A design chain is that part of project supply chain function focused on design. A design chain is created when organisations, which repeatedly collaborate in project supply chains, co-ordinate their roles to develop project design information for their mutual benefit. To achieve this, design chains members make a series of provisions in both their long-term business domain relationships and their short-term project domain relationships. In the same way that supply chains have revolutionised the production of goods and services, design, which exists as separate processes carried out by different organisations, can be managed as a chain across organisational boundaries.

ICD uses the terms provider and receiver to describe each part
of the design solution exchange throughout the design chain.

Design chains:


allocate design processes on the basis of an organisation's technical competency;


ensure that the organisations belonging to design chains have the ability to work together; and


align organisations to improve their combined effectiveness and to ensure that processes are not duplicated nor missing in the chain.

Design chains are concerned with the flow of design information between the organisations collaborating on a project. It differs from a supply chain in not having information flowing in one direction and material in the other. In a design chain, information flows both ways. However, the ICD design chain distinguishes between two types of information: problems (which frame requirements) and solutions (which provide a solution to a previously defined problem). For example, a performance specification may be compiled to frame the design problem for a list installation. The specification defines the problem and the resulting lift design from the manufacturer is a solution to that problem. By understanding the relation of design problems to design solutions, individuals can define themselves as either a provider or a receiver (or both) of design information for a particular level (tier) in the design chain.

As with the supply chain, where standard products are converted into bespoke facilities, solutions in the design chain become increasing specialised and complex. Standard solutions (such as standard design details) are combined to provide more comprehensive and bespoke design solutions.