Business, Meet the Design Stereotype

sprockets.jpgMark Dziersk of laga has written an article in Fast Company entitled “Design meet Business: ‘Business, this is… Design’” intended to help business people get more acquainted with the value and process of design. It’s a good goal — design and business each need to do a better job of understanding the other — but Dziersk sets a tone that is unfortunately condescending toward business, and follows it up with too many stereotypes and some rather odd suggestions on how business people can get more in touch with their creative side.

Dziersk starts out by stating that:

As an accomplished businessperson you probably know a lot about strategy and little about creativity. Creativity is the key to innovation. And, if innovation is (as testified almost everywhere these days) the Midas touch for business today, understanding creativity involves a lot more than orchestrating regimented processes.

Leaving aside the notion that creativity is, in itself, sufficient for innovation (ignoring critical factors like execution, brand fit, feasibility, etc.), this statement is on its face condescending to “business people”. The assumption that business people who are successful know little about how to be creative may be true in many cases, but I’ve met plenty who are highly creative and able to think in fresh new ways.

Dziersk then posits strategy as the opposite of creativity (at least I think he is, the language is a bit vague):

Most businesses are run by adding columns of numbers, and led by financially motivated business managers armed with…. strategies. If creativity is the fuel that brings innovation to life, then strategy is the mirror equivalent for business.

And then leaves it at that, without expanding on the thought. Anyone who knows anything about strategy knows full well that it cannot be done by rote processes. To be done effectively it has to be creative, because it requires thinking in new directions and making well-informed intuitive leaps about the future state of the business, the competition, and customers in a few years time. Innovations and strategies have to be matched together like peas in a pod, or you end up with cool innovations that the company can’t make work in the market, or business goals which are not backed up by products on the shelves.

Dziersk next turns his gaze to designers:

The truth is, very few designers understand strategy, much less leverage it in their work. But the design world is trying, and making inroads. Design strategy means thinking beyond a specific project deliverable. It means drilling down the longer-term goals of both the brand and R&D that affect how products or services are brought to market. This is new territory for design, demonstrating business and brand leadership by creating and manifesting strategies.

I think this would come as a surprise to many designers, including some of the most famous: Eames, Sotsass, Loewy, Starck and Sapper to name a few. The company where I work, frog design, has had a modern day strategy practice for almost ten years now, but even back in the early 80’s when we were working for clients like Apple we were frequently thinking beyond a single product, including establishing what is arguably the first rigorous design language system for Apple, with project Snow White. I think actually a lot of designers are pretty strategic thinkers, but they are often poor at pulling their methodology out to make it explicit, it often remains implicit. Designers then seem like intuition-driven black boxes, when in fact they are often thinking quite holistically.

Speaking of which:

If you are more methodology-skilled (business) than experience-motivated (design), one tip might be to imbed yourself in a creative endeavor, no matter how difficult it might be for you or your psyche. Any class on drawing, dance, poetry or weaving will open a window into the creative process, and open possibilities to embrace ambiguity, which is usually a necessary to go to original places.

I don’t know where to even start with this one. First, it’s again condescending to businesspeople. Second, it’s condescending to designers, implying that they have no methodology and that user experience somehow emerges out of a nebulous fog without rhyme or reason. And speaking of rhyme, I can’t believe he is seriously suggesting taking a poetry or weaving class as a way of understanding how creativity gets applied by designers in pursuit of business challenges. This is just infuriating. Yes design is creative, and art is creative, but that does not mean that by studying art one understands the design process. They are two disciplines with very different goals, tools, and, yes, methodologies.

Dziersk continues with a discussion of “DNA”

What is DNA? A complete understanding of a company, a product, or brand’s DNA is the key to nourishing design that is directed. DNA construction articulates this thinking… A well-constructed DNA helps us understand the consumers’ emotional underpinnings of the visual and experiential interaction with a product or brand. The strength of the DNA is that it’s a free-standing storytelling device that guides a portfolio of future, disparate agencies to a confluence of media points and pipeline ideas. Alternately, it becomes an effective tool that designers can use to defend the relevance and resonance of their work and ideas.

At the core of every go-to-market effort is a strategy based around the DNA of the consumers’ experience and interaction with the device, package or service. This important strategic tool is developed by a combination of consumer insights, brand, R&D, and manufacturing requirements — all summarized in a meaningful way.

Sounds very important. Unfortunately, he never actually defines DNA and says what it consists of. He only talks about how it gets articulated and how designers use espresso as a means of helping propel thinking about it.

I’m going to call it quits at this point, though there are a number of other ambiguities, stereotypes and non-sequitors in the second half of the article, including a particularly galling remark that “For designers, attention spans are short, and gray copy is the kiss of death.” Can we get beyond this please?

Suffice it to say that I’m surprised that Mark Dziersk wrote this - he’s a smart guy, he’s been around the ID block for a long time, and the firm he used to have a leadership position at, Herbst Lazar Bell, has been working the design + strategy angle for a while now. But articles like this, as well intentioned as they are, don’t really help the cause, and in fact may set it back by talking down to the audience — the same people, by the way, who pay designers’ bills and whose approval is required for good design to move forward to market.

(The picture up top is of Mike Meyer’s character Dieter from the Sprockets segment on Saturday Night Live, by the way, not a picture of Dziersk! He references Dieter in the article as the stereotype of what a designer looks like, I suppose a “Now is the time when we design” type of thing. Well worth a bit of nostalgia whether you’ve seen Sprockets or not.)