From strategy to styling: how 3M designers lead business and innovation

At 3M, the people behind products from Post-it to automotive parts, the slogan is “Science. Applied to Life.” But you could argue that the unofficial tagline is “Design. Applied to Science.” For this global company, the design process is intimately weaved into the fabric of its business. The result is a team of in-house designers who have a chance not only to flex their skills but also make a tangible difference in the world.

Kayo Roehm, a senior design manager who works with a broad team across 3M’s Consumer Business Group, believes that its designers are uniquely qualified with the skills to help create products to satisfy a diverse and global audience. “Design is a competitive advantage,” says Roehm. “When design is used only for styling, our problem-solving skills and perspectives are not leveraged to positively impact the overall experience.”

3M consists of five main business groups—Health Care, Consumer, Industrial, Safety & Graphics, and Electronics & Energy—each with a mix of graphic, industrial, and UX designers on their team. For Briana Como, lead UX graphic designer for 3M’s Health Care Business Group, working on design projects with real-world applications provides important context. “What we do can positively or negatively impact a patient. We take it very seriously. We’re not just trying to make things pretty. It must work and it must work for each of our users, which is why we do 2-3 week design sprints and make sure we are getting iterations in front of our users.”

That’s why one of the first steps of any design project at 3M is to conduct various forms of research, from individual talks with stakeholders to generating wider user feedback. Internally, teams use workshops to map out the customer journey in which “we look for gaps, questions, and assumptions so we can validate them with users,” says Como. The process helps inform design decisions by visualizing long-term solutions through the lens of user experience, firmly grounding them in dynamic and useful design. Andy Vitale, UX design principal for the Health Care team, notes “designers have the ability to look at the entire ecosystem and bring the perspective of the user to the forefront. As natural storytellers, designers can paint the big picture for customers and allow the business to pivot and iterate based on feedback in the most cost-effective way.”

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This type of collaborative experience is no easy feat for a global company, sprawled across 70 different countries, 5 business groups, and 24 divisions. Though disparate teams often stay in touch through tools like Slack or Skype, the majority of 3M Design is centrally located at headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a new world-class, state-of-the-art design center housing 3M’s chief design officer Eric Quint, design leadership, and many design disciplines. The Design Center is the creative hub where 3M can not only cultivate a more organic collaboration as teams work together in pod-based groups, but also makes it easier to communicate with global partners and non-design professionals like executives, product owners, and developers. Vitale says that this practice “allows for an outside perspective and insights on a problem a designer may have become too focused on solving, and it allows other designers to step away from their day-to-day projects and work on solving a different problem.” This kind of cross-pollination helps create the coveted “T-shaped” designer, with deep expertise in one area, but the ability to branch out into others. 

“We achieve better designs when we have a group that is deeply specialized in different areas/roles, comes from different backgrounds,” says Como. “Our users don’t think the same, so our designers shouldn’t think the same… If we can debate, provide insight, and collaborate, we will create better solutions.” And as the team continues to grow beyond its 100+ design professionals, so does the potential for innovation through collaborative creativity.

In the world of in-house, it can be a struggle to get design a “seat at the table.” But by engaging designers as thought leaders and a vital part of its business success, 3M has achieved a rare feat: connecting its in-house team to a sense of purpose, allowing them to flag potential problems and help 3M stay agile in the face of unexpected challenges. “There’s an inexplicable passion for solving problems at 3M Design,” says Vitale. “This passion comes from a combination of design being empowered to be a strategic partner rather than a service.”

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