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Design is Dirty

Posted by: Helen Walters on May 18, 2007

So spoke Roger Martin of Rotman at the end of yesterday’s leg of the Strategy Conference. It was a throwaway comment, aimed to illustrate the discomfort many of his business students feel when confronted with the design thinking part of Rotman’s curriculum. But it’s an attitude that follows many of those students once they’re ensconced in the business world. Matthew Holloway of SAP gave another example of the tension between design and business – one of his colleagues from the Design Services Team was heading to a client meeting and collared by a business colleague, concerned that she was going to let the side down by being all “wacky creative”, wearing blue jeans and midriff-revealing top. This assumption that a designer can’t behave in public is entertaining – but horrifying. And while some smart CEOs are realizing how crucial design and innovation are to a company’s continued growth and success, the current wave of ‘innovation fatigue’ points to the reality that we’ve reached something of a split in the road. Designers need to be proactive to do all they can to allay the fears of those who don’t understand them or their craft in order to encourage businesses to take the path which includes the discipline as a cornerstone of business, not as an added extra or a pretty frill to be stuck on top. Some of the CEOs who get it are here (Jim Hackett gave a great presentation outlining his efforts to institutionalize ‘thinking’ – an alarming practice for managers who prefer to see tangible results of how time spent – as an integral part of Steelcase’s corporate practice). But others are going to need more help.

Reader Comments

Pete Mortensen

May 18, 2007 12:54 PM

It's true. Right now, the burden of proof is on designers to prove to business that they aren't the biggest flakes in the world. Granted, that's a really difficult case to make, because as Roger points out, some things that really matter to designers are absolutely irrelevant and touchy-feely to business types.

So what should designers do about this burden of proof? Well, they should go right after it. The only reason designers are in a position to even get told by MBAs that they need to dress more professionally is because designers have pushed for decades to gain more influential roles. This doesn't have to look like conformity -- it can look like being shockingly competent at the most unexpected times.

Designers wished for a seat at the strategic and development table for years, and we're here now. But now we actually have to do something with that opportunity. We could approach that challenge from a number of different directions. The one I favor most is to position design as a facilitator of conversations between critical stakeholders in a multi-disciplinary development program.

As much as we worry that engineers, marketers, supply chain-ers, six-sigma ninjas and executives don't get us, these people often have trouble communicating with each other, too.

As designers, we need to be genuinely interested in people to create products and services that really connect with ordinary folks. We can carry that genuine interest in people over to our own organizations and work to understand what's keeping all these folks with competing interests up at night. If we build those bridges and stay at the center of a consensus-building campaign, we become someone who "gets it."

That's our biggest problem right now: We face a million MBAs in charge of billion-dollar budgets who have no evidence that anyone else understands their plight, and we haven't had great tools to make our cases and to look smart in a way that matters to these people at the top.

I'm not saying this is the only way to make headway, but it's definitely an easy step in the right direction. If we do as Dale Carnegie advises in "How to Win Friends and Influence People," we'll, well, win friends and influence people.

(originally posted to Better Than New)


May 19, 2007 9:59 AM

Thanks for the comment, Pete. I couldn't agree more. I talked to some people from P&G about the issue and one (from the business side) said that she loves working with designers -- because they're different. It's not a question of designers conforming, but of reminding everyone that different does not have to equal bad.


May 23, 2007 9:43 AM

Designers need to realise that they need to communicate and speak the language of the other people around them.

Just like doctors need a bed side manners, designers need to learn to do the same.

I hope we all can be better communicators in time to come.

David Armano

May 23, 2007 10:58 AM

I love DT's example of Bedside manners and have also used this metaphor several times.

It comes down to empathy, which ironically designers claim to have in abundance. If designers are empathetic towards businesspeople--they will make efforts to learn and speak the language of busness despite it being a foreign language.

The designers that do this also tend to be the ones that advance the profession for the rest of us.

(and of course businesspeople need to turn up the empathy dial as well when it comes to working with the dominant right-brainers) ;)


May 23, 2007 12:58 PM

Roger Martin preaches a balance between the languages of reliability (business) and validity (design). The overlap is the crucial area for both parties. Martin's been making this point for some time now and it's interesting to see which businesses are catching on. For more on this theme, see also the recent column we posted, where he draws on themes he also spoke about in Chicago:


May 24, 2007 11:49 AM

People who are in charge of businesses deliver products and services that other people are willing to buy. Designers are people who can identify, clarify and visualize what potential buyers want and are willing to pay for. When designers and business operators converse in these terms positive things will happen. It seems simple enough.

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