Insights - Design & Product

Teddy Zmrhal, Global VP Design & Innovation, Salesforce, on Organisational Design Maturity, Studio Acquisitions and More

Teddy Zmrhal has an inside track on the evolution of design in the enterprise. He’s also really fun to speak to and in his conversation with THC founder Meeta Malhotra, he offers valuable advice for both enterprises and studios.

Photo of Teddy Zmrhal with illustrations of birds and clouds

In his current role, Teddy leads a cross-disciplinary team responsible for connecting 1300+ designers across the company, shaping a design practice that embeds social values and scaling design practices across Salesforce’s 100,000+ person ecosystem. 

Teddy will be speaking at Salesforce Design Days in Bengaluru on the 14th and 15th of October, 2022, at Spread Design Barn and you can register for the event here.

What does being a design-led company mean? What are the 3 or 4 markers of a design-led company?

I’m not sure design-led is an appropriate term. Design exists in service to business and a better way to frame your question would be “What are the markers of design maturity in an organisation?” These are the ones I would point to:

  1. Design is used in your product to create product-led growth. There must be an understanding in the organisation that design goes beyond the interface and can actually supplement or provide an alternative to sales-led growth.
  2. Design is used in other functions, besides product. How effectively is design being applied to, say, employee experience in HR? Are functions like legal or finance, where design has traditionally been considered peripheral, using design to think about serving their customer better?
  3. Design capabilities are deployed to help customers envision the future and execute on that vision. In the case of Salesforce, we have two initiatives that help our customers do this: Ignite, a collaborative innovation program and XD, an experience design team. 
  4. Design is used to enable the ecosystem at scale. Salesforce Design Days is one such example of interacting with the larger community. We also offer courses and certifications.

Think of design maturity as a matrix.  Companies will be at different levels in their journey of filling out the matrix. I don’t think we currently have a design maturity framework that goes beyond product-UX focus and we probably need new, more current tools to accurately represent and measure design maturity.

How can resource-strapped startups lay the foundation of a journey towards design maturity?

The most important thing they can do is portray design as an enabler of growth, not a cost centre. You need to invest in design, research and ops talent early on. To do this, you need to convince your investors and your teams that strong design capabilities upfront will enable product-led growth and the investment will, in turn, mean a lower outlay on a sales organisation subsequently.

A question on behalf of the many agency folk who read THC. Large tech firms (both SIs and product companies) have acquired design firms over the last decade. How do you think this has played out? 

The acquisitions have brought new capabilities, methodologies and most importantly different cultures into the acquirers. This has certainly led to a greater awareness of design’s role within these organisations. 

On the other hand, there has been significant attrition and not all the designers who were acquired have stayed on, and so in that sense, there has been an organisational cost to this awareness. 

Most importantly, there is now a new cohort of seasoned design leaders who understand what it takes to work in large, more commercial and complex organisations. So even if a 100 design firms were acquired and the top 4 or 5 people in those firms stayed on, they ended up with an MBA through trial by fire! This cohort is growing and while they have been too busy to convene or organise themselves yet, I believe that these new design-minded executives will have a significant impact on the industry. 

Because a significant amount of money was paid for these acquisitions, this has also made the corporate world sit up and take notice and maybe look deeper into the value of design.

What makes design firms attractive to an acquirer today?  

I would say talent, of course, but inclusive of design culture. A very important consideration is how the practice of design is embedded in your culture. What are your design practices? How do you critique? How do you iterate? This is something that is difficult to touch but incredibly valuable. Therefore, it is important that the acquirer sees that value upfront. 

Revenue and profitability are important, because most organisations will have to justify the cost of inorganic growth through the acquisition.

Client roster is not that valuable, because the acquiring firm probably has relationships with most of those clients already.

What’s your take on AI’s role in the creative world, given DALL-E, Midjourney and now Meta?

Optimistically, I feel it could free up time by taking away repetitive tasks and allowing designers to focus on design and culture. I don’t think AI will replace designers. There are so many examples in history – like when it was predicted that ATMs would replace bank tellers. We now have more bank tellers in the US than before – they’re just doing different things. 

The much bigger debate with AI is the one around ethics and bias. We should be thinking about the unintended consequences of AI-driven design, especially in the context of biased data sets. At Salesforce, we have Paula Goldman, our Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer, and her team looking very carefully at the intersections of of design, not just with ethics, but also with accessibility and sustainability.

Is the Internet poised to morph fundamentally or is Web3 just a buzzword? 

I’ll take your question literally in terms of the ‘promise of decentralisation’ that Web3 touts (not the metaverse, which is a whole other ball of wax). 

Pessimistically, we’ve seen ‘decentralised’ technologies that were touted as ‘more democratic,’ and/or bringing more power to more people, co-opted time and time again as larger, entrenched and powerful entities prevail.

So while I think there is a lot of room for innovation, especially post-COVID, in this new Future(s) of Work we are designing, I’m sceptical of all the promise and hype of equity at the moment.


  1. Am always impressed by the quality of your writing THC. This is sharp and on point yet its clear that you actually had a conversation with Teddy vs canned emailed qsres via a PR firm. Big hat-tip guys

  2. Teddy gives us some powerful pointers to the way design must be perceived; he almost suggests that design needs to be meta philosophy for sustainable growth and ethical business thinking. You have to agree with his take on ‘democratisation’ promise of technology, something that is founded on little else than hope. Thanks Meeta.

  3. Making your culture part of the assets an acquirer wants is great advice although easier said than done. I can only think of Obvious in India who has really worked hard to do this

  4. Great interview but just curious is THC accepting paid promotions now? You guys turned us down just last month

    1. Hey Venkat, no we absolutely do not accept paid content of any kind. If you’re referring to this interview specifically, THC received zero compensation from Salesforce or Design Barn. We carried it because we felt Teddy had valuable advice for our readers. Hope this clears things up 🙂

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