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Why do you think we're still arguing about the business value of design?

December 14, 2018 at 3:30pm

Why do you think we're still arguing about the business value of design?

December 14, 2018 at 3:30pm

December 14, 2018 at 5:37pm

We've completely misrepresented ourselves in the past as the ones only associated with "making things look pretty." Recently this has shifted towards also suggesting what is the correct thing to build. Shifting design forward in the product development cycle leads towards a more proactive product development business rather than reactive.

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Also most teams have an immature approach to product development - they're just not willing to admit it.

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Two reasons: First, the people who are -generally- good at business, are crappy at design. Yes, I'm using both of those terms broadly, but the skillset required to be an ace salesman, CEO, accountant, recruiter, etc. are almost completely divergent from the skillset of an ace designer, writer, programmer, film editor, furniture builder, etc., especially during the first 10 (non-leadership) years for most of our careers. Yes, there is sales in design, but let's not get into that.

Second: It's hard to quantify design. Investing X dollars in a design initiative, a new hire for an in-house team, or the purchase of new hardware/software doesn't always show up on that quarter's P&L. It's easy to see the costs (salaries, monthly software, etc.), but it's very hard to see the benefits when nebulous concepts like "brand building" and "return on influence" are being discussed. Business leaders know that spending money on advertising may not automatically contribute a return, but at least they can track those results — X amount of half-page ads equates to Y amount of impressions, which leads to Z amount of coupons redeemed, etc. But again, hard-to-define concepts like "wow, your logo is a relic of the 1970s" doesn't quite compute in the same fashion. This scares business leaders.

There's also a lingering cultural trend that people with money are the ones who start businesses, and who know other people with money. Since it's rare that design-as-a-job can elevate you to massive wealth in one generation — as opposed to say, banking or law — it's equally rare that designers start or invest in companies outside of an agency or small practice. This keeps them humbly middle-class as a peer group, especially once you start to border on "art," which is a whole other discussion. This is changing, slowly, as more designers come forward with business ideas and spin off to become founders, but it's hard to overcome those centuries-long societal behaviours.

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Also most teams have an immature approach to product development - they're just not willing to admit it.

I would agree, but I want to make sure we're thinking the same thing. Can you flesh this out a bit more by defining immature? Immature in what sense? Craftsmanship? Age?

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Two reasons: First, the people who are -generally- good at business, are crappy at design. Yes, I'm using both of those terms broadly, but the skillset required to be an ace salesman, CEO, accountant, recruiter, etc. are almost completely divergent from the skillset of an ace designer, writer, programmer, film editor, furniture builder, etc., especially during the first 10 (non-leadership) years for most of our careers. Yes, there is sales in design, but let's not get into that.

Second: It's hard to quantify design. Investing X dollars in a design initiative, a new hire for an in-house team, or the purchase of new hardware/software doesn't always show up on that quarter's P&L. It's easy to see the costs (salaries, monthly software, etc.), but it's very hard to see the benefits when nebulous concepts like "brand building" and "return on influence" are being discussed. Business leaders know that spending money on advertising may not automatically contribute a return, but at least they can track those results — X amount of half-page ads equates to Y amount of impressions, which leads to Z amount of coupons redeemed, etc. But again, hard-to-define concepts like "wow, your logo is a relic of the 1970s" doesn't quite compute in the same fashion. This scares business leaders.

There's also a lingering cultural trend that people with money are the ones who start businesses, and who know other people with money. Since it's rare that design-as-a-job can elevate you to massive wealth in one generation — as opposed to say, banking or law — it's equally rare that designers start or invest in companies outside of an agency or small practice. This keeps them humbly middle-class as a peer group, especially once you start to border on "art," which is a whole other discussion. This is changing, slowly, as more designers come forward with business ideas and spin off to become founders, but it's hard to overcome those centuries-long societal behaviours.

YES regarding most designers not having a business sense. I'd argue it's the same for developers though as well.

Where do your argument fall then regarding the difference between the value seen in engineering versus design? Do you think that's because the product can't exist without the development, and without the existence of the product, business can't be generated? Making it an immediate correlation. Whereas, design to most business folks, is open to interpretation or can fall into this place of illusory correlation because it doesn't always show up right away on those P&Ls?

I ask all the above, to say, we do know that investing in design converts to high returns. We see that in design-driven companies outperforming S&P by +200%.

Your second point is spot on. Having said that, do you think the solution is more designers kickstarting companies or being in C-Level/Executive roles? In addition to that, designers coming together to educate the org on its value? Would a repo of general data on proof of value be useful?

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December 15, 2018 at 2:04am

You're right, there are numerous cases studies about companies who put design at the heart of their operation, and reap the rewards. Target v. K-Mart, Apple v. Dell, Nike v. Reebok, etc., not to mention Airbnb, et al. who have designer-founders on board. When presenting our case, we absolutely have to remember these, and where we can, get numbers of back it up! (For now, we won't mention cases like MySpace which rose to prominence in spite of horrid design, but look what happened to them vs. Facebook)

The idea of product development is the same! Companies that make unsexy things like refrigerators, jet engines, or concrete saws face the challenge of how much energy they should put into improving their actual product vs. selling the same old junk to their customers in spite of repair problems and overall frustration. There, it's less about looks and more about decisions to switch to plastic parts, to off-shore operations, or to repeal a lifetime guarantee compared to previous generations. That happens all the time, sadly.

I have the crazy idea — and now that I'm a professor it's even crazier — that we should reduce the number of design students in universities, and make the profession more competitive academically. If we can teach young designers to be systematic and thorough in all forms of practice (not just applied arts/design), we can instil business sense from the start. Smarter designers are generally more able to write about their value and to mix with leaders in other professions. Not calling my brethren dumb, but I would love to make everyone take calculus freshman year, and if they can't hack it, bid them adieu.

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December 15, 2018 at 2:07pm

You're right, there are numerous cases studies about companies who put design at the heart of their operation, and reap the rewards. Target v. K-Mart, Apple v. Dell, Nike v. Reebok, etc., not to mention Airbnb, et al. who have designer-founders on board. When presenting our case, we absolutely have to remember these, and where we can, get numbers of back it up! (For now, we won't mention cases like MySpace which rose to prominence in spite of horrid design, but look what happened to them vs. Facebook)

The idea of product development is the same! Companies that make unsexy things like refrigerators, jet engines, or concrete saws face the challenge of how much energy they should put into improving their actual product vs. selling the same old junk to their customers in spite of repair problems and overall frustration. There, it's less about looks and more about decisions to switch to plastic parts, to off-shore operations, or to repeal a lifetime guarantee compared to previous generations. That happens all the time, sadly.

I have the crazy idea — and now that I'm a professor it's even crazier — that we should reduce the number of design students in universities, and make the profession more competitive academically. If we can teach young designers to be systematic and thorough in all forms of practice (not just applied arts/design), we can instil business sense from the start. Smarter designers are generally more able to write about their value and to mix with leaders in other professions. Not calling my brethren dumb, but I would love to make everyone take calculus freshman year, and if they can't hack it, bid them adieu.

Yes to all of this. So this is a post I'm working on (on why I think we're arguing the business value of design, for the first time). I have to show you what I have but before I moved forward, I wanted to understand everyone else's opinions. Your idea regarding design students is great.

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April 15, 2019 at 2:56pm

Arguing?

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