Managing design vs. managing designers vs. managing business

In Design Vs. Design Thinking at BusinessWeek Bruce Nussbaum says:

“…I actually do believe that more designers will become CEOs and top managers as we move forward… it may be easier for creative folks who ‘get’ design to learn business management than it is for business folks to really learn the core precepts of design.” 

Christopher Fahey chimes in to ask why top-level managers shouldn’t come out of designers as opposed to MBAs having to learn more about design under the ‘design thinking’ umbrella that’s all the rage now:

“Is it not obvious to you that these emerging design-conscious business leaders might be most profitably drawn from the ranks of, say, designers?” 

Why do we want either side (business and design) to learn from and be like the other? So that they can each do their own job better? Or do we want to forge another professional category that’s the superset of the two? Do we want an uber-manager capable of leading both business and design? Or the intention here is to merge business and design altogether? How likely is that? Is it even desirable?

The CEO position, for example, entails many functions: massaging the board of directors, dealing with banks, reporting to regulatory bodies, playing golf with customer CEOs, signing major checks, etc. How relevant are these ‘chores’ to design? Are these the kinds of responsibilities designers want to pursue? If in fact they do spend a huge chunk of their time on these functions, will they ever have the time and focus necessary to do design at all? How will designers be compensated then?

There is a notion of “management” looming in this discussion. But management of what? Business? Designers? Design?

I think we can all agree that non-designers can manage the business. It’s also not that difficult to imagine non-designers being able to manage designers, in terms of projects, people and processes. But can non-designers manage design? As a designer of two decades mostly in the enterprise arena and someone who founded and ran a company, my answer would be, no.

The D-school camp seems to think that design needs to be managed by non-designers, namely business folk with a design sense. I think the underlying presumption is that design (growing in strategic importance) is not being leveraged properly within the organization. And that’s largely true. While designers complain about design-averse business managers, the latter is weary of an unwieldy process not sufficiently focused on P&L.

If what designers want is more power to decide on some of the fundamental problems their organizations face, they can do that without having to become managers of organizational processes. But first, they have to be invited to the table — the table of strategic decision making.

How do designers get invited to the table then? The old fashion way: by earning the trust of the rest of the company. They will be questioned by business, so designers will have to learn to question business. Designers should be at the table not as expert witnesses, but as the framers of the problems the organization faces.

Who manages business or designers is a minor issue compared to who manages design. Design starts with the framing of a problem. If a problem is framed by business first, then designers are reduced to being implementors of a process they had no control over.

The biggest problem before designers, therefore, is to move from the tactical to the strategic plane at the table.

6 thoughts on “Managing design vs. managing designers vs. managing business

  1. Pingback: Compartmentalized design: Designers emasculated « counternotions

  2. Christopher: “waiting to get invited isn’t enough”

    Absolutely. But let’s also realize that the owners of the table right now is the business. It’s their table. Until designers ‘prove’ themselves worthy they won’t have a seat. Part of that involves, necessarily, questioning the owners of the table, the rules, the results, etc. And, as you say, designers selling themselves, much, much better. As I indicated in my follow up article, I intend to explore what that’ll take in terms of education and other prep work for designers.

  3. Kontra, you took the words out of my mouth. It is about being at the table — but waiting to get invited isn’t enough. Designers have to educate and invite ourselves, by thinking and acting strategically. Bruce Nussbaum means well, but he is not championing designers as much as he is introducing design to non-designers. Designers need to be their own champions, I think.

  4. Pingback: The new managerial class: cure for design? « counternotions

  5. Todd, Central themes in design have withstood the test of time over millennia. There were designers looong before the first MBA diploma was ever granted. As designers, we have the unique ability not just to target people but to move them, in ways MBAs cannot. Design has evolved and can evolve to meet professional challenges and I have no doubt will do so in this case as well. So I propose designers.

    Designers, however, must get much better at foreseeing technical and business ramifications of their design choices. They must learn the language of these two related domains and use that language far more effectively to argue their case.

    It’s easy for an MBA to question the ROI of design/designers, for example. Designers must learn to question the ROI on MBAs, lawyers, accountants, advertisers, etc. We must learn to turn the tables, if we want a seat at the table of decision making.

  6. To take a design thinking approach to things, perhaps what is missing is a “prototype”? As this concept of the designer-manager emerges, we are starting with two radically different camps, each moving towards (or not) a hazy ideal future position. However, are there design-minded leaders in business today who could act as prototypes to drive discussion about the attributes, behaviors and beliefs that this mythical designer-manager would turn out to be? If so, who would you propose?

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