Perspective: Pondering cultures of design and design’s cultural fit

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LukeW’s post on design left me in a thoughtful mood after I read it. He’d linked to an article about Samsung’s design culture and the clashes between Bay Area rockstar designers and the inhouse product development teams.

It wasn’t the content of the article that struck me, as it was rather balanced, quoting former Samsung designers as well as pointing out the arrogance of insisting your concept be manifested exactly as presented. It was the headline that Fast Company magazine selected to accompany the article that was revealing.

Why Samsung Design Stinks isn’t the sort of headline one would expect from a mainstream business and design magazine. Its clickbait of the very worst sort, one imagines they’d have a page 3 girl covering her nudity with an iPad cover or some such thing.

Its also very revealing, given the magazine’s audience is primarily those active in the design and innovation industry, of the sort of culture they’re intent on cultivating. The sentence that Luke left out in his quote from the article was this one:

The designers would dig in their heels, refusing to budge on their grand idea or see how it might fit into Samsung’s vast production line.

This kind of brings us back to the old conversations about business and design. Luke’s post offers hints of the challenge, as he touches upon the issue from all sides.

Yes, he’s saying, design has definitely clambered up the value chain, just as it was hoping to do so all these years we’ve been thinking and writing on this overlap between business and design. But it struggles to effect change. It struggles to be heard. And it struggles to find its voice even though the boardroom door has been opened.

How much of this is due to design’s culture?

Over a decade ago, I signed up for the first prototype of a semester long class with the working title of Design Languages. Conceptualized by John Grimes, it had less to do with the form factor of a device – how we traditionally interpret the phrase ‘design language’ – and more to do with Aristotle’s rhetoric. If I recall correctly, Brandon Shauer was also in that class – it was meant to teach us a structured argument for making an effective case for a particular design direction or concept, from the business perspective.

Grimes said (in his curmudgeonly way) that we designers were completely useless at standing up in front of a roomful of finance types, product managers and brand gurus and had no skills worth mentioning in making a powerful business case for our design concepts. Our design schooling had only taught us how to say “Its cool” or “I like this one in pink and black”. And for the money men and MBA types that simply wasn’t good enough to invest in a production line or product launch.

The class went on to evolve into a proper course but as the guinea pigs in the first prototype I think we had a better deal – we were video taped making our  attempts at persuading a roomful of sceptical left brain suits to put cash down on our concepts, and if you knew Grimes, you’d know the devastating critiques we received in return.

Learning how to talk the language of business, as a designer, and thus having the skill to make the investment case for why one’s concept must see the light of day is the part that’s missing in the scenario painted by LukeW’s post.

Its not enough to be valued, one must be able to justify one’s value as an investment decision and demonstrate the returns.

If there is a cultural clash, its embedded here. On one side it’s inarticulate designers expecting their concept’s value to be comprehended and understood, implicitly; feeling like they’re banging their head against the wall of Excel pushing philistines in ties and suits. On the other, its middle managers who must justify their bottomlines and their market shares dealing with the demands of design’s divas.

To note, I too have worked with one of Samsung’s global design teams. Yes, there are elements of truth in the article about their corporate culture and approach but at the same time, its also design’s responsibility to find a way to be heard, since they’re the ones who claim to own the concept of being ‘user centered’, right? Snarky headlines really aren’t the way to build bridges.

PS. I developed a workshop for the Stanford ME 310 program held here in Finland based on the original principles of Grimes’ worksheet, simplifying the language for a multicultural classroom. I’ll put that up in a post soon.

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