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Idea Generation

High Fives, AI, and Connecting the Dots: MailChimp’s VP of Design on What Business can Learn from Design

Good design is good business. But how do the strengths of a designer-founded business actually play out in the office and with the client? And what can we learn from that?


It’s no secret that good design is good business. But what does it actually look like when a designer executes a business model? What happens when designer-founded companies like Airbnb and MailChimp bake design thinking in from the start? Recently, an audience of entrepreneurs, designers, and creatives, gathered at the Northside Festival to visualize the future of business and design. “Design has become ‘the big D’,” says Festival Director Brian Quinn, “The future is the designer who’s not the last person you talk to and say, ‘make it look pretty’ but the first person you integrate to figure out how it all works.”

Gene Lee, the VP of Design at MailChimp, sat down with Droga5 Group Design Director, Devin Croda to discuss what happens when you put designers in charge of operations, how data will drive the future of design, and when you should give or withhold a high-five.

Not every company starts with a design founder, so we gathered a few design tips and operational tenets from Lee so you can integrate ‘the big D’ into your business.

Solve an original pain point.

The thing all designers have in common is they see a vision of the world as it could be.  What designers can particularly excel at? Looking concurrently at opportunities at the experience and the business level and asking ‘what are we trying to solve?’ Lee predicts the trend in design-led business modeling, like Airbnb, Square, and Pinterest, will only grow. “Steve Jobs said, ‘Design is not how it looks, but how it works,’” Lee points out. “The latest trend in design is not how it looks but how it leads.”

Give high fives.

Often you just want to hit one simple, utilitarian button and be done. But sometimes, Lee points out, there’s as much emotion as function in a button click. Like the terror you feel when you’re about to send an email to 5,00 people. Lee advocates mining the design journey for emotional moments and crafting acknowledgments of those emotions. “You’re about to push the button to send. And you start to sweat…So, we dialed up that emotional side,” he says. MailChimp’s users see an illustration of a perspiring hand about to press a big red, apocalyptic looking button. As much as you acknowledge tension, acknowledge celebration. After sending, MailChimp sends the ‘Freddie high five’ to celebrate. Keep an empathetic eye out to acknowledge emotion and dial up the design to match.

MailChimp Freddie Five

If your clients are experimenters, your employees need to be as well.

“We have a bunch of designers who are just tinkering,” says Lee on MailChimp’s culture of experimentation with no explicit ROI. Sometimes that leads to serendipitous uses, like the time a designer pulled his old video game design out of the proverbial parts bin and MailChimp used it to promote their new Postcards product. But often, the value add isn’t so clear. But most importantly, Lee points out, MailChimp’s customers are mostly small businesses who differentiate based on personal touches, so MailChimp spending time on internal experiments is an empathic way to connect the business with their community.

Start with fat-free design.

There’s a downside to having so many cooks in the design-led kitchen: you can get lost in the emotional craft of animations and high fives. Your polar star should always be the mindset of the user. “The goal is to get rid of everything that doesn’t add to what the user is trying to do,” says Lee. Trim the fat of storytelling that doesn’t relate to the ultimate goal. You can always go back and add more high fives later.

MailChimp Design

MailChimp’s design process begins with sketching ideas by hand. This is what resulted when MailChimp added the ability to create Facebook Ads through MailChimp. The purest storytelling icon–the slingshot in the top left corner–was chosen from the brainstorm. Image c/o MailChimp Design.

Connect the dots.

To lead like a designer, strategize around the customer experience (CX) versus the user experience (UX). “When we talk about business, I lean on that CX layer of connecting the dots,” says Lee. Instead of zeroing in on UX (how customers use the product) and then layering customer support and marketing on top, bring designers and engineers in product, marketing, and customer service under one roof. The result blends operation and execution to create a unified focus on the experience. When designers aren’t siloed into different parts of the product journey, it’s easier to spot where a customer needs an elegant tech solution and where they need a high five.

Anticipate is the future.

Lee sees the future of design landing at one intersection: data and AI. Those two factors will come together in one key offering: anticipation. “The days of just showing data are over; it’s too static,” says Lee. Right now, most companies behave like Google Maps when the app tells you it will take you 20 minutes to get home. Future-oriented companies will combine that data intelligence with AI customization to anticipate what your needs will be when you get there. In the same way, designers need to embrace the push of tech to incorporate data and AI to create experiences that anticipate, versus respond to, customer needs.

Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It


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