Design Debt

What is design debt? My definition might be a bit different than the one that is circulating in the startup sphere. I think that’s because my perspective includes in-house design teams with designers spread over multiple departments or roles. Design debt put simply are the design decisions and actions that create repetitive and often custom design deliverables.


In startups design debt creeps up from scaling fast. In this sense it’s really similar to technical debt. In other words, things you push off today that will be harder to fix when you eventually get around to it. Isee this most often in the design system and the branding for startup companies. Sometimes it’s unavoidable but it should always be considered, and a startup should keen eye on how much design debt they accumulate while scaling a startup. However, in a corporate environment I think it’s a bit more difficult to see.


One of the reasons I think it’s harder to spot this type of design debt is that it becomes just part of the job. No one really stops to think, “maybe we should systematize this design.” Not to mention that designers are hardworking, and they’ll just do the work. The problem is our hard work sometimes helps to create a design problem for the organization. Creating bespoke design deliverables that are hard to replicate, edit, or scale. We do this not because we want to create debt, but because we want to show the value of good design. We want to produce great work.


In a real sense design debt at a corporate company can slowdown productivity and decrease efficiency. It takes valuable time away from creativity and pours it into production and upkeep. When you’re trying to be an innovative company in the marketplace, this debt can truly impede on the business, the bottom line, and how nimble we can be.


It’s time for a shift.


We need begin thinking differently about the value of design. As designers we need to start understanding designs place within the company. Yes, we are here to create visuals that cohesively tell a brand story, but we need to begin to understand why that’s valuable outside of aesthetic reasons. This gets to the heart of designs value and we can talk about it in terms of investment and debt. In this way we can begin to talk about design not in the abstract, but in a way company executive can appreciate and understand.


Design is valuable and the discussion of design debt might be a good way to create a shared understanding of that value. Debt is a vehicle for growth. A bit of debt is not a bad thing, but too much of it and it will cripple a company. Design debt is no different—understand how to use it successfully and it’s a great instrument; build too much and the only way out is bankruptcy.