Business and Design in Stasis?

By | March 10, 2015

I came across this post from the archives of a now deleted blog, originally hosted on the Design Factory’s website, and realized that more than 4 years have passed yet most of these words could still hold true today, given the recent conversations on design’s future. So I’m reproducing it as food for thought and for reflection.


On the challenge of merging Business with Design – Nov25th, 2010

Helen Walters recently published her complete speech from Design Thinkers 2010 online under various titles such as “The 7 Biggest Challenges in Merging Design and Business” as well as “Design: The bottom line” which provides much food for thought as a current day snapshot of the interstitial space where business meets design.  After having sat on it for the past couple of weeks, I think its percolated through my brain enough that I feel confident of writing a response.

A big takeaway from the whole article was the sense of fragmentation and lack of consensus and direction currently facing the design industry, underscored by a lack of focus and direction for the future. Walters touched upon the fact that the first and foremost challenge was the disillusionment around the concept of “design thinking”, framing it as the silver bullet or panacea that didn’t deliver. She goes on to add that while the basic idea was to integrate the two fields, that of business and design, the underlying agendas were too self serving to influence or impact the wellbeing of the field as a whole.  She cautions that if the industry doesn’t stop to take a moment to reflect on the needs for its collective future – whether from the point of view of educating future designers or grooming designers for leadership positions or even learning to talk the language of others – it would soon face the challenge of being back where it started from, a line item brought in for cosmetic enhancement. Before I synthesize the message I’m reading here, let me share an intriguing snippet from her speech:

Even as interest in design has proliferated, the existence of design industry champions who can explain the promise of the discipline to the wider world at large has hardly materialized. Too often, industry leaders get caught up in navel gazing that is perhaps fascinating to them but sadly utterly irrelevant to those on the outside. Sometimes the design community seems hellbent on doing its very best impression of the American Democratic party. When in doubt, they turn on their own, squabbling about small matters that just don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

John Maeda, the esteemed interaction designer and president of the Rhode Island School of Design, recently wrote, “a well-crafted message only has worth if it leaves the hands of the craftsman and makes it all the way to others’ hearts.” It’s a pointed reminder for designers to keep in mind the reason so many of them got into this business in the first place: to make a difference in the world at large, not just in the small world immediately surrounding them. Feeling like a part of a community is great, of course. Not having the wherewithal to look deeper across the horizon is not.

There’s no sense of ownership of one’s legacy or one’s heritage as a designer. The towering figures of yore like the Eames or here, in Finland, Aalto, seemed to demonstrate a larger sense of history in the context of the work they manifested. Perhaps not in every single chair or stool but certainly in the wide sweeps of thinking that went on behind it. And why simply the form givers, even Walter’s own employer’s legacy is the biggest shift in design thinking in education as the ‘new Bauhaus’ founded by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy was reconfigured into Jay Doblin’s human centered design program grounded in methodology and process. Maeda makes a critical point here, visionaries are simply not enough if their ideas do not transfer. The impact of ideas men like Fuller and McLuhan is still among us today but only because so much of what they saw can be applied.

Ideas in and of themselves are not enough, they must be made tangible, in the real world. The vision must come to life and that truly is what great design thinking is all about. It needs the hands of the craftsman to make its way to other’s hearts.

So lets step back and look at this from a different way – perhaps, this is where the concept of “business” – making things happen, if you will, with money and strategy and planning and distribution, finds its role for “design” – envisioning a better way, making a difference, making something better or simply solving a problem. Perhaps the issue isn’t whether one is better than the other or that one has a more significant role or importance. Perhaps the challenge is to find a way that both can work in tandem, finding their roles within the team but in a balanced rather than a linear or hierarchical way.  This isn’t a competition so much as it is an exercise in cooperation and collaboration and teamwork between disparate and distinctively different groups. How best can we bring together the apparently opposing mindsets that seem to be embodied in our usage of the words business and design?

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