in charge of the day-to-day operations. This was frustrating to me as a creative. My team and I were just as capable of creating awesome large, interesting projects, but we just weren’t given a seat at the table. Since the marketing team told us what to do every day, they felt we weren’t good enough to come up with our own original ideas and strategies.

As soon as I discovered this, the idea was born that eventually, I would own my own agency. I started by networking with the marketers I knew, and especially the ones that would leave for other jobs elsewhere. Any announcement of someone leaving for a new job would be followed by a discrete email offering my freelance services. In a few years, I managed to make the transition from being the internal day-to-day manager to become the external “subject matter expert” and believe me, it was so much better. I got to come in and work with the teams and be a strategic component of the project.

However, even now, sitting at the table with the strategic thinkers, I noticed that marketing mostly consisted in throwing a bunch of things at the wall and seeing what would stick. Enormous budgets would be spent on deliverables we weren’t always sure were going to work. And even when things did work, we would not learn enough from the experience to repeat the success we originally had. Nobody was completely on board with trying out-of-the-box ideas, and the more traditional the marketing manager, the more we would subscribe to a recipe of direct mail postcards and content that just didn’t resonate with the audience.

I didn’t really question it, either. These executives had dozens of years of experience with big name companies and I was just a designer in my late 20s trying to figure out my place in the process.

Then, a few years ago, I was hired for a contract by Morgan Brown at Inman (a real estate b2b publication). Morgan, as I came to find out, had worked with Sean Ellis on a project called Growth Hackers. The marketing meetings at Inman were so incredibly different from everything I knew. They talked about reaching audiences in a way I had never heard before. Even the word “marketing” got a makeover—it was now called “growth.” There were new acronyms (adopted from startup tech culture) like MRR and churn and these really intriguing “growth meetings” happening once a week. Suddenly design felt very exciting again.

Participating in growth meetings, is like participating in a brainstorming session but on steroids. Instead of picking the top 2 “better” ideas from the session and executing, we took every idea seriously. No idea is too small or too large to test out and experiment. And all results are tallied and analyzed.

I started reading. A lot. First, I became a member of Growth Hackers. Then, I picked up a growth hacking course at onemonth.com. After that, I started loading up my Amazon cart with all the growth basics: Hacking Growth, Hooked, and down a path of UI and research titles.

I was a designer, not a marketer though. And I was furiously trying to find where design fit in all this growth movement. Eventually, I figured it out: Design happens to be a great conduit for growth. A study from Stanford University reveals that 75% of users determine the level of credibility a company has just based on the visual design of their website. Content is what drives someone to visit a website, but design is what makes a lasting first impression. And that is just an example of how important design is for a company at any point in their livecycle.

A lot of the experiments that happen in a growth hacking process have to do with visuals. And, according to the Design Management Institute, companies that are design-led over a 10 year period delivered 219% above companies in the S&P 500 Index; so it makes sense to invest early on into better designed customer-facing experiences and absorb any and all user data into the design workflow.

While making data-driven design decisions can feel like extracting every ounce of creativity out of the process, the truth is it generates a series of obstructions or constraints around which to iterate visuals. Providing obstructions actually makes designers assess a design problem in different and unexpected ways -- and that, in itself, combined with speed in the flow of iterations is the center concept of growth hacking.

Is it for everyone? No. As a matter of fact, I still know and respect a lot of “old-school” marketers and designers that go about their business without any experimentation whatsoever. However, I think I have found my calling and my niche. Growth is the future.