Building and leading a design Function

As the first digital product and experience design leader hired at Aesop, I established the design function, built a global distributed team of designers, and helped the digitial grow 3x adding to the company's $3.7AUD billion valuation.

At Aesop, a company renowned for its premium skincare and beauty products, I embarked on a journey of design leadership that transformed not only the product design team but also the entire organisation's approach to experience design. As a designer, I naturally gravitated towards creating impact, establishing processes for cross-functional collaboration to ensure seamless integration of design across teams, streamlining design through research and craft management to maintain high-quality standards, and building a global experience design team. When new product teams became a necessity to drive innovation and meet evolving market demands, I was promoted to lead the Experience Design team and service design practice.

Design Leadership
Design Operations

3x headcount

Grew the design team from 2 to a team of 6 designers across the regions to support product teams and omni-channel initiatives.


Delivery of design projects

2 to 80

Figma collaborators


Adoption of multiplatform design system

Girl holding the AR app on a tablet device

Identifying how design can add value to the business

Upon being tasked with responsibility of building a design function, I carefully identified several long-term areas of focus that would be critical in order to meet the company's digital growth ambitions:

  1. Growing the team and enhancing culture and performance to meet the increasing demand for design resources and support the future digital roadmap and omni-channel initiatives.
  2. Introduce a strategic design approach to elevate design maturity throughout the organisation, underscoring its significance as a key business differentiator.
  3. Raising the bar on design quality, product thinkingto deliver exceptional user experiences and differentiate Aesop's online proposition in a competitive market.
  4. Build trust with the rest of the company to establish design as a strategic partner and ensure design is part of the decision-making across the organisation.

Unpacking these opportunities enabled me to craft six guiding pillars from which to plan activities, support the business and champion what we do across the organisation.

Inclusive hiring

Task we a new headcount budget and ambitious growth projections, one of the primary focuses was to build a diverse and talented team of designers that could drive innovation and bring fresh perspectives. This was a strategy choice to ensure that our work would not succumb to group think. Given the primary challenge was to design experiences that could resonate with different markets I focused on creating an inclusive hiring practice to attract a wide pool of candidates and mitigate bias.

Through negotiate and influence I was able to convince the company to open recruitment globally. Working our HR partner I ensured the process was unbiased and provided equal opportunities, we could identify and hire designers with unique backgrounds and experiences.

Through a series of thoughtful questions aimed at understanding a designer's creative problem-solving approach, suitability and capability, I secured talent across the globe, successfully doubling the team within the first year.

I designed the team to be representative of all levels of experience and disciplines, which ensured each designer had the opportunity to mentor and be mentored and cross skill. The team comprised of designers from Melbourne, Singapore, Japan and France. All bring different process and thinking around design practice.

Design toolkits

Implementing standardized templates ensured consistency and streamlined our design processes, promoting efficiency and reducing the design debt inconsistencies across projects.

Increasing quality and speed of design decisions

Like many nascent digital product teams, design by committee had become the default approach—where decisions were often bogged down in compromise, leading to sluggishness in releasing new work and widespread dissatisfaction. In response to widespread feedback, I spearheaded the implementation of a comprehensive framework for brand-aligned decision-making. Collaboratively establishing guiding principles with our product and experience teams, we addressed the challenges of slow decision-making and dissatisfaction by ensuring our design choices were firmly rooted in Aesop's brand values and product thinking. This approach not only streamlined decision-making but also fostered greater speed, consistency, and cohesion in our design processes.

Microsite devoted to brand aligned design decisions

Digital Product Design Process

With newly formed product teams, it was important to provide direction for how design could operate within agile ways of working. As such, establishing a well-defined product design process was imperative as it served as a crucial onboarding tool, providing new squads with a solid framework for collaboration. I created artefacts and knowledge base in our confluence to guide teams on recommended approaches for developing new features. By ensuring seamless collaboration and alignment of team efforts, we not only followed best practices and industry standards but also facilitated a smoother transition for new team members, ultimately leading to higher-quality outcomes.

Scaling design standards

In parallel, to empower the team to work at speed, I championed the implementation of standardised processes and templates. These templates served as a cornerstone in promoting efficiency, provide designers and their collaborators recommended frameworks to collaboration, roles and responsibilities, whilst maintaining consistency across projects. By adhering utilises these kits we not only upheld design standards but also enhanced collaboration and coherence within our teams, thereby optimising our overall design workflow.

Design system

In my ongoing commitment to elevate the quality of our digital experiences and foster consistency throughout our digital ecosystem, I took the initiative to establish our first design system. Over time, I oversaw several iterations of the system, and prioritised decentralisation to ensure that all team members were empowered to contribute effectively. By establishing a comprehensive set of reusable components and design guidelines, the team streamlined the design process, reduced duplication of effort, and enhanced collaboration across global teams. Our design system grew in usage from 2 contributors to over 80 collaborators across CRM, Marketing, Creative, Engineering, Content & Production and Product. The formation of lean design operations enabled us to foster a cohesive design language across all our major regions and owned digital channels and 8 new ecommerce experiences and apps.

Experience vision

One of my core goals at Aesop was conveying how the role of design can add value outside of digital. Crafting a compelling vision and roadmap for Aesop's omni-channel experience was a critical aspect of my design leadership at Aesop. One of the more impactful projects I worked on was the design and development of a holistic experience vision microsite and omni-channel roadmap.

Through conducting interviews with numerous store managers worldwide and harnessing both qualitative and quantitative customer research, I spearheaded the development of our future integrated customer experience. Inspired by our brand's affinity with literature, we crafted a series of short stories detailing customers' interactions across our channels. Each narrative was meticulously crafted through the lens of our key customer archetypes, ensuring resonance with the diverse needs and preferences of our target audience.

Through these artefacts all Aesop employees were able to align on the needs of our customers and begin using the same language for the various problems and opportunities across the customer experience.

Establishing design rituals

In order to provide a home from each designers respective product team, and also to ensure each designer had a holistic view of the design across our ecommerce platform, I created two session per week for design studio. The sessions provided much needed context and provide a formal design critique for contributors to share work, get support and refine their work. It provided a feeling of shared ownership over the design, which led to less friction and easier collaboration.By encouraging open dialogue and constructive criticism, I created an environment that promoted learning and growth, empowering our designers to push the boundaries of their craft.

Building trust with the rest of the company

Being a new function it was crucial for me to rapidly build trust in order to empower my team. I implemented fortnightly UX playbacks for the whole organisation, creating a transparent and inclusive platform for our team to share their work, gather feedback, and address business gaps from across the organisation.

Additionally, I developed gates for stakeholder engagement and communication, establishing clear channels for collaboration and ensuring that design decisions were informed by diverse perspectives and aligned with the company's strategic goals.

These initiatives cultivated a culture of collaboration and transparency, and our UX playback quickly became one of the most well attended sessions across the business.

"James is extremely good at building partnerships with other people and teams in the business. I have always admired how positive and solution-focused he is, no matter what the situation is. I truly believe without James at the helm of the UX team that his department would not have the same respect and trust as it currently does to uphold the brand and the customer's needs."

— Simon Turner, Global Content and Production Manager

Design agility.

To increase collaboration within the product teams I partnered with Product and delivey to run annual Innovation Jams, providing a platform for cross-functional teams to ideate, experiment, and explore innovative solutions to complex problems. By bringing together diverse perspectives and fostering an environment of creativity and risk-taking, we were able to augment our roadmaps with delighters pushing the boundaries of what was possible within our current sprint cadences.

Looking back throughout the years, these design leadership initiatives and strategies have yielded tangible and transformative outcomes, elevating Aesop's design practice to become a strategic partner in shaping our omnichannel experience. The design team's contributions have become a driving force for our product roadmap and the development of innovative service experiences across all customer touch-points.

As Aesop continues to expand its global footprint and explore new avenues for growth, our design practice remains a critical strategic partner, empowered to shape the future of our brand and redefine the boundaries of what is possible in the world of skincare and beauty.