Compartmentalized design: Designers emasculated

For too long designers have been content with receiving from technology and business pre-defined problem spaces within which to operate:


This began to change in the last few years, mostly as a reaction to the noticeable failure of many websites and applications created during the transition to online publishing and e-commerce. “User experience” has become a mantra even the nerdiest of developers could relate to. Design is no longer a veneer to be applied as an afterthought at the end of technology development:


Still, designers remain as enablers, not determiners. While bad design can cause a project to fail, good design is not sufficient enough to save it. This is because the fundamental decisions defining the problem space around a project are almost always made by business. Design, while no longer a mere appendage to technology, remains peripheral to business nevertheless.

An emerging answer to this problem has recently been formulated as “design thinking,” a way of thinking that engenders transformative innovation. The prominently visible slogan of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is “a new way to think.” In The Empathy Economy Bruce Nussbaum at BusinessWeek gives a quick overview of the “design thinking” landscape.

I am a designer first and foremost. With a tour of over two decades, I know what a combat zone of influence the enterprise scene is. So my initial hope is for design to get invited to the decision making table I described earlier:


Are there any inherent reasons why technology or business is better at framing the problems designers are then asked to solve? I’d like nothing better than a healthy dose of competition (between design and business at the table) before strategic decisions are made. Once they are made in the wrong direction, however, no amount of fabulous design or robust technology can save a project from its destiny with failure.

I can already hear some people objecting: it’s all teamwork! Is it, really?


When Sony’s Connect music store was shuttered recently, for example, was it “teamwork” that failed? Can we put the blame of catastrophic failure in not being able to take advantage of perhaps the industry’s deepest combined resources in music, movies, hardware and distribution at the feet of designers? Have designers failed Sony Connect?

What would a typical design critique of Sony Connect entail? The lifeless blue-gray color scheme? Anemic typography? Lack of white space for the eyes to rest? Poor focal layering? Absence of emotional engagement?

These are all visual/emotional observations which, even if they could be identified and remedied by the best design minds on the planet, wouldn’t do much to save Connect. Its fate was fixed long before the first pixel was manipulated by a designer.

Connect failed because Sony’s business leaders have been caught sleeping at the DRM wheel for too long. Sony made a strategic error by relying on digital music players that could only play music with its own DRM. Instead of selling the infinitely more popular MP3 format songs, Connect sold ATRACT encoded music that could only be played through Sony’s players. And this was during a period when three quarters of all legal digital music traffic ran through Apple’s iTunes, destined to be played on iPods, which predictably weren’t ATRACT compatible. Connect was a house of cards built on a DRM dream that had already plagued Sony’s MiniDisc players from gaining any market traction.

I’d like to think that a strategic designer would never let Connect go down a path in fatal disharmony with its potential users’ needs and expectations. When Sony Business handed down its business model and blueprint for Connect to Sony Design, the song was already over.

I call this compartmentalized design, where visual/emotional aspects of design are so emasculated by business constraints as to be practically irrelevant. I see the cure for this in strategic design, where today’s designers move up the food chain to handle business models and frameworks guided by a systems-oriented approach:


I’ll expand on this in a later article.

You might also be interested in these articles:

Managing design vs. managing designers vs. managing business

The new managerial class: cure for design?

10 thoughts on “Compartmentalized design: Designers emasculated

  1. “Look at a company like Motorola and consider what they did over the last decade:”

    MOT will be remembered as a case study after they are gone. They were making super-World class CPU’s for years, which AT THE TIME were blowing away Intel. Then, you’d look at their home page and you’d never guess they were a chip company. They conceived of themselves as pretty much a cell phone company. Astounding– if you don’t even know your MISSION, you’re really toast. They ended up spinning off Freescale and PowerPC fell way behind, and now MOT BUYS chips from Freescale (!!!!). Idiots.

    Paula: Green Buidling will help save the Earth. Keep at it. The Story ( on NPR did a recent spot in that idea which is in my iPod, but I haven’t heard it through yet.

  2. Paula: “although Zachman himself has too narrow of a technology focus”

    You can say that again. For those with a design/UX bend that hurts the brain. :-)

    I’m not into diagrams, the four above are about as complex as I will get. In real life, I do deal with very complex processes and analytics-driven design. My job is to massively distill them. So what I’m after is a certain mode of fluidity, rather than strict regimentation.

  3. Paula: The 2.0 in (the somewhat sarcastically designated) Future 2.0 simply refers to a second stage, not much more. I don’t see separate business and design teams “working together” [C] as the ultimate cure. I’m looking for a deeper fusion of the two, which I designated as Strategic Design in [D], to arrive later. I’m not a fan of MBA+.

  4. Jan: “They will NEVER suffer the consequences of their own actions.”

    As I replied to Tom above, this is in fact one of the most significant roadblocks to reform. You can’t hope to hold hands, sing Kumbaya, chant user experience and hope to care, if compensation and organizational structure are pulling an organization in another direction.

  5. I also would suggest that there’s nothing really 2.0 about the model you’ve shown — here. That layer would still be there because there’s both a strategic and a tactical aspect to this. Both of the last two images need to come together. I’ve got a piece I need to get finished for our event this Friday to illustrate the significance of the ‘both’ (also a core Complexity principle)

  6. One of the themes of complexity is to learn from other patterns. At a recent US Green Builder’s association event (they have great local events in Dallas), I was hit by a big duh! In the commercial building industry (which I had the pleasure of being immersed in for a year), the blueprints go to the various trades for bidding. IT is a TRADE. While technology architects (e.g. data, security, function, development) should be involved in the strategic design effort (as input to the blueprints), the development methodology (SDLC and the like) does not start until AFTER this.

    We’re all the way back to the Zachman Framework that was purported back in the 80s (although Zachman himself has too narrow of a technology focus — but it’s a place to start the conversation):

    Fuse something like this into the strategic design that you’ve suggested and you have the beginnings of a governance model (don’t think ‘restrictions’, just guidelines) to transition from where we are to where we might want to be.

  7. Tom: “Some problems require all three units working together from the outset”

    Certainly. Pretty much all projects require integration of all three units when framing the problem space. Unfortunately, all these units are already separate in most organizations, and as such vie for budgets, attention, head-count, power, etc. That’s the reality. So the organizational, incentive and compensation structures mitigate against tight integration. Playing nice and teamwork remain unrealizable slogans at most places. Look at a company like Motorola and consider what they did over the last decade: the opportunities they squandered and the gaping hole between hardware and software. Their inability to integrate design, technology and business strategically opened up the way for Apple to come in and teach a few elementary lessons.

  8. business

    Some problems require all three units working together from the outset. You CAN’T make a UMPC without small enough chips and good enough heat sinks, right? Or a Nano, for that matter.

  9. This is my personal experiences from the telco business. The telco business I was part of was not consumer driven; it had few, very large customers. This is how the process worked. Promise the customer as much as you could get away with to get the contract signed, someone else in your organisation has to deliver. When all the problems in the project catch up, the people who made the promising (managers, sales, even Solution Architects) is on a new contract, or in a new organisation. They will NEVER suffer the consequences of their own actions. Their bonuses are based on the signing of the contract, not on the customer satisfaction six months after delivery. In short: promise, deliver, patch up. In the end, the costs for these failures are dumped on the consumers (you and me). You will pay overprices for sending SMS, making interconnect calls, or reading your mails.

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