Design Maturity 101

james helms
5 min readNov 18, 2022


Let me first caveat that there are 1000s of frameworks and diagrams and perspectives that are much more academic than mine. So take these observations as “The Experience of One” versus “The Definitive Guide to…”

I had a conversation with a mentee on this morning (shout out to Tiyia!), that led to me unpacking my definition of Design Maturity.

I believe Design Maturity is nearly always correlated with resourcing. There are some inspiring examples of one-woman design teams out there. Generally, however, a proxy for design maturity is how appropriately and deeply an organization is resourced with designers. Can you hire your way into design maturity? Not exactly. But an organization’s willingness to invest is an indicator that design has moved from being an expense to manage to an investment that drives growth. In fact, the biggest opportunity for design to flourish at an organization is to tie its ROI to customer and business outcomes. It’s not the strength of your average designer, however, so it usually also requires intense partnership, trust and vision.

So what are the elements of Design Maturity, according to me?

Design culture
A design team must be… a team. Robustly and diversely staffed to encourage growth, mentorship, succession, collaborative dissonance (differing but respectful — and respected — perspectives), and highly skilled to offer strategic, not just “polished” value — and in areas well beyond the expected “interface” or “Look-and-Feel” spaces. In fact, an organization that uses the term “Look-and-feel” is a reddish-orange flag for me.
Design culture is part talent strategy, part operating model, part vibe. It facilitates opportunities for teams to converge and diverge. To experiment and learn. It exists in organizations that value psychological safety to be weird and nonlinear and bold and push the boundaries of what’s possible or accepted. And fail. And question everything. Great design organizations are naturally magnetic, thriving and constantly reinventing. They are creative powerhouses and empathetic centers of excellence. They are also fun.

Cross-functional partnership and organizational patience
All design is a balance of ownership and influence. Freedom to explore and the pressure to deliver. Design can’t just “go off and be designers for awhile” and then come back with perfectly crafted POVs, standards and implementation guidelines. All successful creative endeavors require continuous partnership with stakeholders and peers. Executives must understand that design is not linear. Product managers must understand that inspiration is unreliable. Engineers must understand that even the most thought-through design idea will require iteration, and in some cases, a total rebuild. That’s how you go from “functional” to “magical”.
We’re not running trains. We’re landing planes on other landing planes. And we’re building both planes as we do it. High functioning design teams wrestle with ambiguity on a deadline. High functioning organizations provide air cover — and snacks and plenty of down-time — to ensure their teams feel valued, supported and heard.

A human-centered operating model
All design maturity starts with understanding the customers we serve. And maintaining that relentless focus on who the customer is and what they’re trying to accomplish — the value they are expecting. A high-functioning organization with a mature design capability creates room to hear from the customer, to understand their pain (through research, stories, feedback, listening to support calls and reading chat transcripts). A high-functioning organization relies on this critical feedback to ensure customers’ needs and expectations are met — better yet, exceeded. You can’t hire that problem away. You shouldn’t “accelerate velocity” unless the organization is clearly and narrowly focused on value creation and delivery.

Clear and measurable ROI
It’s important that designers, and design leaders especially, articulate reinforce, measure and capitalize on the ROI of their work. Understand the business levers at your disposal. As a leader, communicate clearly the business priorities, not just the customer needs. As a designer, make sure you understand how your work maps to explicit business metrics (customer growth, conversion, retention, maximizing product value). Understand the metrics you’re being held accountable to. Be relentlessly curious about the impact your work is having. Ask for help from your product managers and data analyst partners, because this is hard to do alone.
As an organization, treat your designers like adults. Be clear with the outcomes you’re expecting. Hold them accountable. But also remember the job of a designer is to suspend “what’s possible” and aim for “what’s meaningful,” for as long as possible. Starting with constraints and timelines encourages designers to aim low. Which erodes their value. And will eventually drive them away.

A habitual belief (with evidence) that design changes the game wherever it engages.
A high functioning design organization enjoys recognition, support and encouragement from leaders and executives beyond the design team. And those stakeholders expect design to engage at all levels, and for many “customers” (including new and existing employees and specialized internal folks like developers and data workers). When a team is faltering, or if the pace isn’t impressive, an executive might ask: “How is design engaging here?” Or “Are we clear on the customer we’re serving here, and have we observed their problem firsthand?” Executive buy-in drives loyalty, retains great talent, and makes further investment in design tools, processes and resources much easier. If “the boss” doesn’t understand what design does, or what value they add — you can be sure the design team feels it, questions their impact, and is almost certainly planning their escape.

There are many visualizations of “Design Maturity”
This one feels very actionable to me. (All credit to Matt Godfrey, who has his own perspective on design maturity that’s worth the read.)

At the end of the day — design maturity is a measure of organizational maturity AND design capability. You can’t really claim to have a mature design team without acknowledging the perception of impact of design on the organization. Like a tree-falling-in-the-forest: Without organizational recognition and appreciation, can there really be design maturity?

Our job, as leaders, is to continuously reassert the value of design. Continuously introduce design to rooms where it has not been invited. Continuously reiterate the value of the customer and their needs. Continuously tie design impact to business outcomes.
Continuously educate stakeholders because turnover erodes both capability and appreciation.

The work doesn’t end. I’ve often described design maturity as a team trying to ascend an escalator that slowly going down. It can feel like “two steps forward, one step back” — and that is it. Maturity is a journey. It is in motion, not a position. There is no destination, but the work builds careers, ships great products, creates massive business value and can truly transform all three.



james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.