The Design Ladder: Part 1: Design as an Aesthetic

March 10, 2021

Nicholas Lee
Senior Creative Designer

In 2020, we discussed what Design Thinking (DT) is, it’s different phases, and how the DT framework can be applied to market research. Over the next three articles, we’ll use the Danish Design Ladder as a framework to show you how you can use design:

  1. As an aesthetic
  2. A process
  3. A strategy

This month’s article will introduce the design ladder and design as an aesthetic.

Why is this relevant to market research?

Good design is always based on user research. And market research’s goal is to improve a product’s value to a business and its customers through understanding users. By understanding how different types of design can add value to products, you can improve your client’s products and ultimately their business.

What is The Design Ladder?

The Danish Design Centre’s Design Ladder lists four levels of design.

Diagram of the Daish Design Ladder
Level one: Non-design

Design plays a negligible (small or unimportant) role in the company and non-designers conduct it. As a result, using design in this way leads to businesses overlooking user considerations.

Level two: Design as form-giving

Design as a use for aesthetics (a set of ideas or opinions about beauty), in which design often comes into play at the end of a project.

Level three: Design as a process

Businesses that integrate design into the development process (a series of actions to achieve a particular end goal) at an early stage.

Level four: Design as strategy

Design as a business concept or strategy (a plan of action designed to achieve an overall aim) one that’s able to permeate an organisation and drive innovation.

The Design Ladder shows a shift in design’s understanding. To put it simply, this shift goes from ‘designing things’ to ‘design thinking’. From this ladder we can see how design morphs from design as beautification of products, to a way of solving problems, and to being a strategic tool.

Why is design important for businesses?

Design implementation is good for businesses. Companies that use design tend to have higher levels of efficiency and their use of design can come from hiring in-house designers or partnering with design organisations.

Furthermore, companies that use design higher on the ladder tend to use design early-on in any project or use design to support their overall business strategy.

What is Level 2: Design as an aesthetic?

This is where businesses view design as purely aesthetic. Market researchers traditionally identify design with this level, considerations range from usability to a product’s aesthetics. Aesthetic design tends to enter at the final stage to beautify or promote products. Most designers term this as ‘styling’. Aesthetic design is typically done by professional designers or by non-designers.

Key considerations of aesthetic design include basic design principles, such as:

Information Hierarchy

Information hierarchy is the arrangement of elements that reveals the order of importance. By laying out elements logically and strategically, you’re allowing your user to digest the most important information first.


Typography is an important element of visual design. It’s crucial that your typography is always legible and that you use no more than two typefaces. This helps simplify the design and makes it easy on the eyes to follow through a document.

Use of colour

Create a complementary colour palette that creates contrast in your document, and helps you create a hierarchy by pulling out key points of information. Use different tones of your colour palette throughout your document to keep it consistent, yet still visually appealing.

Three advantages of aesthetic design for market researchers:

  1. Information is more appealing
    When you deliver information in a more creative format, users pay more attention to the information they receive. For example, here data was visualized in a way that makes the user want to read it.

an infographic on the benefits and negatives of the future of artificial intelligence.

  1. Information is digestible and understandable
    Aesthetic design isn’t only beautifying documents, it also allows you to create a visual narrative and system that’s easy and enjoyable for the user to follow, and therefore more actionable.

A collection of stills from an animated YouTube video.

  1. Improvement of usability of information
    Aesthetic design is used as a functional purpose to aid navigation. In web design, these are items such as range, radio buttons, checkboxes, location.

A screenshot of

Design as an aesthetic clearly benefits market researchers. But it can do more if used as a process. We’ll discuss this in more detail next month.

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