Should your company take design more seriously?

February 3, 2020, 10:30 AM UTC
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The discipline of design is at an inflection point, according to Denis Weil, dean of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Like finance, which over the last several decades has evolved from simple bookkeeping to c-level strategy, Weil argues that design is increasingly seen as being able to play a bigger role in shaping and guiding a business. No longer just there to pretty up products and services, design can become a force to define both what a company does and how it functions.

“We don’t have to prove the value of design. That’s been accomplished,” Weil says. “But what hasn’t been accomplished yet is actually figuring out how to maximize the value of design in big organizations.”

This is something that big organizations are keen to find out. And that’s why several, including Salesforce, Ford, and Capital One, have joined together in a somewhat unlikely coalition to hire Weil and the Institute of Design to research the role design can play in business in the coming years. The result of that research is a new report, “Lead with Purpose: Design’s Central Role in Realizing Executive Vision.” It outlines what companies should start doing now to make design a more intentional part of business, focused on both the big picture and small scale implementation.

Design, the report suggests, should become integral to corporate strategy. In the past, designers and design departments were often seen as a layer on top of the products or customer experiences that emerged from the business side of operations. Today, design must be integrated into every part of the business, the report argues, and used as a tool to guide not just what a business is producing but why and how. Design isn’t just tactical; it’s strategic. (And indeed, it ought to serve both needs.)

The idea for exploring the changing role of design originated with Brandon Schauer, head of enterprise design at Capital One, who leads a team focused on the internal services and workings of the company. The research proposal came from his realization that “the kinds of designers that I was looking for may not really even exist yet,” Schauer says. “I’m trying to hire designers who understand machine learning and A.I. and systems approaches to solutions. They’re out there in the world in onesies and twosies, but as I think forward through the years, we may need them in dozens or hundreds.”

The report’s findings were derived from interviews with 51 professionals from small and large organizations across the U.S. in industries ranging from manufacturing to financial services to health care. A little more than half said they had at least some design training; the rest said they work regularly with designers but aren’t designers themselves. This mix was intended to reflect the audience for the report: both the designers working within organizations but also the middle managers and executives in charge of putting that design to work.

The research was conducted by students at the Institute of Design under the guidance of Brianna Sylver, founder and president of Sylver Consulting and an adjunct professor at the institute. A qualitative (rather than quantitative) approach was deliberate, according to Sylver, who says talking with people one-on-one allowed her team to understand the variety of ways that organizations use and value their designers. “To get into the nuance of how, we needed to have really intimate conversations with people,” she says. One surprising takeaway from those conversations, Sylver says, was that having design-focused leadership didn’t necessarily translate to design being seen strategically throughout the organization.

The qualitative nature of the report means there are few ironclad recommendations. Still, one of its suggestions for better integrating design is to create four new roles within an organization: an “executive vision partner” who works with leadership to develop and articulate its vision; a “vision interpreter” who translates that vision into plans of action; an “action aligner” who strategically breaks down how to achieve those plans; and a “producer” who uses one or many design skills to create the elements of the broader vision. (Just imagine those titles on a business card.)

Teddy Zmrhal, senior managing director of innovation at Salesforce, which helped fund this research, says these kinds of steps can help an organization think more comprehensively about what it is trying to achieve and who it can serve. “The more design is integrated, the more insightful and more human the company ends up feeling,” Zmrhal says.

Shel Kimen, head of Design Thinking, Learning, and Community at Ford, which also backed the research, says the days of siloing design into a product or marketing role are ending. “We are just entering the era of true integration, so it will take time before we truly understand all the benefits of such integration,” Kimen says.

It will likely be good for the bottom line. Schauer argues that design is too often seen as a one-dimensional tool within business, but this simplistic outlook provides limited returns. “We could continue to add more and more designers to create more and more experiences but I don’t know that that would create better results for the customer or for the business,” he says. “It’s the businesses that can unlock how to work differently through design that will get the most value out of it.”

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