Establishing a design center of excellence: a conversation with Adobe


DPDK Digital Agency
Rotterdam, Netherlands
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Every month, Adobe hosts a livestream called Meet the Makers, where leading creators and design innovators share insights and best practices on all things design. Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tara Knight, Adobe’s Senior Strategic Development Manager, about scaling design and the value of establishing and managing complex digital ecosystems via a scalable design infrastructure.

Tara and I spoke about how design positively impacts brand performance, why designing for scale requires brands to zoom out in their design process, and the need to move beyond design systems towards design infrastructures, or, in DPDK’s terms, design centers of excellence (DCE).

Watch the talk or continue reading for a breakdown of what went down.

The complexity of modern digital ecosystems

Most of today’s brands are dealing with increasingly complex digital ecosystems that are difficult to manage. It’s not just a website or app that needs attention anymore - every touchpoint, channel, and platform needs to be looked after. Every customer interaction has to be seamless, engaging, and on-brand.

You want to scale design, but the challenges that come with it aren’t easy to tackle. To name a few:

• Maintaining a consistent CX

Even the most successful brands can fall prey to the dangers of inconsistency. The challenge is that most of the time, teams operate as little islands and often work across different countries and time zones. This makes it harder to speak the same language and keep everyone on the same page.

• Keeping the creative flame alive

Our digital activities are growing, and as a result designers are being pulled in all kinds of directions: updating websites with new branding requests, localizing promotional materials for different markets, and nitty-gritty design tweaks seem to be the order of the day.

This means that designers have to spend a significant chunk of their time on tedious and repetitive tasks, which not only costs them time away from honing their craft but can also stunt their motivation and creativity.

• Reducing time-to-market

There is a constant pressure to speed up time-to-market without sacrificing creativity. There’s always more work to be done, especially when you need to scale up, but not necessarily more time - or more budget.

• Building a culture of collaboration

Scaling design requires change, which not everyone is a fan of. Getting your whole team on board can be challenging, especially for brands with mature digital ecosystems.

• Organizing design files

Finding, sharing, and distributing design files can be time-consuming and tiresome when you don’t have a centralized location. Questions like, “Where can I find the latest version of the brand logo?” or, “Where are those production files?” are all too familiar when working with a scattered design network.

These obstacles point to the need for a single source of truth that transcends departmental boundaries and connects your entire design network. What’s needed is a foundational infrastructure from which you can scale design with speed and consistency. In other words, a DCE.

Design systems vs. design centers of excellence

Most brands tend to address the challenges of scaling design by investing in design systems. Which is a great first step - design systems help deliver a more consistent customer experience (CX), achieve higher customer satisfaction rates, and get products to market faster, says Forrester.

I’m a huge fan of design systems myself, but unfortunately they’re not enough to successfully scale design company-wide. A design system usually serves a single product or touchpoint. As your products and touchpoints increase, so will the number of design systems.

Imagine having dozens of products and dealing with that many design systems. Unless these systems are connected together in some sort of hierarchy (they usually aren’t), you’re at risk of facing design inconsistencies, duplicate work, and unbearably complicated design processes. That’s where a DCE saves the day.

A DCE is the foundation of your entire design network. It contains all your design systems and design files in a hierarchical structure, from components libraries and guidelines documents to production and design system evolution files.

At the top of the hierarchy is your brand design system, which connects and influences all systems within your design network. Kind of like a family tree, where your brand design system is the first ancestor.

Setting up your design center of excellence

I’ve already written about the multifold benefits of establishing a DCE, like improved CX consistency, shorter time-to-market, increased cost-efficiency, and better collaboration. Zoom out and you’ll see that investing in a DCE is essentially setting yourself up for an entire creative transformation.

As you can imagine, building a DCE is not something you can do overnight. It requires extensive research, solid planning, and a highly skilled team to develop and manage it. I call this team the guardians of the design galaxy, as they’re in charge of setting up, maintaining, and growing your DCE.

Your design guardians are a diverse mix - they’re creative strategists, product and project managers, designers, and front end developers. They make it easier to stay on-brand by reviewing all design requests and ensuring consistent design of the highest quality.

The development process of establishing a DCE can be split up into three key phases:

• Minimum viable product (MVP) development

Step one is to build your MVP and connect one to three products (and their design systems) to it. The goal of this phase is to connect a small number of products to your brand design system and test how the relationship between them works.

• Expand the design language

Once you’ve perfected the MVP phase, it’s time to start adding new products and components to your DCE. This is also the time to begin experimenting with front-end code.

• Global roll-out

In the end, all products are ready to be added to your DCE. Design components and code are ready for release and processes have been established to ensure regular component development.

What I’ve explained is a very condensed version of the entire development process. I’ve gone into more detail about the challenges of scaling design, what a DCE can do for brands, and how to successfully set one up in our new guide Scaling design. Give it a read or better yet, let’s talk about it over a coffee. 

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