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December 03, 2005

Design is the New Black: my response to Michael Bierut

Having finally come up for air, I feel compelled to add my comments to Michael Bierut's "Innovation is the New Black" post on Design Observer. There are few things which could have made me happier than Michael posting his original thoughts and this flurry of ensuing discussion and debate. The relationship between "design", "innovation" and "business" is a murky one which is steeped in a long history design as an abstract mode, business as a concrete mode and innovation somewhere in between. It is a relationship which designers would be well-served to debate, understand and, ultimately come to some agreements on.

The "Revolutions" of Business: a story of optimization
To understand why innovation is ever more essential in our current context requires one to walk the path of business thought leaders over the last century. Every MBA student is taught the "Key Revolutions in Business", usually in a class titled Organizational Behavior. These revolutions, starting with Taylorism and ending with Information Technology, revolve around the optimization of factories, companies, industries and information roughly in that order. These "revolutions" would probably better be called the key business "innovations" of the past 100 years. Each changed the game so drastically that firms were forced to get on board to compete. They were relatively easy to copy but the slower flow of information in the past 100 years allowed early adopters to gain a big edge. As a result of the internet, the IT revolution, and the tens of thousands of MBA graduates in business today, most every firm understands the history and value of optimization and productivity gains.

What happens when you can't "out-optimize" anyone?
This brings us to today. How do you gain competitive edge when every firm is immediately aware of new ways to optimize? Business schools and publications like HBR and BusinessWeek are happy to extoll the virtues of new methods of gaining productivity thereby tipping your competitors off on how to squeeze another drop from their resources. Companies have never before been on such equal ground when it comes to optimization of operations. In fact, companies are having to deal with ever more rapidly evolving markets and competition so they have to be really good at understanding emergent opportunities and managing change. This is where "innovation" and "design" become important.

Innovation exists in a space between the disciplines of design and business. Both are capable of contributing but neither are master and commander. Larry Keeley argues that "Innovation" is evolving into a new discipline of its own and teaches such at the Institute of Design. I'm not sure I agree. Webster's defines discipline as, "training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior." I would certainly argue that structures, methods and practices are evolving to assist individuals and companies to be better innovators. That said, I am less sold on Innovation with a capital "I" being thought of as a separate discipline outside of design or business.

In fact, this is where I see things getting really interesting. I see innovation developing as a shared practice of both design and business disciplines. There will always be a need for the star iconoclast and impossible-to-work-with designer as well as the for the hardcore accountant. These two types will never easily work together. For the rest of us, less extreme designers and businessmen, there is a space we can both agree is important and share an education in practice and common ground: innovation.

The convergence of business and design education?
In an interview I conducted with Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, he said, "I think business and design educations should converge. I'm finding it hard to think about 21st century business with out a great convergence between design education and business education." (see Perspectives on Design + Strategy, an ID publication) In my opinion, that's a bit of an extreme view, but I couldn't agree any more strongly with the premise that designers need know a more about the value of business and businessmen need to know a bit more about the value of design. For far too long has there been a wall between "us" and "them" and it is hurting the success of our firms. In my own work as a designer then as a manager, I remember well the behind-the-back snickering about "artsy flakes" and "crusty suits" not getting "it". The best people and companies will learn to play in the same sandbox and truly understand the value of each perspective brings.

Because of business education's focus on learning through cases and common texts, I believe businessmen have a fairly clear role in a firm. Similarly, this allows fellow businessmen to have clear conversations between each other with little to no prior relationship. Making deals, understanding profits and losses, operations, economics and the like are all essential for companies to develop and execute innovative solutions. Unfortunately or not, businessmen are generally the ones in power within organizations.

Frankly, this puts an onus on design. Unfortunately, "design" as a concept is attached to everything from systems to products to hair and everything in between. Everyone seems to have their own definition so it is difficult to communicate its value to those in power and not yet already sold. This is where designers need to plant a flag in the ground and clearly and consistently communicate as a group . Can we so comfortably discuss our value as the tens of thousands of MBA's we deal with or have we failed to design the very thing which is most essential to us: a common vision?

Regardless, designers do need to become more aware and comfortable with the lexicon and practices of business. Design's power is great (greater I would argue than traditional business practice) but only if it communicated and used effectively. This is why I currently attend the Institute of Design and not Kellogg or the University of Chicago GSB. Our challenge is great but also compelling. I believe the current context and this space of innovation between design and business is of extreme importance to both disciplines. It can, in fact, strengthen the relationship and understanding of these two, in the past divergent, modes of thinking. The best firms will indeed get it and, with luck, more design and business schools will start working together.

Design is the New Black: what is design's value to organizations?
The title of Michael Bierut's initial post was striking to me for two reasons. First, I was somewhat shocked at the irreverent treatment of such a important topic for designers at this juncture. Second, I had used a similar title for a presentation I developed with a colleague of mine, Erik Almenberg, at Yahoo! this summer but had used "Design" in place of Michael's "Innovation".

The presentation was a brief exploration on a discussion Erik and I had been having on what design's value was to organizations. In it, Erik and I argued that design's value could be broadly characterized to have three main foci: differentiation, integration and innovation. What I mean by this is that design education and methods as taught at the best schools train professions to be good at this things, all integral to business success. I am working on a paper now which fleshes out these relationships in more detail. I will post it here when I am done.

Until then, thanks Michael for shaking the hornet's nest.

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