29 April 2008

Design and business… coming soon…

In the coming days you will find some commentary that is directed towards business people regarding design. I don’t have to pontificate too much about the benefits of design as an asset to business, there are plenty of very credible folks like Roger Martin, A.G Lafley, and Bruce Nussbaum already leading this charge. But I will likely call out some specific items that can help business.

Within the design community there is tension. Mention the term ‘design thinking’ and you will likely start interactions just short of a rumble. If you don’t know, ‘design thinking’ is the application of design methods, philosophies, and process to areas outside of design. Think about Agile development. On of the defining characteristics is rapid prototyping and iterative process, trial and error, if you will. Designers have been doing this forever. Frankly, most everyone does, well except for those diehards blinded by rigid waterfall or rational unified process. Fear of failure is a horrible thing in a place where progress and doing things better is important. Designers have little fear. They understand you have to fail to learn and they except iteration as a viable method.

Designers are cognizant of the benefits, the marginal return and competitive advantages they can bring to the table. They see Apple, at one point Motorola, Target, and others winning in the market place because they understand how to optimize the power in design. And, they want a seat at the table. They want to be involved earlier because the earlier they get to work, the better work they can accomplish. Designers want a say in the decision process. And they have earned it as a profession.

The problem is… not many business people understand how to use design to their advantage. Hell, most business people don’t really know what design is. When I was in business school, many a professor where dumb struck that I was a designer studying business. “They really have nothing to do with each other do they?”

Just a few years later, many of the important (and top rated) business schools in the country not only embrace design, but are racing to build collaborate programs with design departments. The MBA with an MA in design is becoming more commonplace (if only I had thought of that).

So back to that tension… many designers who misunderstand design thinking, believe that business want to make design decisions without being designers. Designers also don’t understand why they aren’t respected.

It is worth stating that defining design is an ongoing problem. The term is at once to vague, and very often to narrowly defined. Definitions vary, but one thing is for sure, if you think that design is merely moving visual elements around on the page – you don’t get it. Design is shaping how a web site should function. My definition even includes the early stages of the biz dev function… how will we design this product offering? Business models can be designed and re-designed. Process and procedures… also designed.

So look for more here in the coming days and weeks. I will try and bite off smaller chunks, be more focused and wander less. The upshot here will not be so much to evangelize, but to show how to embrace design as a strategic and competitive weapon.