Teaching design to businesspeople

The “D” in TED stands for “design,” and it’s become a truism that design is a crucial element of business success. Ask Apple. But the conventional wisdom still maintains that design is a “soft” art, not worthy of attention by serious businesspeople. It’s for the designers, the marketing people. And when top executives insert themselves into the design process, the results are often unintentionally hilarious. I remember a decade ago, when I made my living in part by building websites for large media companies, one meeting in which a client CFO rejected an iteration of a site because he didn’t like the shade of mauve in the background. (Philip Greenspun joked about these sort of people — go to this page and search for “mauve” — but it really happened.)

There’s a growing literature detailing how businesspeople can build and sell better products if they think like a designer. Jane Fulton Suri’s Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design is a tiny classic that does nothing less than teach businesspeople a new way of looking at everything. And this month O’Reilly is publishing Subject To Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World, in which the Adaptive Path team shows how important design is, in terms businesspeople can understand.

And now these ideas are filtering into education. In one high-profile example, the Stanford “d.school” is doing much to connect business and design. Andy Oram, in an internal O’Reilly list, pointed us to a fascinating article by Terry (Bringing Design to Software) Winograd of Stanford in the recent Interactions called “Design education for business and engineering management students: a new approach.” Winograd reports on the insights that have come to Donald Norman as he has sought new ways to infect nondesigners with design smarts. The author of The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design has developed a “design track” in the Master of Manufacturing and Management program at Northwestern. It’s still early on, and Winograd’s perspective in the article is prospective, but it’s another data point that the next generation of businesspeople may be able to think at a deeper level than shades of mauve.

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  • Great post, I’ve seen quite a bit of movement over the last few years on the academic side of things in this area.

    Unfortunately its very slow going getting it into corporate America (instead they’ve ISO’d themselves out of innovating and often get the madness rather than the wisdom of their crowds).

    We’re seeing encouraging signs though.

    Last year we we started offering human-centered design courses for corporate clients and did over three quarters of a million dollars of business. Effectively we now work as “personal trainers” to major corporations, hosting MAYA University continuing education sessions where senior business people, and software/hardware engineers go from thinking one way to entirely thinking another in a very short time (through some very intensive and hands-on methods that we’ve developed).

    We have more business than we can deal with so this isn’t any sort of plug. I have just seen and become very passionate about the core political architecture of major corporations and how they innovate (or don’t).

    A few things we’ve learned to add to your post?
    Accidental/Misdirected Design is missing (in any structured and useful way) in big companies. I know that sounds odd (structured accidents?) but that’s how creativity works, and its missing. Really creative innovators know that most of their ideas are either misunderstandings, or bullshit that they made up while being put on the spot, that’s how creativity happens and that’s a scary thing to tell corporate overlords.

    Nobody is telling stories, explaining how this thing will earn the company a cover story in HBR, explaining how in 2015 it fostered the curing of 14 diseases or otherwise inspiring themselves and others to believe they can do the impossible.

    Genetic recombination doesn’t happen in brainstorming sessions. It works in the wild and yet all too often brainstorm sessions start with the common “there are no bad ideas or stupid people” when everyone there knows there are (sitting right next to them most likely). The loudest person wins the shrinking violet shrinks and you get average gray sludge (averaging things too early is a clear sign that they’ve failed).

    Academia can’t teach some things, design schools are some of the worst places to learn about navigating the business architecture of innovation. I wish it weren’t true but it is. Design thinking isn’t applied evenly and often is only applied to the apparent problem at hand rather than the real problem (which usually involves creating an innovation conspiracy… something we’ve started calling inspiracies).

    Keep the posts coming, good stuff, I only hope more people wake up, soon (given that we’ll be facing a trillion smart devices very soon and the doubling of all structured information every 11 hours by 2010 we better start getting creative!)

  • Interesting thoughts. The idea that jumps out at me however is that those who fail to pay attention to design from an emotional aspect are putting themselves at a disadvantage. In my industry (commercial real estate), you can present the same information in a variety of ways and there will always be a best and worst design concept for closing business. In fact, at times we have the same info as our competitors, how we frame the info in a meeting using color schemes can make all the difference. Everyone at our firm has input on these issues.

    Thanks again, great post.

  • Alex Tolley

    On the other side, there is a nice little book “Artful Making” about how to manage creative people.

    In my experience, trying to sell design to corporate people is extremely difficult (And I’m a corporate type). Worse, everyone thinks that design is easy. So every manager in a project wants to make design suggestions, which invariably screws up good design.

    No doubt things will change, but it is very slow going.

  • On that same side, another great book about managing great groups is “Organizing Genius,” which looks at past great groups from the Manhattan Project to the first Skunkworks to Apple and tries to factor out why they worked so well.

    Selling “design” is tough. Most people don’t have any tools to decide what is arbitrary versus what is important so “My assistant likes red” is valid in their minds. There are techniques of course but I’d still contest that they involve inspiracies.

    One example?

    We have cognitive psychologists on staff and often perform usability tests behind one way glass. Most people would say “so what?” that has nothing to do with socializing design thinking per se or getting better decisions made in an organization, it just helps you make a given product or experience more usable. Well, that could be true. IF, you ignore the group dynamics of running a test like this. IF you ignore the chance to bring a group of “not invented here” types together and use real users to crush their preciously held dogma. But by using something like this as a hack for the organization you can get them to stop thinking about their own opinions (its very humbling to watch stuff go through “think aloud” style user-testing) and start thinking about the user as the battle rather than their own internal perspectives.

    We did this with Merrill Lynch a few years back and brought 24 of their business owners together (who by the way had all jumped on the web independently during the dot com explosion) and used user testing and “think aloud” protocol to get them to all start working together with the user as a common “foe.” We followed up with an issue/value chart that mapped the importance of features to the user on one dimension with the cost to make/fix those features on the other dimension. Suddenly they not only knew what was arbitrary and what was important they shifted to a “well, lets not try to guess, let’s test it” mentality (and along they way became a team in the process through shared experiences). This is very different than focus groups by the way (which are useful for marketing but deadly wrong for product or experience innovation).

    Post script?
    They shipped a new version of their unified global portal in less than 6 months and the Economist noted that they had the most to lose going onto the web and had basically set the standard for the right way to do it.

  • The problem I have with all this talk about bringing “design” to business and comments such as “think like a designer” is that it too often assumes that design = art/aesthetics. It doesn’t.

    I was just as much a “designer” when I was designing an airplane for my senior year aerospace engineering project as I was when I was designing a “skateboard” chassis automobile (this was before the GM version was publicized, btw) as a “soft” industrial design student at a fine arts college known for cranking out automotive stylists (one of whom, in particular, exhibited some amazing “hard” engineering thinking skills).

    From my perspective the inability to see all sides of “design” and instead push one as being somehow the big solution to corporations ailing in the current Age of Commoditization misses a much larger issue.

  • Michael R. Bernstein