The Danish Design Ladder

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

Design is good for business. It creates value (both within and without), unity, efficiency, and therefore profits. It provides ways of thinking to take people from where they are today to an imagined future. If something is not designed it becomes messy. Not joined up. Annoying. Non-user centric.


Using design as an organisation is not easy though. Its a journey. A way of thinking. It's not simply something you plugin and press the "on button" to implement. It's also hard to articulate. Sound familiar? This post is for you.



Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash


How does your business view design?


I love this tool which helps you rate where your business is (or maybe your own thinking?) in regards to design methods. It’s a diagram of a ladder. At the bottom is "Non-design". As you go up the ladder you move to “Design as styling” and “Design as process” until you reach “Design as strategy”.


The tool resonates with me. I operate at the top of the ladder using design thinking as a way to create strategy with leadership teams. In my career, though I have climbed up each rung to get here and am on a quest to help everyone I meet do the same - both as individuals and as organisations.


Quick explanation: I began knowing nothing about design. Went into Graphic design and used design as styling. Then moved into management and business leadership and used design to create processes. Next, I moved into brand strategy and used design to help business leaders imagine a better future. I'm sure you or others you know will have had similar progressions up the ladder.


So to see this thinking, so elegantly and simply pulled together into a simple diagram, has beauty because it helps us make sense of this progression. When you apply this diagram to organisations and the way they use and think about design it becomes helpful to explain where they might need to go next to improve themselves.


Background info. It was invented by the Danish Design Center back in 2001. Quite a few papers have been written about it since. If you are interested in some more depth and ideas to implement design more in your business, this one is particularly interesting as it goes into depth to explain how you can begin to embed each stage in an organisation and culture.


From a business perspective, The Design Ladder is based on the idea that there is a link between revenue and design. The higher you are on the design ladder the more earnings you will obtain - incidentally this was the conclusion of a research paper based on the Danish Design Ladder published way back in 2003 by Anders Kretzschmar here.




This, therefore, has serious business undertones. It’s not just a nice diagram. It represents how your organisation is thinking. It represents how you can grow. How you can survive. How you can complete your brand purpose.


The four rungs of the Danish Design Ladder:


  • RUNG 1: NON-DESIGN - Design is invisible. Product development or marketing initiatives are undertaken by untrained designers. Things are produced by the ideas of a small number of people. The user or customer perspective does not really play a part in decisions.

  • RUNG 2: DESIGN AS STYLING - Design is looked at as the a way of making something look nice at the end of the process. It's about aesthetic. For example, a product is developed and then given to a product designer to make look nice at the end. Or graphic design is used to simply create a veneer in the positioning of products or services. Little thought is given to the design of the overall experience.

  • RUNG 3 DESIGN AS PROCESS - In this rung, design is not considered as a result but as a way of thinking. Design methods are inbuilt into the early stage of product or service development. Solutions are driven by customer-centric problems and collaboration from multiple teams is employed to develop solutions and communications. The whole process is customer-centric.

  • RUNG 4: DESIGN AS STRATEGY - Design at this level is embedded in the leadership team. Design is embraced and allowed to play a part in shaping the overall business concept. It is employed to create a vision of the company for the future and then to forge the ways the company is going to get there.

So - where would your business sit on the ladder?



Danish Design Ladder extension


The original ladder created in 2001 as a way of communicating how companies use and view design. But things have changed since then. I was really interested though in this Medium article by Bryan Hoedemaeckers, a Director at Deloitte in Australia. In it, he advocates two additional steps to the ladder: “Systemic Change” and “Culture”. Another attempt by Sam Bucolo in 2016 suggested extending the ladder by adding “Organisational Transformation” and “National Competitive Strategy” as two additional rungs.


I prefer Hoedemaeckers thinking as it correlates more with my own experience as to where I think business is going in regards to my work in brand and culture.




I have taken the liberty of adapting his thinking into my version of the extended ladder adding two additional rungs:


  • RUNG 5: DESIGN AS CHANGE - At this rung, an organisation is using design to implement its strategy. It uses tools like roadmaps and diagrams to show where the business is today and where it needs to go and the steps leading to that change. It understands and appreciates things like "change management", "leadership", and "storytelling" in getting its strategy to stick. Muli-disciplined focus groups are used to check-in and monitor change progress. Each phase of change is considered and “designed”.

  • RUNG 6 - DESIGN AS CULTURE - This rung is the big one. Design is used to create, build and harness a great culture. You use design to create desired behaviours in your people leveraging culture activities, training, learning and development, leadership and employee experience to get the whole organisation aligned around your core purpose. Design is embedded at every stage and there is space for innovation, ideas and leads through customer-centric brand thinking.


How are you using Design?


So as 2019 closes - how are you and your organisation using design? Are you being purposeful in the culture you create? Do you involve design early in your initiatives? Does it have a seat at the top table? Do you use design thinking in your strategy? Or is design still simply a veneer? A lick of paint?


Wherever you are, consider the next rung up - how could you get there?


Happy meditations as you raise yourself up the Danish Design Ladder…

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