How a New Design System Sparked Innovation at Capital One

By Margaret Rhodes

March 23, 2017

Even as innovations abound—from newly designed mobile banking apps and gesture-based security features—banks tend to lag behind other industries in design. The challenges that face banks subject it to slower adoption of slick user experiences and intuitive information hierarchies, compared to the rapid pace of change and iterations at start-up cultures like Spotify or Tinder.

J. Dontrese Brown learned as much when he joined Capital One in April 2015 as director of brand creative. “When I took over there were 42 different creative talents,” he says. “I’m talking from Seattle to Wilmington, Delaware, to Plano, Texas to Richmond, Virginia. Each one of those had a different partner on the marketing side—there was no consistency.”

Capital One tasked Brown, who previously worked at Victorinox Swiss Army, to help solve its branding problem. “Capital One is known as a top ten bank, but no one recognizes that,” says Brown. “They recognize it as a credit card. So my whole purpose was to help the marketing officers bring that to life.”

Capital One grapples with this unique split in public perception in part because it actually operates its banking separately from its credit card business. The credit card half of the company has its household message and its celebrity messengers: for years, Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Garner have been asking, “What’s in your wallet?” The catchphrase is synonymous with the credit card, but not necessarily the bank itself.

Trouble was, the banking half of the company is split into six different lines of business, each servicing a different kind of client. Each group—investment banking, commercial banking, retail banking, consumer banking, home loans, and small business banking—has its own agenda, and its own creative team. And those teams needed to create a design system that addressed both company-wide and branch-specific goals.

“We had to stay consistent with our brand guidelines and look and feel. Our voice was always smart, witty, clear, concise,” says Brown. “But what was unique about it was that our personality could change based on who we were talking to.”

To organize those “42 creative talents” around that single mission, Brown aimed to unify the siloed pods of teams and introduce a more fluid organizational structure. Brown envisioned designers that could work more freely—creatives who could be unrestrained, rather than working in set teams that iterate on the same products.

The digital side of Capital One has embraced this new “agile environment,” where designers from different teams are pooled together. “Ensuring the right people and groups are talking to each other from the beginning has yet to be perfected,” says Kim Spencer, a digital designer who works on projects like Capital One’s Android app. “But we quickly identify the larger issues and work collaboratively to solve them.” Spencer says she’s visited other tech-centric companies, and sees strong similarities between the process that guides its design teams and those of Capital One’s.

That was less the case with the marketing side, where workflow friction recurred. The creative teams still needed to liaise frequently with particular marketing teams, so some weren’t keen on the concept of agile environment. Brown also found that, unsurprisingly, historic banks like Capital One have internal departments that follow long-entrenched habits. Take mail envelopes: “We know as designers, 99 percent of the time if you mail something to an individual in a white envelope, instead of a glittery, foiled, high-end envelope, they’ll open it. The data is there. We know this, but our marketing folks will say, ‘no, we like the ones with glitz and glamor on it,’” he says.

“Overall, I didn’t really put a dent in what I wanted to do there,” says Brown, who has since left his post at Capital One. “We did do some good work, don’t get me wrong, but overall I wasn’t able to affect the change that I wanted to.”

Capital One is hardly allergic to novel design: in 2014, it hired one of Google’s top hardware designers as VP of design. For years, the company has also funded and run Capital One Labs, an experimental technology incubator. But these hires and ideas have to seep into company culture for change to occur. Perhaps that shift, more than any app or branding initiative, is the real design challenge.