The Real Problems with Design Thinking

[Latest word works, published over at Fast Company.]

Rumors of the failure of design thinking appear to have been somewhat overblown. At the recent Design Research conference in Seattle, the consensus reportedly held that whether or not you like the term, design thinking is here to stay. At a recent panel discussion in New York, “Design Thinking: Dead or Alive?” it was hard to find any of the speakers (of which I was one) quibbling with more than the fact that it wasn’t a very interesting question.

Nonetheless, it’s also somewhat hard to find many fervent supporters of design thinking. Designers I’ve talked to still bristle at a phrase they see as subtly maligning the validity of the rest of their work. Executives meanwhile, still seem baffled by the term, even if they quite like the general idea of adding design into the business mix.

The latest book on the topic is Designing for Growth, a “design thinking toolkit for managers” and it provides a pretty good snapshot of how people are thinking about the discipline right now. Namely, that the reins of design thinking lie firmly in the hands of executives. In this world, design thinking is shorthand for the process implemented in a more creatively driven type of workshop, one involving visual thinking, iteration and prototyping. In this world, you don’t have to be a designer to be a design thinker, and the process has been codified as a repeatable, reusable business framework.

This is all, arguably, fine. But mostly it unwittingly highlights the true tension at the heart of the design thinking debate. A codified, repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation, which requires difficult, uncomfortable work to challenge the status quo of an industry or, at the very least, an organization. Executives are understandably looking for tidy ways to guarantee their innovation efforts — but they’d be better off coming to terms with the fact that there aren’t any.

There are certainly ways to make them less of a random shot in the dark, and most companies could use some help in thinking about innovation in a more systematic, organized fashion. But design thinking is no magic key to a secret kingdom of innovation. Coating a veneer of design processes on the top of innovation initiatives that will promptly be stymied by internal bureaucracy or politics doesn’t help anyone. In fact, as we’ve seen, it’ll frustrate designers, who find themselves with the unfulfilling role of making Post-it notes look pretty, and it’ll disappoint executives, who feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Another problem: The question of when design thinking is actually appropriate remains unanswered and apparently unclear to many. The authors of Designing for Growth outline their own experiment in design thinking–as applied to the design of their book’s cover. It’s meant as a cute interlude, but it highlights a huge issue: A book cover is not a design thinking problem, it’s a graphic design problem. The last thing executives need is to imagine that they must immerse themselves in a complex program of prototyping when really they’d be better off commissioning someone trained in a discipline for which they themselves have exhibited neither interest nor aptitude. Design is a skill all right, and thank heavens for those who are good at it.

The real problem of course is that when it comes to large programs of innovation, the contrasting practices and systems of business and design continue to be a stumbling block to progress. Until senior leadership figures out how to get teams working together harmoniously, they won’t make much of it. Note: The onus for that rapprochement isn’t merely on the business side. At that recent panel event in New York, one of the speakers recounted a project in which she and some other professional designers had engaged in a design-thinking exercise. They had all become terribly bored, she remembered. “We were too good!” she said. Too good at what, precisely? Too good at the process of visualizing ideas, maybe. But that’s just one part of innovation, which is only successful when it creates actual value, which requires taking those ideas and figuring out how to make them fly in the marketplace.

For designers to have strategic impact, they need to work with managers to ensure that the business elements of a project are being catered to, too. That might not play to the innate strengths of designers, but it’s vital for leaders to figure out ways for everyone to get along so that innovation can be a team sport. Otherwise, we’ll be left with bizarre stories such as the one that ran recently in The New York Times, with a Smart Design director arguing that the Flip camera was, in fact, just about perfect. Just not so perfect that Cisco didn’t decide to discontinue making the product. Executives don’t always make the right decisions, of course, and perhaps Cisco management did make the wrong call in this instance. But proclaiming that smartphones had no bearing on that discussion and arguing that all of the design decisions were correct smacks of hubris and myopia. Design doesn’t–shouldn’t–live in a bubble and designers need to bridge the divide between their world and business, not just lob ideas over the fence and hope for the best. As it stands, it takes a particular type of person who can span those two worlds. Those are the must-hire employees of the future.

Perhaps some designers will welcome the passing of the design thinking baton to executives. Perhaps they’ll be relieved to see design thinking shaking out as a useful problem-solving approach for executives to use when appropriate. But to me, this shift emphasizes the need for leaders of both business and design to further clarify understanding of who does what, when. Design should neither be aggrandized nor trivialized. But it feels like it could play an infinitely more significant role if only those involved could figure out more convincing ways to articulate its value. For now, the real issue with design thinking is that executives run with it as they see fit, design practitioners continue to shrug their shoulders at the discussion, and corporate continues to trump creative. Given the real need for innovation in every part of culture and society, that seems like the biggest problem of all.

Design Thinking Won’t Save You

Recently, Kevin McCullagh of British product strategy consultancy, Plan organized a two-day event for executives to wrap their heads around the concept of design thinking—and, in particular, to think about how they might go about implementing it within their own organization. Kevin invited me along to give an overview of some of the things I’ve been thinking recently. “Don’t hold back,” he advised. So I came up with a talk entitled, “Design Thinking Won’t Save You” which aimed to outline what design thinking is *not* in order to help attendees figure out a practical way forward. Here’s an edited version of what I said:

Ladies and gentlemen, let me break this to you gently. Design Thinking, the topic we’re here to analyze and discuss and get to grips with so you can go back and instantly transform your businesses, is not the answer.

Now before you throw down your coffee cups and storm out in disgust, let me explain that I’m not here to write off design thinking. Really, I’m not. In fact, I’ve been a keen observer of the evolution of the discipline for a number of years now and I’m still curious to watch where it goes and how it continues to evolve as its influence spreads throughout industries and around the world. So to be clearer, I suppose I should say that design thinking won’t save you, but it really might help:

First, some context: Until July of 2010, I was the editor of innovation and design at Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Before that, I’d worked consistently in design journalism both here in New York and in London. The reason that I wanted to join BusinessWeek in the first place was precisely because it struck me as being the one place that had its eye on both camps, on the creative industries and on the business world writ large. And it struck me that it’s at this nexus and intersection that the thriving businesses of the future will be built.

I joined the magazine back in 2006, which was a time when design thinking was really beginning to take hold as a concept. My old boss, Bruce Nussbaum, emerged as its eloquent champion while the likes of Roger Martin from Rotman, IDEO’s Tim Brown, my new boss Larry Keeley and even the odd executive (AG Lafley of Procter and Gamble comes to mind) were widely quoted espousing its virtues.

Still, in the years that have followed, something of a problem emerged. For all the gushing success stories that we and others wrote, most were often focused on one small project executed at the periphery of a multinational organization. When we stopped and looked, it seemed like executives had issues rolling out design thinking more widely throughout the firm. And much of this stemmed from the fact that there was no consensus on a definition of design thinking, let alone agreement as to who’s responsible for it, who actually executes it or how it might be implemented at scale.

And we’d be wise to note that there’s a reason that companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Electric were held up time and again as being the poster children of this new discipline. Smartly, they had defined it according to their own terms, executing initiatives that were appropriate to their own internal cultures. And that often left eager onlookers somewhat baffled as to how to replicate their success.

This is something that I think you need to think very carefully about as you look to implement design thinking within your company. Coming up with ways to implement this philosophy and process throughout your organization, developing the ways to motivate and engage your employees along with the metrics to ensure that you have a sense of the real value of your achievements are all critical issues that need to be considered, carefully, upfront.

Designers often bristle when the term design thinking comes up in conversation. It’s kind of counterintuitive, right? But here’s why: Having been initially overjoyed that the C-suite was finally paying attention to design, designers suddenly became terrified that they were actually being beaten to the punch by business wolves in designer clothing.

Suddenly, designers had a problem on their hands. Don Norman, formerly of Apple, once commented that “design thinking is a term that needs to die.” Designer Peter Merholz of Bay Area firm Adaptive Path wrote scornfully: “Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation.” He didn’t mean this as a compliment. Instead, his point was that those extolling the virtues of design thinking are at best misguided, at worst likely to inflict dangerous harm on the company at large, over-promising and under-delivering and in the process screwing up the delicate business of design itself.

So let’s be very clear. Design thinking neither negates nor replaces the need for smart designers doing the work that they’ve been doing forever. Packaging still needs to be thoughtfully created. Branding and marketing programs still need to be brilliantly executed. Products still need to be artfully designed to be appropriate for the modern world. When it comes to digital experiences, for instance, design is really the driving force that will determine whether a product lives or dies in the marketplace.

Design thinking is different. It captures many of the qualities that cause designers to choose to make a career in their field, yes. And designers can most certainly play a key part in facilitating and expediting it. But it’s not a replacement for the important, difficult job of design that exists elsewhere in the organization.

The value of multi-disciplinary thinking is one that many have touched upon in recent years. That includes the T-shaped thinkers championed by Bill Moggridge at IDEO, and the I-with-a-serif-shaped thinker introduced by Microsoft Research’s Bill Buxton, right through to the collaboration across departments, functions and disciplines that constitutes genuine cross disciplinary activity. This, I believe, is the way that innovation will emerge in our fiendishly complex times.

Just as design thinking does not replace the need for design specialists, nor does it magically appear out of some black box. Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.

Instead, it turns up insights galore, and there is real value and skill to be had from synthesizing the messy, chaotic, confusing and often contradictory intellect of experts gathered from different fields to tackle a particularly thorny problem. That’s all part of design thinking. And designing an organizational structure in which this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas can take place effectively is tremendously challenging, particularly within large organizations where systems and departments have become entrenched over the years.

You need to be prepared to rethink how you think about projects, about who gets involved and when, about no less than how you do things. The way that you approach innovation itself will probably need to change. This might seem like a massive undertaking, but if you’re after genuine disruption more than incremental improvement, these kinds of measures are the only way to get the results that you need.

Design thinking is not a panacea. It is a process, just as Six Sigma is a process. Both have their place in the modern enterprise. The quest for efficiency hasn’t gone away and in fact, in our economically straitened times, it’s sensible to search for ever more rigorous savings anywhere you can. But design thinking can live alongside efficiency measures, as a smart investment in innovation that will help the company remain viable as the future becomes the present.

Somehow, for a time there it seemed like executives thought that if they bought into a program of design thinking then all their problems would be solved. And we should be honest, many designers were quite happy to perpetuate this myth and bask in their new status. Then the economy tanked and as Kevin wrote in a really brilliant article published on Core77, “Many who had talked their way into high-flying positions were left gliding… Greater exposure to senior management’s interrogation had left many… well, exposed. The design thinkers had been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid.”

The disconnect between the design department, the D-suite, if you will, and the C-suite is still pretty pronounced in most organizations. Designers who are looking to take a more strategic role in the organization, who should really be the figures one would think of to drive these initiatives, need to ensure that they are well versed in the language of business. It’s totally reasonable for their nervous executive counterparts to want to understand an investment in regular terms. Fuzziness is not a friend here. And yet, as I’ll get into in a moment, sometimes there’s no way to overcome that fuzziness. Leaps of faith are necessary. But designers should do everything they can to demonstrate that they have an understanding of what they’re asking, and put in place measurements and metrics that are appropriate and that can show they’re not completely out of touch with the business of the business, even if they can’t fully guarantee that a bet will pay off.

The two worlds of design and business still need to learn to meet half way. Think of an organization in which design plays a central, driving role, and there’s really only one major cliché of an example to use: Apple. But what Apple has in Steve Jobs is what every organization looking to embrace design as a genuine differentiating factor needs: a business expert who is able to act as a whole hearted champion of the value of design. In other words, Jobs has been utterly convinced that consumers will be prepared to pay a premium for Apple’s products, and so he’s given the design department the responsibility to make sure that every part of every one of those products doesn’t disappoint.

He is also notorious for his pickiness. I’ve talked with Apple designers who say he would scrap a project late in the game in order to make sure something is exactly as he thinks it should be. Now I don’t know about you, but how often does a project come back and it’s not quite how you wanted it but it’s ok and it’s really too late to make the changes to make it great and so you go with it? I know I’m guilty of doing that. Jobs doesn’t countenance that approach. And he’s set up processes to ensure that problems are caught, early, and the designers have enough time to get back to the drawing board if necessary. This commitment to excellence has helped turn Apple into the world’s most valuable technology company.

Note too Jobs’ approach to customer research: “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Jobs is comfortable hanging out in the world of the unknown, and this confidence allows him to take risks and make intuitive bets that for the past decade or so have paid off every time. And he’s instilled this spirit in his team. New company leader Tim Cook is renowned for the creative way in which he worked on supplier issues.

So now we get into something of a problem of terminology, because more than likely, Steve Jobs doesn’t consider Apple’s approach to be “design thinking”. Yet he’s the consummate example of one who’s built an organization on its promise. This approach of risk taking, of relying on intuition and experience rather than on the “facts” provided by spreadsheets and data, is anathema to most analysis-influenced C-suite members. But you need this kind of champion if design thinking is to gain traction and pay off.

I once heard a discussion between the current director of the Cooper-Hewitt museum, Bill Moggridge, and Hewlett Packard’s VP of Design, Sam Lucente. Sam was talking about how design thinking had helped him and his team to redevelop the design of one particular product that had done badly in the marketplace in order to produce a later, more successful version. The way he told the story, design thinking meant that this couldn’t be seen as a failure, because every moment had been one of wonder and learning. My interpretation was initially a little less poetic, that in fact design thinking no more guarantees the success in the marketplace of a product than any other tool or technique.

But actually, reframing failure in terms of learning is not just a kooky, quirky thing to do. In and of itself, it’s perhaps a useful exercise. By taking the pressure off design thinking and not expecting it to be the bright and shiny savior of the world, those trying out its techniques will be empowered to use it to its greatest advantage, to help introduce new techniques, to give new perspectives, to outline new ways of thinking or develop new entries to market.

In fact, I would argue, beware the snakeoil salesmen who promise you’ll never take another wrong step again if you buy into design thinking. While some executives have been running their businesses according to its principles for years now, the formal discipline is still pretty new, and individual companies really have to figure out how it can work for them. There’s no plug and play system you can simply install and roll out. Instead, you have to be prepared to be flexible and agile in your own thinking. You’ll likely have to question and rethink internal processes. For there to be a chance of success, you’re going to have to ascertain what metrics you want to use to judge whether a program has been successful or not. And you’re going to have to figure out how to allocate resources to make sure that an initiative even has a chance of taking off.

I know some of you are familiar with the work and thinking of Doblin’s Larry Keeley, with whom I’m working now. For a long time, Larry has been at the forefront of the movement to transform the discipline of innovation from a fuzzy, fluffy activity into a much more rigorous science. His thinking in that arena holds for design thinking too. It’s time to move beyond the either/or discussions so often entertained within organizations. This isn’t about left brain vs right brain. This is about the need for analysis and synthesis. Both are critically important, from data analytics to complexity management to iteration and rapid prototyping. But even with all of this, there’s never going to be a way to 100% guarantee success. The goal here is to be able to act with eyes wide open, to have a clear intent in mind and to have systems in place that allow you to reward success and quickly move on from disappointment—and to make sure that your organization learns from those mistakes and thus does not repeat them.

Design and Business: The Bottom Line

This morning, I gave a speech at the RGD Design Thinkers event here in Toronto. For a first ever keynote, I think it went ok, though I probably relied on reading out my notes too much. But given that I used this forum to tell designers they can be “dictatorial, inflexible, snobby”, people were pretty friendly. It’s super long, but here’s the text, along with the beautiful typographic slides designed by my friend Timothy O’Donnell, who stepped in to save me from the indignity of having to present homemade slides to an audience of professional designers.

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing coming to this event with a designer friend of mine. “What are you going to talk about?” he asked. “Oh, you know. How in the 21st century economy, design provides the differentiating factor that can really determine whether a modern day company thrives or fails,” I said merrily. His reaction was not quite what I’d hoped for. In fact, he laughed in my face. “That old shtick? Ugh. Are people *still* saying that?” he asked with a hint of derision in his voice. “Er. Yes?” I stammered in reply.

Now bear in mind that this was a designer talking! This was not a jaded executive with no connection to the creative department. This was someone who has devoted years of study and thousands of dollars to getting a well-rounded design education. He’s worked hard and done well, working as a designer in various major American corporations hailed for their attention to innovation and design. He is you. And he should have been excited and delighted and should according to my calculations have assured me that I was doing precisely the right thing and that this was an excellently interesting topic that would make for a perfectly acceptable—albeit possibly fairly bland—speech at the Design Thinkers conference in Toronto.

That he didn’t was more than just an affront to my ego. It was a problem.

And so, in the immortal words of Carrie Bradshaw, I got to thinking. And as I thought, I began to focus on a worry that’s been nagging at me for some time, pretty much since I first started reporting on the design world back in the 1990s. Because, the thing is, in the years between then and now, there has been an explosion of interest in the field at large. It has seemed that finally, perhaps, designers had the world at their feet, that now, at last, the world had discovered and understood the potential of the discipline, that we stand on the brink of being surrounded at all times by glorious design of all types and forms, from sexy product to swooping app to perfectly crafted business. The keys to the kingdom were being jangled seductively in front of designers’ faces.

And yet, we know in reality that they were never actually handed over.

In fact, if we take a close look at our world and environment and businesses and systems and services, we must accept that we’re not generally surrounded by gloriousness, at least any more than we were before this supposed grand renaissance.

It turns out, really not much has changed at all. There’s more design, sure: more options, more types, more outlets for it and more ways to buy or consume it on both an individual and corporate level. And sure, all the processes and programs and protocols and outputs of our complex world are designed. But this has not ushered in a new golden age of design.

In reality, many of the tools that were once strictly in the domain of designers have been distributed across borders and boundaries. This has helped to democratize design, for sure, but has it led to a wider understanding of the discipline or the hiring of designers throughout the enterprise? I don’t think so. What it has really meant is both that the industry as a whole has fragmented, and that those not trained in the discipline are taking on responsibility for the extra work.

As I see it, non designers still value design just about as much as they always did. Which is to say they might appreciate it, but they don’t really understand it. And mostly, they only really notice design when something doesn’t work properly.

Perhaps my friend was right, that all the excited talk and gushing enthusiasm amount to a big fat, beautifully designed nothing.

So if it’s ok with you, and without wishing to come across as a total Debbie Downer, I’d like to spend this time to take stock of some of the challenges facing the contemporary design community that are perhaps preventing its wider adoption within the business community. Hopefully, by shining a light on these topics, we can work toward figuring out the best next steps necessary to forge a future and an industry that we’d all like to be a part of; one that will truly allow designers to drive and execute meaningful change within the world’s biggest businesses.

As an aside, and I know this is old hat by now, but I would also like to give credit to those on Twitter who have engaged with me and this question over the past few weeks; who pushed and challenged me to come up with a much better list than I could have concocted on my own.

Here, then, are the seven biggest challenges facing the design community today:


Let’s start with the term that forms the basis of this very conference: design thinking, the exciting new phenomenon that has swept the pages of the business press, including my own alma mater, BusinessWeek, over the past decade. Well, first thing’s first, the terminology may be recent but design thinking itself isn’t new. I recently started working with Doblin, founded in Chicago in 1972 by Jay Doblin, who specifically started the company in order to apply design methodologies and ideas to different and larger contexts and problems than those traditionally tackled by or offered to designers. Before that, back in 1959, Doblin had even advised Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry on creating a national design policy.

What is newer is how the premise and promise of design thinking has really caught on in recent years. As the business landscape shifted, becoming ever more complex and sophisticated, ever more digitized, connected and global, corporate managers and consultants alike seized upon the idea, hoping that perhaps design thinking might provide the key to growth and success when efficiency drives or Six Sigma efforts had already been executed and were no longer sustaining the desired results.

Design thinking initiatives have had proven success within organizations. Procter & Gamble and General Electric, for example, are two enormous standard bearers for the discipline. Critically, however, executives at these companies took the principles and methodologies, internalized them and made them appropriate for their own organizations. That meant that innovation and design-based initiatives were not then rejected by the larger host. And these successes were translated across departments in terms that all the executives understood. All those involved in these initiatives are to be commended. But aren’t you tired of hearing about them? Where are the other examples, of companies of all shapes and sizes grasping, seizing, internalizing and implementing the potential that design thinking has to offer? Isn’t it concerning that so far it doesn’t seem like it has scaled across too many other organizations? Turns out, design thinking has a few problems.

For one thing, the term itself is vague enough that everyone imagines they know what it means, while everyone has their own slightly different interpretation of how it works, who does it or where it exists in an organization. This might seem like a matter of semantics, but it’s more important than that. Last year I sat in on a meeting with a senior executive from a large multinational corporation, who genuinely thought she had a handle on this design thinking thing. To her, it was a mindset and a series of tools that she and her board had to adopt in order to innovate more effectively. “Design thinking isn’t done by designers,” she said, much to the consternation of all the designers in the room.

And design thinking isn’t just coming under fire from confused clients. Many designers seem to be backing away from the term as quickly as possible too. As Kevin McCullagh of the British design and innovation firm Plan wrote recently in a piece for the Design Management Institute, suspicion of design thinking from within the design ranks only grew after the economy tanked. “Many who had talked their way into high-flying positions were left gliding,” writes McCullagh. “Greater exposure to senior management’s interrogation had left many… well, exposed. The design thinkers had been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid.”

Likewise, Peter Merholz of Bay Area design firm Adaptive Path also chimed in earlier this year, writing scornfully on his Harvard Business Review blog: “Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation.”

So is design thinking a technique to teach to non-designer clients? Is it a methodology used by experts to use design to tackle the wicked problems of our age? Is it merely a salve for executives trying to figure out how to innovate? Is it all of the above? The lack of consensus, common purpose and mission is dangerous, particularly when the design community itself is already so fragmented. The all too real outcome of this is that the non specialist clients who invest but then get wildly different results will become bemused, confused, frustrated, irritated and ultimately disengaged. That’s not an outcome that does anyone any good.


At BusinessWeek, we worked to put together a list of the schools that teach design thinking. It was a super interesting challenge that often felt like something of an abstract exercise. Because when you got down to brass tacks, it turns out that not that many schools are teaching any such thing. Given that there’s really no consensus on a definition of design thinking, that’s perhaps no surprise.

For now, different experiments are being tried in schools around the world. Some programs are co-taught by professors from design, business, and other departments, such as at the d.school at Stanford. Others, such as a partnership between three schools in Helsinki, bring together students from various universities for cross-disciplinary project work. Another approach is to offer dual degrees in business administration and design, such as the MBA and Master’s in Design program from IIT in Chicago. Rotman School of Management, right here in Toronto, has also made a name for trying to teach its students skills from both disciplines. Rotman’s dean, Roger Martin, is speaking here this afternoon. Any self-respecting would-be design thinker would be wise to read and re-read his books.

It’s early days, but clearly it’s smart to teach design principles to MBAs. The tools and techniques they can glean from these courses will prove a critical foundation for educating future corporate leaders that design can be more than something to relegate to the shadowy if beautifully decorated confines of a creative department.
Reverse attempts at introducing business principles to design folks seem to be less consistent and perhaps more problematic. I don’t feel close enough to this to fully understand the reasons why. For instance, I do understand the desire to ensure that those in design school have the opportunity to revel in freeform thinking, to learn about craft and to be immersed in the discipline of their choice, free from worrying about the commercial pressures of the marketplace. But as far as I’m concerned there’s a clear distinction between artists and designers. The former get to determine the terms of their own creation; the latter had better be able to articulate ideas and value to clients. Both are noble callings, but they are distinct and separate. The current murkiness of the divide between them can sometimes be less than helpful.

Too often it seems that design graduates emerge from school without the skills necessary to thrive in the real world. That strikes me as a tremendous problem. These graduates need to be able to do well beyond the confines of an academic or even a corporate design department. What’s needed is for a legion of smart, informed designers to emerge who can take on the MBAs at their own game… and win. That certainly won’t happen through wishful thinking or by chance.

Take Elizabeth Scharpf, for instance, the winner of this year’s Curry Stone Design Prize, a prize created, I quote, “in the belief that designers can be an instrumental force for improving people’s lives and the state of the world.” Scharpf runs Sustainable Health Enterprises, an initiative addressing girls’ and women’s lack of access to menstrual pads in Africa. S.H.E has designed feminine hygiene products made from locally sourced banana fiber. Scharpf is all about improving people’s lives and the state of the world. She is smart, engaged, committed and articulate. But she’s not a designer. Instead, she is the product of Harvard Business School and the World Bank.

Yes, she’s co-opting design ideas and principles and combining them with her deep understanding of fundamental business principles to build a thriving organization. She’s using ubiquitous communications tools like Blogger and Twitter to build her business–and you can tell. Any professional designer looking at the S.H.E blog would likely be appalled at the clutter and garble on her web pages. But Scharpf is only doing what many entrepreneurs and business leaders are doing these days—taking the cheap templates available to all, and using them in a way that makes sense to her. Should she be penalized for not hiring a professional web or graphic designer to craft her brand for her? No. Is her business improving lives and the state of the world? Sure looks that way. Would she call herself a designer? Absolutely not.

When a prestigious design prize goes to someone who’s not a designer, it could be a sign that the design world is magnanimous and surefooted enough to welcome and celebrate success from other related specialists. Or it could suggest that perhaps the profession itself has lost its sense of self and is in need of renewed direction and focus.

Indeed, what we need to see more of from designers is a similar spirit to that shown by Scharpf. Designers need to work to forge the reality they’d like to see. If designers want to be seen as more than stylists, and that’s still a common complaint even now in 2010, then they need to step up to drive the projects, not merely be co-opted to make them look good. It seems unfair, in a way, because making things look good, in print, in product or on screen, is no small matter, as I know from my own disastrous, aborted forays into the dark hinterland of PowerPoint. But many people in many disciplines have been forced to expand their skillsets in order to offer much more than they’d initially anticipated. That is the reality of our modern world. And so, as designers continue to be forced to cede control of many of the means of creation they used to be in sole charge of, as they are forced to share their toys and play nicely with others, this is no time for nostalgia or regret. It’s time to reevaluate what else they too can bring to the table.


Getting a seat at the table is neither easy nor a small matter. Boardrooms rarely seem to feature the voice of the chief creative or design officer. This is truly one of the critical challenges for the industry. Folks such as IDEO’s Tim Brown or my new boss, Larry Keeley, do have the ear and attention of those in the C-suite, but they are the exception, not the rule. What designers should be urgently seeking are those people who can act as champions of the discipline, who understand how very difficult good design can be to execute, who understand the level of effort, analysis and skill that go into making something that will resonate on an emotional level and who can articulate that investing in design can make a significant difference to their business. As Terry Winograd, the legendary computer science professor at Stanford writes, “To get design into effective practice, you need to train designers and also to teach the people they work with how to understand, incorporate, and foster design.”

Currently the design industry faces a common problem: that when people reach a certain level of seniority, they are promoted to roles that no longer harness their talent or passion. This happens all the time in every field, not just within the creative industries, but it is perhaps at its most apparent within design. Designers work long and hard to study the craft of the discipline; why in their right mind would they then choose to step away from executing this craft proficiently in order to take on a role that they’re neither trained nor equipped for? I’ll tell you why. Because if no one steps up, the design industry as a whole will flounder.

It seems to me that this could be a two-pronged attack. Some designers need to be prepared to become akin to high profile, respected in-house coaches, educating the C-suite in the why and the how, reassuring and encouraging those more used to grokking reams of data that the often muddy, unclear reality of the design process is not just one big waste of time. And we also need more CEOs and leaders who are inculcated with the value of design.

It’s almost embarrassingly trite to mention Steve Jobs at a design conference. And actually I think it’s worth noting that with the stumbling introduction of a product such as Ping, even the mighty Apple demonstrates it is not invincible. But, whatever you make of some of the company’s more stringent or questionable policies, no one can deny that Apple has built its business by focusing doggedly on producing good design across disciplines.

I recently read a really great interview by Cult of Mac editor and publisher Leander Kahney with former Apple chief, John Sculley, the man who infamously canned Steve Jobs. After detailing how he’d initially bonded with Jobs over matters of industrial design, he told a more recent story of a friend who’d visited both Apple and Microsoft on the same day. At the Apple meeting, Sculley recounted, “As soon as the designers walked in the room, everyone stopped talking, because the designers are the most respected people in the organization.” He then contrasted this with the Microsoft meeting, where “everybody was talking and then the meeting starts and no designers ever walk into the room. All the technical people are sitting there trying to add their ideas of what ought to be in the design. That’s a recipe for disaster.”


Think about how common, in reality, this recipe for disaster is. Even as interest in design has proliferated, the existence of design industry champions who can explain the promise of the discipline to the wider world at large has hardly materialized. Too often, industry leaders get caught up in navel gazing that is perhaps fascinating to them but sadly utterly irrelevant to those on the outside. Sometimes the design community seems hellbent on doing its very best impression of the American Democratic party. When in doubt, they turn on their own, squabbling about small matters that just don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

John Maeda, the esteemed interaction designer and president of the Rhode Island School of Design, recently wrote, “a well-crafted message only has worth if it leaves the hands of the craftsman and makes it all the way to others’ hearts.” It’s a pointed reminder for designers to keep in mind the reason so many of them got into this business in the first place: to make a difference in the world at large, not just in the small world immediately surrounding them. Feeling like a part of a community is great, of course. Not having the wherewithal to look deeper across the horizon is not.

Earlier this year, Mike Lacher wrote an article for McSweeney’s. The article was pithily entitled, “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole” and is a foul-mouthed defense of a typeface that has become an accepted design world joke, written in the voice of Comic Sans itself.

“You don’t like that your coworker used me on that note about stealing her yogurt from the break room fridge? You don’t like that I’m all over your sister-in-law’s blog? You don’t like that I’m on the sign for that new Thai place? You think I’m pedestrian and tacky? Guess the fuck what, Picasso. We don’t all have seventy-three weights of stick-up-my-ass Helvetica sitting on our seventeen-inch MacBook Pros.”

The author of this post is a designer himself, and its tone was as tongue in cheek as anything else. But as with all the best jokes, it’s funny because it’s true. Designers can be dictatorial, inflexible, snobby and they often don’t play nicely with others. And for all that this might appear to many designers as being exactly the right state of being, it’s actually unhelpful in the longer term. As Canadian designer Mark Busse wrote recently in an article for Applied Arts magazine, “the immaturity with which we’re viewed will never go away if all we do is whine about everything among ourselves.”

It’s honestly mystifying to me that I would hold up the Republican party as a good example of anything, but they certainly seem to have mastered the art of getting supporters to toe the party line. So too does the design industry needs to put aside its petty squabbles in order to focus on presenting a coherent vision to the wider world around them.

And designers need to learn how to communicate with those untrained in their discipline in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming. This is possible. In my many years of interviewing designers and creative types from all over the world, I have often been struck by a shared characteristic of the pioneers who were truly challenging the boundaries of their discipline: they were gracious, generous and delighted that anyone should take an interest in their work, a welcome counterpoint to the insecurity that is rife throughout the industry. We should all do well to remember to be open-minded and kind to those who are not specialists in our field. Everyone brings something to the table, and it’s a happier and more interesting feast when everyone is engaged and empowered to contribute and speak freely.

Luckily, design has some fervent supporters in some unexpected places. When I was at BusinessWeek, we ran a piece written by the angel investor and Silicon Valley mainstay, Dave McClure. If you’ve ever seen McClure’s website, you know that he is himself an unapologetic proponent of Comic Sans, of a gratuitous use of fonts and colors that adds up to an impression I like to call visual roadkill. He is not in any way obsessed with the principles of good design. But while much of McClure’s shtick is completely over the top, he is very, very serious when it comes to the potential of design to help a company thrive, particularly within the cut throat world of Web 2.0 in which he is immersed. “Design and marketing aren’t just as important as engineering,” he writes. “They are way more important.” But McClure is nothing if not a ruthless pragmatist. If potential doesn’t translate to the bottom line, it’s gone.


As we barrel headlong into a universe in which data is ubiquitous, accessible and where web analytics and the tools to assess the impact of a design are both commonplace and used to dictate the form of our visual landscape, it’s time for both celebration and concern. Google, the ultimate engineering nirvana, has taken a reliance on analytics and data to a degree that is impressive mainly for its obsessiveness. Earlier this year, I wrote a story about the redesign of Google’s search results pages, spending time in Mountain View with the engineers and designers involved on the months-long project. Their relationship was impressively symbiotic, but the designers on the project were under no illusion that they needed to be able to speak the code in order to be taken seriously. All of the design decisions were subject to rigorous testing and retesting, including time in the eye-tracking lab to monitor where exactly a user was looking and clicking. The designers swore up and down that they were afforded the freedom they needed to experiment and innovate, and the results were indeed a distinct step forward for the design of one of the most valuable properties on the web. But it’s worth remembering that as Don Norman reminds us, data-driven decisions only ever produce incremental innovation or change.

In the past few weeks there’s been a lot of discussion about the “undesigned” web. It’s a great meme that in my view is borderline poppycock. Reader habits and methods have evolved, sure, and apps and iPads presage an offline digital environment that will be commonplace in the future. But remember, when it comes to online or onscreen design, design is all there is. Design IS the product. And while some pioneers such as Craig Newmark proclaim a total disinterest in design’s best practices, the “undesigned” nature of Craigslist is in fact rife with design decisions. They’re not related to the rules and ideals of the Swiss school of typography, that’s for sure, but Newmark has nonetheless managed to be pretty successful, despite or perhaps even because of these decisions.

Designers need to figure out a way to make the entrepreneurs and technologists believe in investing in their talents. They need to make themselves indispensable. To do that, they should start mucking in. Because this movement is happening with or without them, and if they’re not careful, they’ll find that they’re jolly cold and lonely up there in that ivory tower.

I read a great story the other day about Expedia. Joe Megibow, who’s the travel site’s VP of global analytics and optimization, described a confusing problem. Customers were filling out the forms in order to buy Expedia services, but at the very last minute, many of them weren’t going through with the transaction. It was baffling. So Megibow’s team looked through the analytics and noted that one particular box on the page was regularly confusing would-be shoppers, meaning that their purchases didn’t go through. So they deleted the field. The result? An additional $12 million a year.

Stories like this are fantastic when looked at through the lens of design. I mean, essentially a small page redesign led to an additional $12 million in profit. Now I don’t know the structure of Expedia’s business, but Megibow’s job title, of analytics and optimization, doesn’t suggest that design was a driving force behind this analysis and decision. Instead, web pages are being ripped apart and assessed retrospectively and then rebuilt accordingly. To butcher Henry Ford’s famous phrase, we are all too often getting the “faster horses” of Web pages. Designers need to find a way to seize control of the dialog, to put themselves at the center of the discussion, to use their years of training and learning and insights in conjunction with the data in order to create better outcomes for all.


Business has a part to play in all of this, too. Earlier, I mentioned P&G and GE, two organizations that have been praised to the high heavens for embracing the potential of design at a high level, and which have figured out a way to implement a discipline of innovation throughout their businesses. And as I said earlier, it’d really be great if we could start talking about the success that other companies have had with similar initiatives. But there’s a deeper reason that we’re not inundated with examples of more design and business success stories, and why the shiny products still get so much play in the design and business press. True design-based transformation is really, really hard work. For all that lots of chief executives of companies—even leaders of nations—proclaim their fervent desire to foster a spirit of creativity and innovation, relatively few have the faintest idea how to do so in any meaningful way.

A few things can be done here. Not least, a system of evaluation metrics needs to be built into any creatively minded project from the start. This doesn’t necessarily have to use the same measures as other projects, but there needs to be an upfront acknowledgement that this is serious business. This will mollify executives who aren’t directly involved and will help sponsoring executives to have some breathing room for projects that need time to demonstrate they can pay off. This point relates to my earlier ideas about educating everyone in the potential of the discipline. Designers must prove that they’re prepared to speak a different language in order to get their point across.

Executives themselves need to have a much clearer idea of what it really means to adopt a design centric strategy, too. Embracing all that is necessary to be effective will almost certainly result in tension among existing management. Not recognizing this or developing plans to deal with it will almost inevitably lead to disappointment, failure and, ultimately, a large step backwards on the path to successful, sustainable innovation.

Right now, there’s another problem, too. Many of those who have been through some of the more rigorous programs within business or design schools and who have emerged with a real desire to make the difference I’ve been describing within the world’s largest organizations, are finding that they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. When they’ve tried to join big businesses in order to apply the thinking they’ve learned, they’ve found that there’s really no place for them. Instead, these innovative misfits often fall between the cracks in organizations that have entrenched silos, established ways of doing things and that more than likely don’t know how to change things, even if they wanted to, which many people probably don’t, really.

Hiring processes that are driven by HR departments unfamiliar with any of the skills or thinking accrued by this new class of graduate really don’t help. These do not brook thinking laterally about what an organization might really need, or about the way that business will thrive in the future. Instead, there is one inexorable, unhappy outcome: organizational atrophy.

A combination of apathy and fear is a dangerous combination that’s all too common in the innovation space. Leaders should recognize it, and move to make bold changes within the organization. Those who believe in the potential of what they’re doing should refuse to be daunted.

Microsoft Research Principal Scientist Bill Buxton talks of the need to create I-shaped thinkers (for the typographers in the audience, that’s an “I” with a serif.) This updates Bill Moggridge’s theory of T-shaped thinkers, and provides a vision of designers who can exist in the starry realm of big ideas and keep their feet grounded in the reality and muck of commercial pressures—while simultaneously spanning every moment in between. It’s a delightful idea, but for the time being, only a small number of such deliberately trained hybrid thinkers even exist, and genuine cross-disciplinary collaboration is the exception rather than the rule.

This will surely change, but as graduates see how difficult it is to make an impact within the large multinational corporations, so will they likely opt out and take a more entrepreneurial route to their work. In fact, this actually sets up an interesting paradigm that could contribute to a more creative global economy. Indeed, the emergence of design entrepreneurs who are prepared to walk the walk as well as talk the talk provides a real bright spot in the industry at large. It’s also a threat to their systems that executives would do well to recognize.

But if design doesn’t move beyond the realm of the creative department itself, if it doesn’t prove it’s about much more than a glossy product and that it can indeed be used to determine the definitions and domain of innovation, of systems, of business writ large; if it can’t prove itself within a corporate context, it’ll be dubbed a lame duck. Designers will not win the recognition and influence they crave, and there’s a distinct danger that the discipline will be written off as just one more failed fad left to rot on the scrapheap of nice ideas that had so much potential and yet never quite managed to deliver. Design will still be used, of course, in the same ways that organizations currently understand it. But it will have moved no closer to tackling the core of the problems of our age.

Interestingly, this is perhaps where consultancies can step up. When Jan Chipchase left Nokia Design to join Frog, he described an inhouse environment at his former employer that made it difficult to get design work done. “Frankly you can even be at a disadvantage internally, competitively, both because it’s easy for people to take it for granted that you’re there, and because of the “not invented here” syndrome,” he said. “People feel if they’re paying for something and can tailor what they’re purchasing then it has bigger weight.” Now, consultancies of all backgrounds, not just from within pure design, are putting a ton of effort into selling the promise of design into organizations. The Boston-based strategy consultancy Monitor bought Doblin back in 2007 in order to build a rigorous innovation competency within its practice. For the design world’s sake, it’s important that such initiatives pay off.


Evan Fry of the open source advertising agency Victors and Spoils recently wrote, “Agencies packed with staff who don’t care to solve client challenges in scrappy, nimble, economical ways deserve the fate awaiting them.” His words of warning were aimed at those within the ad industry, but they hold no less true for those within design. Denying the arrival on the scene of a new way of doing things that essentially enables professionals to be entirely bypassed should strike everyone as a supremely bad idea. Paralysis is no solution. Luckily, within every problem lies an opportunity and an industry comprising supremely creative folks should be able to both rise to and harness the challenge. So what should the design community do?

For the time being, they can be grateful for debacles such as the recent redesign of the Gap logo, which neatly proved mainly that branding and design and social media can be dangerous tools in the hands of the untrained. But a time will come when systems are in place for major brands to sidestep the usual ways of doing things routinely.

Already, there are at least 100 crowdsourcing platforms available for some kind of design or marketing work. And as big companies figure out better and more efficient ways to manage their businesses and brands, they will also figure out ways to implement appropriate incentives and systems to handle the work.

From “expertsourcing”, wherein participants are paid and sign non disclosure agreements, to the harnessing of bigger and more public crowds for ideas and engagement, the exact path of this new discipline is still somewhat opaque.
But it’s not going away.

That means the trained professionals need to make their case more loudly, strongly and convincingly than ever before. And they need to take up the crowd’s gauntlet and figure out a way to lead the discussion about these initiatives and demonstrate the value of design in real terms.

Companies are also realizing that crowds can be used in interesting ways internally. Doug Randall, of Monitor 360, recently wrote a great piece for the magazine, Design Mind, outlining the potential of information markets to help predict the future and help executives figure out how projects are actually progressing. “An anonymous marketplace gets you the kind of answers the boss never hears face-to-face. It does an end-run around the kind of know-nothing consensus found in board meetings,” he wrote. “You might discover, for instance, that the marketing department is generally bullish about your chances of hitting your ship date, but there are a lot of bears in engineering. The bad news is presented in a way that decision-makers can’t take personally. Nobody gets to shoot the messenger.”

Randall also outlined a scenario in which virtual designs might duke it out before they were even more than a pixilated twinkle on a computer screen. It’s only a matter of time before this is the new status quo. Forewarned is forearmed, so the saying goes. Designers should be at the head of the pack in seizing and exploiting the potential of these tools.

I was honestly a little concerned that focusing on the challenges facing the design community might prove a little doomy and gloomy, particularly as a way to kick off a day that I’m sure will be packed full of insight and inspiration. Instead, I actually feel quite optimistic. These are tough challenges to take on, yes, but that doesn’t mean that they’re impossible to achieve, and it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
As Umair Haque wrote in a recent post for HBR.com, “most companies don’t take design seriously, but they damn well should.” It’s not good enough to expect executives to come to this realization and do something about it. Designers need to make—force—the change. So I urge all of you to think about how you can rise to the challenges facing your industry as the 21st century progresses. And I hope that the next time my friend hears what I’m planning on talking about, he’ll be engaged and invigorated and inspired rather than unimpressed that the same discussions are droning on and on with the same lack of impact.

Thank you.