Going nowhere fast: Looking back at a decade of design thinking

“He who doesn’t know where he came from doesn’t know where he is going” ~ African proverb

Today, I came across an article in FastCo written by one of Monitor/Doblin’s people, Melissa Quinn, whose bio seems to imply she is responsible for selecting the right mix of professionals from both business and design. Reading What Both MBAs And MFAs Get Wrong About Solving Business Problems took me back in time to a wholly different era, just about 7 years ago to the Spring of 2005, when “Business” and “Design” first began to intersect on a graph that had until then been asymptotic. That I feel grandfathered is a side effect, but that the conversation has gone nowhere in these intervening years is a much worse feeling for one who has been immersed in this conversation for a decade. And, I was a latecomer as those articles reveal.

Why did Quinn’s article wake up the ghost so suddenly? She wrote:

 And I was less than impressed with the business-thinking skills of designers the following Monday morning, when I interviewed 10 of them at the Institute of Design in Chicago for jobs at Doblin. To most candidates, I asked of the ideas they presented in their portfolios, “But how does it make money? Who will pay for that? How much would you need to sell to be profitable?” and was met with far too many blank expressions when I did so. Design schools have a long way to go to integrate good business thinking into their programs. In order to make their value known to the world, designers need to speak the language of business–that’s where great ideas get funded and developed. Design education needs as much of an overhaul as business education if we are to benefit from the talents of design thinkers in the business world.

I hope that we see meaningful reinvention of both design and business education so that the business world can realize the true value of design thinking. Until that happens, Rotman’s Business Design Club would be wise to require challenge teams to comprise both designers and MBAs. At least it would level the playing field, and it may improve the educational experience for both–assuming each can decipher what the other is saying.

“Ahh, my poor students” was my first thought, forgetting that I’d not been Director of Graduate Admissions and head of the department for all things students since the summer of 2005. Ironically, most of Doblin’s current team are either former classmates or former admits, can you blame them for raising the bar too high for new recruits? Still, pride in the past aside, one must now ask what the problem is with the curriculum and the teaching at the Institute of Design if after 7 years they still haven’t learnt to think about the bottomline?

After all, hadn’t I taken Design Planning with Doblin’s Keeley himself? His curriculum began (in the Fall 2003) with an introduction to most of Porter’s classic frameworks of strategy and competitive analysis interspersed with the usual suspects from Bschool textbooks. If anything, that should be the program (Human Centered Design Planning) that should have incorporated the need to think about business models from the revenue generation point of view. The joint MBA/MDes came much later – in fact, Brad Nemer  was the very first student to attempt both these degrees together  in 2002 and that too, both were extremely intensive fulltime programs. It had taken a lot of kicking and screaming internally, if I recall those faculty meetings correctly, to finally create the merger of the two degrees into something a human student could conceivably achieve within the 2 year span.

I know that even back then, many students were planning on taking the basics of finance and accounting but today, in the Spring of 2012, I am surprised to read that business model design with the attendant consideration of revenue models and payment plans are still giving the design students a “blank expression”.  The irony of Melissa Quinn’s complaint in FastCo is not lost on me when you consider that the original Institute of Design – Moholy-Nagy’s new Bauhaus – was reinvented by Jay Doblin himself. (Read that linked PDF, its Doblin’s “A short, grandiose theory of design” that first puts forth the need for design to think about business and its goals) and that Keeley is on the Board of Trustees.

I’d like to end this pondering path down memory lane with Brad’s quote in the 2004 Core77 article:

“I chose the dual-degree path for two reasons. After working in several high-tech startups, where the product essentially is the company, it became clear that no matter how grand the vision, design is managed in the context of business.” He said as he explained his choice of degrees, “So it is critical to understand the basic forces of accounting, marketing, and organizational management, because otherwise even the best designs in the world will go nowhere. The much-celebrated divide between “designers” and “suits” is not only counter-productive to success all around, it’s inaccurate. Once you demystify business fundamentals, they become just like any other design constraint, and are no more insurmountable.”

and leave it to the powers that be at ID-IIT, Chicago to ask themselves what progress they’ve made in this century.

An update: Victor Lombardi tweets (In) Sum: Have we thrown out collaboration? Until we learn to make unicorns, it’s the *team* that needs all those skills

For some context, I’d interviewed him for that very first article as well, back in December of 2004 where he’d said:

“My partners and I view design as a way of thinking which is applicable far beyond the design of products” he explained. “Our clients want to explore innovative business strategies, ways of collaborating, and ultimately to develop their own innovation capabilities.” So while Lombardi’s firm thinks like designers, they work with executives to help them explore the options a more creative approach can offer. “It’s not easy for people to stretch their thinking to encompass both business- and customer-centric points of view, but ultimately this is what we need to do to create innovative, human-centered organizations.”

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