Johan Cruyff’s influence on adaptive role switching in Product Design

Johan Cruyff's influence on adaptive role switching in Product Design

A product design philosophy inspired by the brilliance of Total Football, as orchestrated by Johan Cruyff and the 1970s Dutch masters.

Midjourney visual of football players moving positions on an abstract orange playing field.
Switching Product Roles: Created via Midjourney 2023.

NB. The product design theme of this article should still strike a chord, even if you aren't a football fanatic.

“I always delegate. If someone is very good at something, whatever it is, they will be in charge.”— Johan Cruyff

I'm sure the Product Designers amongst you have noticed that our design remit keeps changing to encompass yet more responsibilities. Our role now covers many positions on the product design pitch.

As we wrap up projects, it feels like we're ending up with fewer players, and red cards are flying around like confetti in these turbulent times.

How do we handle this expanding role?

How do we juggle multiple positions?

Three Midjourney created football cards showing the same person with the titles: Product Designer, Product Manager, and Product Delivery.
1970s Product Designer Player Cards: Created via Midjourney and edited in Photoshop 2023.

The Game

In the field of product design, stagnation is the enemy. The rigid confines of traditional design roles echo the fixed positions on a football field.

The problem?
Adaptability is the name of the game, and traditional design positions hinder that.

The solution?
Embrace a Total Design Philosophy, where designers seamlessly switch positions, becoming the playmakers of the product development field.

We’ve needed a game-changing strategy for some time, as our product team numbers diminish— the Total Design Philosophy is that strategy— reshaping how we perceive and evolve our product design progress.

Comparing the field

In the words of Johan Cruyff;
“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.”

Like a well-executed football move, a well-designed product team requires a unique blend of skills, each contributing to the overall success.

Total Design, much like Total Football, emphasises a holistic approach, where designers are not confined to their silos.

Consider a forward who, when needed, instantly drops back into midfield to win the ball back and provide a game-changing assist.

Similarly, a designer must transition from figma to facilitation, from wireframes to strategy meetings, development timelines to governance sign-off, etc, to help create a seamless user experience.

Like Lionel Messi's of the design world — nimble, inventive, and capable of changing the game single-handedly — Messi doesn't stick to one position; he roams, adapts, and creates opportunities for himself and his team.

The influence

Total Football, pioneered by Cruyff and his teammates at Ajax and the Netherlands national team in the 1970s, was characterised by players who could seamlessly switch positions, creating a dynamic and flexible system.

However, its beginnings can be traced to the Hungarian national team and Jack Reynolds decades before, although Cruyff epitomises the technique.

This tactical approach emphasises fluidity, adaptability, and a holistic understanding of the game and has caveated down to many others.

Sarina Wiegman, first as a player and later as one of the most successful coaches in women’s football, recognizes in her style of play those principles she learned from Johan and other Dutch coaches, the hallmark of Dutch football that relies on dynamism and possession play.” — Cruyff Foundation

Valuable lessons from Cruyff's Total Football can be applied beyond the football pitch, particularly within product design.

Players were granted the freedom to transition between roles and positions based on the evolving dynamics of the situation.

Their ability to be there for each other in resolving tensions, solving problems, and working towards a shared objective resembles principles familiar to us as designers.

This Total Football approach revolutionised traditional football tactics and laid the foundation for modern football strategies, and it can do the same for product teams.

The 3–4–3 was born with the idea of controlling possession as players played more than one role within the team and covered each other's roles.

3–4–3 formation tactics with lines between players to show movement.
Image source: FM Scout

Total Design and Holacracy

Holacracy is a system of self-management where individuals assume multiple roles with wide authority and decision-making power.

Holacracy distinguishes between roles and those who fill them, as one individual can hold multiple roles at any time.

As Max Sather stated:
Allow me to get specific in using Total Football to explain one specific organizational structure. Holocracy is a modern system for self-organization in which traditional continuous job titles replaced by Roles. People can fill several Roles, and Roles are often redefined as a company course-corrects.”

“Just as in Total Football, Holocratic Roles are occupied by a team-member only temporarily; there are no permanent job titles.” — Max Sather

Players can transition seamlessly between defensive, midfield, and offensive positions based on the organisation's requirements for any number of roles.

Maybe there is merit in the Google approach and us all just using the title of Designer — a broader title to encompass many roles.

Teaming Total Football and Total Design

User-Centric Positional Interchangeability

In Total Football, players seamlessly switched positions to exploit the opposition's weaknesses.

Similarly, in Total Design, designers must be ready to adapt their positions, shifting focus to different aspects of the user experience and product development cycle to help create products that resonate — doing what's needed for the team.

Spatial Awareness in Design Contexts

Total Football players were known for their exceptional spatial awareness, anticipating the movement of teammates and opponents alike.

Likewise, product designers must be aware of the design space, considering the physical and digital environments in which their products will be used.

Technique and Intelligence in Design Thinking

Total Football prioritised technical skill and football intelligence over strict adherence to positions.

In Total Design, a similar emphasis on creative problem-solving, innovation, and design thinking is necessary.

Future designers must be technically proficient and possess the intelligence to adapt their design roles to meet emerging challenges.

The Total Design Playbook

The essence of the Total Design philosophy is adapting as a designer, spotting the gaps, playing the pass, and making the right moves at the right times.

Whatever is needed to win product the game!

“Tactics are not a holy scripture; they’re a guideline. Players should feel free to improvise and adapt.” — Johan Cruyff

Much like football tactics, design methodologies should not be set in stone.

The Total Design Philosophy encourages designers to improvise, adapt, and think beyond the conventional.

It's about understanding the entire field — user needs, business goals, technological constraints — and the roles needed to make things happen.

Making dynamic decisions accordingly — a pitch is a big playground, so using all the space available.

“Football is about joy. It’s about dribbling. I favour every idea that makes the game beautiful.” — Ronaldinho

The Advantage of Designers Playing More Roles

In product design, the final result should not just be a functional product but one that also delights users.

Similar to Cruyff playing one of his beautiful passes, a beautiful interaction on an onboarding screen will gain applause from the product crowd and your users.

Total Design encapsulates the joy of creating, the art of crafting an experience that should go beyond mere functionality.

The final whistle

What's the future for the Product Designer role?

Expect more Product Designers flexing into Product Manager and Product Owner roles, utilising their design based tactics.

Helping push design higher up the product table and influencing from a design perspective on how products should be built.

Echoing the words of Pep Guardiola; “I will not change my idea of how to play football. The philosophy is not negotiable.”

Similarly, the philosophy of Total Design should be non-negotiable in creating groundbreaking, user-centric products.

Johan Cruyff's Total Football philosophy transcends the football pitch, offering valuable insights for product designers seeking to create adaptable and user-centric designs.

By embracing principles such as positional interchangeability, spatial awareness, technical proficiency, and a holistic approach to user experience, product designers can draw inspiration from the Total Football playbook to craft products that stand the test of time in an ever-evolving design landscape.

Channel your inner Cruyff, embrace the Total Design Philosophy, and become the playmakers who can orchestrate beautiful and impactful user experiences by covering more roles within your product team.

The future belongs to those who can seamlessly swap product positions, drive innovation, and smash those customer goals!

“Speed is often confused with insight. When I start running earlier than the others, I appear faster.” — Johan Cruyff

Midjourney created 1970s visual of a guy pointing to a football tactics board whilst wearing sunglasses.
1970s' Total Design' Product Design Leader: Created via Midjourney 2023.


  1. Johan Cruyff: Total Football and the World Cup that changed everything.
  2. Max Sather: 21st Century Org Design, as seen through the eyes of a Football Nerd.
  3. The Cruyff Foundation.
  4. TechCrunch: A comprehensive list of 2023 tech layoffs.

Knowledge is power.
So keep learning, keep preparing, and keep listening.

Johan Cruyff’s influence on adaptive role switching in Product Design was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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