When you get in a room full of design professionals, you will often here them talk about “business people.” Traditionally, the conversation centers around the way that business people fail to understand either the value of design or the inherent principles of the practice.
I was in a room full of design professionals this morning for a breakfast hosted by the folks at Continuum and featuring Jessica Helfand. Jessica is a widely respected figure in the design community who co-founded Design Observer and has taught at Yale University since 1996. In 2016, Jessica published a book – Design: The Invention of Desire – and soon after began teaching a course on design at Yale’s School of Management.
In other words, she has gone from teaching designers to teaching business people. It was clear from the way that she spoke of them that Jessica admires and appreciates the MBA students she teaches at Yale. At the same time, they also obviously differ from the design students that she has taught for years.
The difference can be summed up with an anecdote that she shared with us. At the end of one of her courses, a student told her that MBA students want frameworks and methods for dealing with challenges in the business world. Helfand’s class, in the eyes of this student, did not provide anything of the kind.
The idea that a design student would have commented at course’s end in the same manner is unthinkable.
Design vs. Business
The first time I was exposed to the design/business divide was at an AIGA Design Camp in Minnesota around 2000. There, during a big group discussion, several attendees were lamenting that their clients just didn’t “get” design. They didn’t understand why it mattered nor did they respect the opinions of designers.
My response to them was, “That’s not your client’s problem. That’s your problem.”
As glib as that response might sound, I stand by it today. If your customer doesn’t see the value in what you are doing or respect your recommendations, that means you didn’t convince them thereof.
Putting it another way: You didn’t sell it.
Of course, “not selling it,” is part of the problem. My guess is that many people go into design, because they don’t want to go into business; they want to design things. They enjoy being creative. And they imagine that, as a designer, they will be living the proverbial dream, “Getting paid for doing what you like to do.”
Still, if you want to get paid. You have to sell. And if you sell, you’re in business. It’s that simple.
Such simplicity notwithstanding, as I heard this morning, people continue to talk about design as one thing people do, and business as a totally other thing.
The problem is, business and design need each other, especially at a time when design (particularly in the realms of user experience and customer experience) is considered a key differentiator in the marketplace and “design thinking” is seen as the golden road to innovation.
So, how do we bridge the divide?
The Power of Intentionality
Whenever people start talking about design, I’m reminded of Jedi Mind Tricks’ album, Violent by Design. Specifically, I’m reminded that “by design” means to do something intentionally (in some cases, with guile, even).
I believe that intentionality is the point where design and business intersect. Design involves creativity, but not unbounded creativity. It is creativity applied to a specific goal, given specific constraints. Learning how to design means learning to make creative choices. It means learning to be intentional with your creativity.
Business is also about intention. It is about making money, to be sure, but every business is focused on making money in a very specific way (by selling donuts, or cleaning people’s houses, or designing signage). The methods and frameworks one learns at a business school (or from an experienced mentor) make it possible to be more thoughtful and intentional about how you want to make money and the way your business is conducted.
The key, here, is mindfulness. Being intentional requires mindfulness. It calls for you to be conscious of what you are doing and, with all the options at your disposal, why you are doing it.
Crossing the Threshold
Jessica shared another anecdote that illustrates this last point.
As a way of critiquing a presentation by one of her students, she asked why the student had selected a certain font. The student was taken aback, saying that she didn’t know that she could use a different font.
In other words, while the student was undoubtedly intentional with regard to the content of her slides (she knew what she wanted to say), at least some of her “choices” with regard to presenting her content fell below the threshold of intentionality.
This anecdote points out the main challenge we face, both personally and professional: How can we become ever more intentional in our actions? That is, how can be raise more of what we do above the threshold of intentionality?
The answer here lies in the notion of method. A friend of mine, who got her MBA from MIT and did a stint at McKinsey, once criticized an executive we both knew by saying, “For him, marketing is ‘gut instinct,’ not a methodology.”
Both the design world and the business world have their share people who get by on their gut. Gut, however, isn’t scalable, transferable, or, at the end of the day, reliable. At best, it’s an impulse. At worst, a symptom.
The opposite path is that of methodical intention. The beauty is that, when were are mindful and methodical, we can communicate our intentions. When we do that, we establish a common ground for collaboration and thus overcome the wholly unproductive tension that exists between design and business.
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