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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