Tactics for selling design issues in large organisations

Integrating design thinking to existing structures takes more than just top-down mandates. Designers can become active issue sellers concretising the benefits of design approaches throughout their organisations, but they need access to information and channels to do so.

During the past years, companies have started to invest more and more into design. Bringing design thinking into companies can be considered to be a big cultural change, as the companies need to acquire a certain mindset and adopt user-centric ways of working. However, to succeed in it, a lot of work is required on all levels of the organisation and as part of the transformation, issue selling on the lower levels of the organisation might be useful.

A recent case-study of a large, global technology company in the Design Plus research project revealed that implementing design and design thinking into companies is indeed a cultural change and it thus requires convincing the whole organisation rather than only the top management to actually happen. As a part of the larger study, I analysed the interviews of nine design managers from the perspective of their issue selling attempts and the tactics that they used. Most of the interviewed managers tried to sell multiple issues simultaneously, all of them aiming at the greater goal of enhancing the role of design and design thinking within the organisation. The issues that were sold included both concrete action suggestions, such as recruiting more designers, as well as more complex issues that for example focused on changing the mind-sets of non-designers.

There are different types of tactics that can be used in issue selling: packaging tactics, such as framing, presentation, appeals and bundling; process tactics, such as involvement of others, channel, formality, preparation and timing; as well as the use of contextual knowledge when selling the issue. While the design managers used all of these tactics in their attempts, presentation and channels were at the heart of their efforts, as well as the intended targets of issue selling. Unlike in many other issues, it was crucial to selling design issues to all organisational actors rather than top management – the design managers needed input and adoption from a wide variety of stakeholders in the organisations in order to advance the role of design.

Issue sellers can play a big role in implementing cultural change – at least when given the right tools and knowledge. Sufficient internal communication cannot be emphasized enough, as it can provide the issue sellers the necessary contextual knowledge, such as who are the key people in the organisation, what is the strategy and values of the company and what are the paths that one can use for issue selling. Another concrete enabler are the channels that the companies can provide their employees with. Different types of channels make it easier for the issue sellers to reach the right people or for example a large audience if needed, but it may be impossible for the individuals to establish such channels by themselves. Organisations can thus be proactive in creating fruitful conditions for selling design issues and help to build the information flow and platforms required.


Matilda Akkola is a soon-to-graduate student in Information Networks in the Aalto School of Science. She worked in the Design Plus project as a research assistant at the Design Factory, and did her master’s thesis in the project.

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