Learning from How Designers Think and Work
When I was in business school, Stanford’s d.school was just a glimmer of a thing living in a trailer across campus, barely known to most of us business students. Five years later, there is much discussion in the business world about design’s evolution from producing of objects to producing a broad framework for ideas and solutions, including recent thought-provoking commentary from both Paola Antonelli and Bruce Nussbaum. Before coming to RISD, I loosely understood “design” and “design thinking” as a methodology focused on ethnographic research, rapid prototyping, and iterative process, already married closely to business innovation. To me, a designer’s tools felt like the combination of social science and business that had attracted me to product marketing: conducting user research, defining a product, testing it and revising. I remember going to a design strategy conference at IIT and being struck at how similar it felt to market research conferences.
Since beginning to work at an actual design school (RISD has had the word “Design” in its name since 1877), and since beginning to manage graphic designers day in and day out, my perspective has changed. I see now that my previous exposure to design had me jumping in on the tail end of design’s evolution, without knowing its true core. After a year here, I’m beginning to see the more foundational tools that designers employ to do their work — and I’m wondering what kind of applicability those have to business.
I see now that designers are people who can make information emotional and visceral, who can make a bigger impact by thoughtfully marrying form and content. They are “experience perfectionists,” the ones who always ask about the space a meeting will occur in so they can arrange the room and have music or images playing when people walk in. They are obsessed with materials; they can have a completely literate and thoughtful conversation about the width of a rubber band being used as a book binding, and how it will change the way the book is perceived.
In other words, to make their points they use a toolkit far more expansive than the typical tools of business, like spreadsheets revealing the “bottom line” or well-reasoned emails. They solve problems with their hands and their hearts, not just a keyboard and reasoning.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity with John and Jessie, RISD’s provost, to organize a group of RISD professors, designers themselves, to create a day-long salon with one of RISD’s favorite collaborators, Target. Rather than structuring the agenda by asking just “What do we need to accomplish?” as I would have done, they started by asking, “How do we want it to feel?” We designed the day not by lining up bullet points on a printed page, but by envisioning the day’s ebbs and flows, its moments of insight and hard work, its hands-on moments in the studio, reflective moments listening to live music, moments in hard-backed chairs and moments on soft sofas.
By the end of the event, the power of the designers’ expanded toolkit truly revealed itself, and it was clear to me that we accomplished much more than we would have sitting in a conference room all day. Each time we’ve brought companies to RISD, I see their eyes opened to the full spectrum of what design can be. Business is already beginning to see the wisdom of using these design methodologies for building products and strategies.
What’s interesting to me is how — or whether — the other principles that design is built on intersect with business, too. How can business people use the emotion, the holistic perspective on presentation and experience, and the intense focus on making as well as reasoning? Can you get your CEO excited about the feng shui of a rubber band? Where might this way of thinking help you in your business?
Original post here, by John Maeda & Becky Bermont @ Harvard Business