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Is Design That Important?

November 12, 2019, 5:52 PM UTC

This is the web version of Business by Design, Fortune‘s newsletter on the transformative power of business. Sign up here.

Welcome to Business x Design, a new newsletter on the power of design. In this email, we share with you a special excerpt from John Maeda’s upcoming book. Plus, a dinner invitation. What else would you like to see from us? This newsletter is a work in progress supported by you, our readers. Reply to this email with your suggestions and feedback. 

How To Speak Machine
(Image courtesy of Penguin Random House)

As promised to you in the last edition of Business x Design, here is Fortune‘s exclusive advance excerpt of John Maeda’s new book on the nexus of design and tech.

How to Speak Machine is a provocative, nuanced, and entertaining chronicle of a six-year journey in which Maeda “traveled away from ‘pure’ design” to arrive at the conclusion that computational design is the most powerful design form of our age. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Here’s an anecdote about his influence as a thought leader. Maeda, who I spotlit last week, was an early and influential proponent of the idea that designers add unique value to business and tech decisions—and deserve a leadership role in companies. But recently, it seemed as if he’d changed his stance.

The backstory: His inaugural Design in Tech Report, presented at SXSW in 2015, called attention to the growing role of designers at tech giants like Google and Facebook, the surge in design firm acquisitions by firms like Accenture and McKinsey, and the flurry of design-led startups that had secured major venture capital.

A year later, those trends had only accelerated. In a second report, Maeda documented that ventures co-founded by designers accounted for more than a third of the year’s 25 top-funded startups, while one in 10 Fortune 100 firms had made design an executive priority. Maeda’s report declared triumphantly: “Design isn’t just about beauty; it’s about market relevance and meaningful results.”

So it came as a shock to many when, just after the release of this year’s Design in Tech Report, Maeda said in an interview with Fast Company“In reality, design is not that important.”

Maeda—then a top executive at WordPress parent company Automattic—said that design should play a secondary role in tech companies rather than a leadership role. In his 2019 report, Maeda argued designers should be supporting actors who stop trying to upstage developers and product managers. 

This provoked an uproar among designers, many of whom felt betrayed by one of the field’s most eloquent advocates. In his new book, How to Speak Machine, Maeda protests that his comments to Fast Company were “taken out of context from a twenty-minute phone interview.” 

But he’s not exactly recanting.

“I honestly don’t believe that design is the most important matter today … Instead, I believe we should focus first on understanding computation. Because when we combine design with computation, a kind of magic results; when we combine business with computation, great financial opportunities can emerge.”

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Maeda will be our opening speaker at this year’s Brainstorm Design, held March 25-26, 2020 in Singapore. And fear not! We’ll also hear from classical and commercial designers: Cameron Adams, co-founder of Canva; YooJung Ahn, head of design at Waymo; Eva Lilja Lowenhielm, design manager at IKEA; Eric Quint, chief brand and design officer at 3M; Daan Roosegaarde, founder of Studio Roosegaarde; Ole Scheeren, chief designer at Buro Ole Scheeren

You can check out highlights of past Brainstorm Design events—and register for your invitation for 2020—here.

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You’re invited to dinner: One of the world’s most extraordinary classical designers, the acclaimed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, will be the guest speaker at a special design dinner in Tokyo on December 5. Brainstorm Design co-chair Tony Chambers and I are hosting him for a chat about his recent work, including projects like Japan’s National Stadium, the venue for next year’s Olympics opening ceremony. We have a few places left. Apply for an invitation here: 

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More design news below, curated by my colleague Eamon Barrett.

Clay Chandler
Chair, Fortune Brainstorm Design


Losing credit. New York’s Department of Financial Services is investigating claims that Apple’s credit card, aka the Apple Card, is sexist. Tech programmer David Heinemeier Hansson alleged on Twitter that the Apple Card offered his wife, Jamie, a lower credit limit, despite the couple sharing assets. "Apple Card is a sexist program,” DHH tweeted, highlighting another instance of bias in A.I. Jamie Heinemeier Hansson has released a statement on the matter. BBC

Badge of shame. Google suggested it might start tagging websites in Chrome that are chronically slow to load, in a big to shame data-laden sites that are “authored in a way that makes them slow” into improving load time. As more users migrate to mobile, a number of website authors have been slow to adapt, creating more cases for lag and, ultimately, hurting Google’s business. However, Google’s plan to expand “badging” to identify “high quality experiences” is worrisome. Google already has much control over how we experience the web. TechCrunch

How do you like that? Instagram is testing hiding “likes” on some user accounts in the U.S. this week, having previously trialed the removal in Canada, Ireland, and Japan. "The idea is to try to 'depressurize' Instagram, make it less of a competition and give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love, things that inspire them," said Instagram head Adam Mosseri. The news has made some influencers, who rely on metrics such as likes, unhappy. (Likes will still be visible to the account owner.) NPR


Meet Yolande Milan Batteau, Wallpaper Atelier to the Elite by Hannah Lott-Schwartz

‘Honey Boy’ Director Alma Har’el Carves Out Space for Female Filmmakers by Hugh Hart

Instagram Will Start Killing an Iconic Feature Next Week by Danielle Abril

Hideo Kojima on ‘Death Stranding,’ a Fractured America, and How Gaming Can Bring Us Back Together by Lisa Marie Segarra

Why Fashion Designers Are Finally Starting to Stitch Up High-End Apparel for Plus-Size Women by Kristin Larson


I’ve just read on Fast Company about the U.K.’s Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Center (PEC) data-driven report from July on the portrayal of both men and women in the creative industries between 2000 and 2018:

“Compared to men, there appears to have been both a greater focus on certain non-verbal reactions of women, and more references to particular sounds made by women. Examples of these non-verbal reactions include 'smiles', 'grins' and 'nods', while references to sounds include 'laughs', 'cries', 'giggles', and 'coos' ... Words that imply creative achievements and leadership roles were less likely than other words to refer to women. These words include 'directed', 'performed', 'painted' and 'designed' as well as 'managed', 'founded' and 'launched'.”

The methodology wasn't complex—an algorithm scanned for mentions of gendered pronouns, like he and she, then analyzed the words that follow. And this is just a review of The Guardian's writing. But the trends the report found are certainly telling. 

This edition of Business by Design was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him at


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