03 April 2006

Will designers determine the fate of design?

I think not. Granted I am in the Midwest and not San Francisco, New York or that great meca of design, Chicago, but I would estimate that 95% of the designers that I have known or worked with could not define ‘design thinking.’ In schools, in studios and in the minds of most design faculty, design is a trade and a craft. It is visual styling in the studio tradition – and a rote process of styling at that.

The business magazines, Daniel Pink and even Time Magazine have spouted about the virtue of design. They show design as a worthy discipline as yet untapped by most businesses. And for that I am very grateful. They hold up Apple Computer, Proctor and Gamble and others as companies with the vision to use design as an effective weapon in an increasingly competitive marketplace. True enough, these are examples of companies that have embraced the power of design and made a difference, either in process or in positioning. They have not only differentiated themselves in the press, business world and consumer mindset, but likely increased profitability as well.

Here is where the difficulty lies. Most designers I know (granted most are graphikers, web, print or both) are caught up in visual styling. They miss the structure and are only partly aware of how their process is different from that of marketers, accountants and others. Further, most designers (like myself for many years) utilize what Richard J. Borland and Fred Collopy (Managing as Designing, 2004) refer to as a decision attitude rather than a design attitude. They do not push to optimal or potentially risky solutions. They defer to safe and acceptable standards that meet expectations.

Most of the engineers and business professors I know are more attuned to design thinking than the designers that I know. Have you noticed how many MBA programs have formed alliances with university design departments in the last few years? Though it has been pointed out to me that ‘we do not own’ our process or the design domain, as designers we are in position to bring it to the executive level and optimize the obvious potential.

My real fear is not that designers will be left in the dust, or that we will lose credit, it is that design will be the latest amongst many business fads to follow TQM and Six Sigma. Those credible applications are so often reduced to weak applications or ‘programs’ that lack the systemic embrace that can render them so powerful. Using design to merely position (I did not say SuperTarget) will only lesson the long-term significance of design thinking in the business world.

The charge for the practicing studio or trade minded designer is this – get out of your staid process and grow. Learn to think and talk like business people. Go to conferences and read the published papers - even take classes or study at the graduate level. Understand how to talk the executive language. Apply research, metrics and statistics to your work. Spend time with people who are not designers within your organization. Be aggressive, be expansive and work cross culturally.

My hope is that we can keep design from becoming the latest business version of the atkins diet.