What's the biggest challenge holding design back as a key business strategy? Is “design thinking” a term we should use to explain the power of design to the C-suite?

May 3, 2010
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Paula Scher,
Pentagram

The biggest thing holding design back as a key business strategy has nothing to do with "strategy" or "design."
 
Mark Dziersk,
Brandimage

The biggest challenge for the profession is meeting the demand for Design leadership that is currently in play.
 
Judith Hoogenboom,
Frog Design

Is it true that design is being held back as a key business strategy? I don’t think so.


Paula Scher, Pentagram:

The biggest thing holding design back as a key business strategy has nothing to do with "strategy" or "design."  It has to do with various people within corporations and organizations making commitments and decisions about things that they really don't know how to decide about. It has to do with the inherent arbitrariness of certain decisions that always seem to boil down to personal taste.

Design can follow all sorts of strategies to appeal to all kinds of audiences.  A business can use successful design as a tool to enhance their brand image to whomever, but sooner or later someone will have to make a decision and a financial commitment about what constitutes the "successful" design.  Therein is the problem. In too many instances, I've seen a corporate executive abandon strategy and research because they just didn't like a color, or a shape, or a material, or a typeface. They just don't like what the thing looks like, or behaves like, regardless of the process and research that helped achieve it.

In the end, design strategy works for businesses when the ultimate decision maker likes the final design.  Decision makers who like the final design generally have an ability to appreciate successful design when then see it, and are also capable of making decisions and taking risks.  There are too few of these types out there, and I don't know how we make more of them.

Mark Dziersk, Brandimage:

The biggest challenge for the profession is meeting the demand for Design leadership that is currently in play. Clearly today Design is being sought after in ways we never imagined ten or even five years ago.  There simply are not enough Design leaders who are capable of influencing and communicating at the level required to successfully influence business strategy. It is an uncomfortable space for designers who are taught mostly design “doing” and get “street smart” throughout a career instead of being taught to affect business with their knowledge. I know very few designers, or design leaders for that matter, who can keep the interest of a CEO of a major company for much more than 20 minutes. Businesses who truly understand Design as a Strategy are killing it in the marketplace and always have. For the rest, mostly commodity product still battles it out on shelf for a point or two of share or margin.  Design has the power to change all that but the effort usually comes with some risk attached. As a profession, we need to learn how to communicate more effectively in order to champion design and alleviate the concerns attached to taking those risks.

The great part about the term “design thinking” is that the “thinking” part is baked into the phrase. Design is always more powerful as a verb than a noun. Design thinking is the “why” In why we do things and doing and thinking in combination is the key to successful problem solving.  The bad news is that like any new, new thing, it can be perceived as the fad of the moment. The truth is that design thinking has been around for a long time and is pervasive in many successful companies. It helps to create both a legacy and some level of protection from economic cycles. Established companies like Bang & Olufsen and Herman Miller have used it as an organizing tool for their cultures as well as leverage for selling.  Newer companies like Method and Virgin are succeeding in the same way. Big center of store brands are either created by design thinking or need it to protect their turf. This is especially true in a down economy with renewed competitive pressure coming from private label, distribution constraints, and the global reach of companies. Design thinking by definition introduces sustainability and efficient use of material into every conversation. So yes, I do think it’s an effective term to use in the boardroom because when you understand it as a methodology, it turns out to be the most powerful way for any business to drive purchase and build a brand.

Judith Hoogenboom, Frog Design:

Is it true that design is being held back as a key business strategy? I don’t think so. There’s so much proof of its use as a business strategy that the question surprises me.

That said, I don’t think the term “design thinking” communicates the idea of “design as a key business strategy.” It sounds like it’s about thinking vs. execution, so left + right brain as a way to solve biz problems, etc. vs. actual design. “Design thinking,” to me, refers to putting the consumer or people in the center of a solution. It’s at the heart of good design, but not necessarily at the heart of good business strategy.

That said, design for me is not about the world of design, but the design of the world (to quote Bruce Mau). For me, everything in the world is designed-from the way a supply chain works to the shoes I wear. Some things are designed well, some things poorly. Good design is always (as Thomas Watson famously said) good business.

Perhaps it’s the way we, as designers, define design that creates the problem for us. Even within the design community, we qualify design as either being of the capital vs. lowercase “d” variety. I’m guessing few in the C-suite know what that distinction means. And how could they? Most of our industry publications and awards focus mostly on the lowercase d aspects, not the more holistic uppercase D rationale, one that includes true business drivers and outcomes. It’s not surprising, then, that the C-suite continues to perceive design instead of Design.

Jenifer Killian, Frog Design:

The key challenge holding back design as a key business strategy is that designers can't always translate our services and value into business terms (i.e., convert directly to ROI); and conversely that business leaders aren't always taught to look for design as a value driver. They look first to cost reduction methods and proven, quantitative measures of value. As design can be subjective, it is sometimes harder to measure. But as we know, when done well and people "love" a product or service, that intangible value breeds more sales and loyalty than the majority of trackable metrics can produce.

We need to explain the entire design process, and do it in terms of users and their consideration processes, perceived value and actual needs. Short of doing that, if we have to stick with succinct terms, it would be things like design strategy, behavioral change and a way to produce "Apple emulation."

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