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Thinking Aloud: Design vs Marketing

In 2017, there was a lot of focus on Design Thinking as a method for developing effective business services. Marketing is a kind of business service and marketing approaches have been used in similar contexts to test product and service ideas in the market. It’s easy to think that design is just good marketing or vice versa – certainly, the two disciplines are complementary – but what precisely is the difference between the two lenses? Understanding this can help you find and form more robust approaches to solving marketing problems.

Design vs Marketing

The design lens is an individual one, while the marketing lens is a group one. Where designers will observe individual users to uncover unmet needs and design solutions for them, marketers will usually validate solutions with focus groups. Designers are more focused on finding a solution to the problem that needs solving while marketers are focused on finding the solution that people want and will pay for. The Job To Be Done (a marketing theory) by a designer is to solve the user’s problem elegantly, while the Job To Be Done by a marketer is to find a group of people who are likely to buy the solution because they are grappling with that problem. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. In many ways, marketers pick up where designers leave off. When a prototype (design) is established, the marketer will test this with focus groups (marketing) to see if the idea scales and what messaging might work with each market.

What do they have in common?

Both marketing and design are disciplines that focus on building empathy with the end user or customer. In design this is done through observation, qualitative interviews to explore specific problems and bringing diverse groups together to tap the group intelligence. In marketing this is done through market research, surveys, client interviews, focus groups and split or A/B testing (classic social science tools used in a business context). Marketing is in the business of designing user journeys from becoming aware of a product through to buying the product. Marketers also use graphic design and writing techniques to guide users through the journey when we’re not present to explain the next step. So design is a part of marketing, however the user journeys we design have to work intuitively at scale. This commonality makes it important that you are conscious about which lens you are using and which lens you need to use, as getting them mixed up can lead you down the wrong path. Jobs To Be Done theory can really help you get yourself in the right mental space before starting your task.

Pros and cons of a design lens


The design lens is about creatively solving unmet needs. It is future-focused. This means that you have the opportunity to hit on something entirely new that everyone loves, such as the iPhone. It means that you work hard to shed any bias you may have and allow many different perspectives to inspire you. This helps you approach problems in new ways.


Because of this future-focus there is a greater inherent risk. A designer may come up with a creative solution, but it will likely be a new one. That means that as the prototypes get tested and iteratively improved, users will experience issues and glitches. In the tech space, people are very comfortable with this and terms such as “alpha” and “beta” are used to describe the degree of functionality reached and manage expectations of users. But this can be a challenging emotional space for those deploying the design approaches in professional services, as it is so important to present yourself as a competent expert.

Managing the cons

Volunteer or startup environments embrace this kind of experimentation. The volunteer environment works because they understand that it’s a mutual exchange of value that doesn’t include salary – they get a professional marketer, you get a chance to build your skills and test your marketing ideas. The startup environment works because entrepreneurs have a deep understanding of the iterative process of creating something new and are more exposed to the issues that come with growing pains. So if you want to apply design to grow your creative muscles in a marketing context, try volunteering or working with startups.

Pros and cons of a marketing kens


Marketing theories and approaches have a long and successful track record. It’s an established research topic at business schools, so there’s lots of knowledge to draw on. It is based on fundamental human behaviour and how it affects buying decisions. This makes it less risky as there are patterns and processes you can rely on to grow your market, which is reassuring when you’re building a brand from scratch. Within those tried and tested boundaries, it is inherently creative – marketers are creating developing new images, text, user journeys and brand experiences.


Marketing is focused on validating existing ideas with a specific target market and applying tried and tested techniques. It relies on analysis of data and metrics to validate what works and what doesn’t. While it means that you’re always listening to your market, it can be a little backwards-looking. It is also focused on scale and the process of scaling to reach more and more people. When pursuing efficient scaling you try to make the channel or user journey work for as many people as possible. There is a tipping point between the effectiveness of your targeted messaging and volume. This can mean that there is a tendency to please everyone and bed up pleasing no-one. One of the hardest things to do in marketing is to make a decision to please just one group of people instead of scaling indefinitely.

Managing the cons

Establish your capacity and think of every boundary in the marketing funnel (comms to marketing, marketing to sales etc) as a velvet rope – only people who are serious about your solution get into the next level. This will help to resist that tendency to scale indefinitely as there’s no point having more clients than you can service, create a waiting list if you need to. This will create “buzz”. Apple does this very effectively. Oversubscribed by Daniel Priestley is a masterclass in this technique. You can also engage a design perspective where it makes sense to. This will pull your mind back to building empathy for the individual user rather than the group or market.

Together, they are both stronger

So now we’ve gone through the pros and cons, you will see two main tensions between the design and marketing lens:
  1. Individual (design) vs Group (marketing)
  2. Future-focused problem solving (design) vs Backward-looking solution validating (marketing)
If you consciously embrace these tensions, it can lead to unique and creative marketing solutions. I have a couple of tips for navigating effectively in practice:
  • Identify the different users/ markets/ personas at each stage
  • Be clear on the Job To Be Done for each user at each stage
  • Identify the frictions for each user/ market/ persona for your prototype user journey and the incentives that would encourage them to overcome those frictions
  • Find environments where you can test marketing ideas and prototype user journeys with a group before suggesting them to clients
  • Embrace data and analysis as a listening tool so that you can iteratively improve and also add colour to success case studies
  • Don’t be discouraged if people don’t embrace the idea immediately. If you are working at a big corporate or in a traditional marketing environment, they will likely tend towards using marketing solutions that have been tried and tested. Use your success case studies and data to give them courage and reassurance.


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