A Voice for Design

Ask any designer about the value of design, and she’ll give you a list that’s a mile long. Good design contributes to better products, better services and better ways of doing business. Designers know this, but convincing corporate executives is a challenge.

Several MBA programs, such as those at Pratt Institute, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, have added design electives to their business curricula, and future VPs and CEOs are taught to “think like designers.” With the current focus on design and innovation, the need for designers to have a voice in the business world is more important than ever.

If you’ve ever felt drawn to the business side of design, you’re not alone. More and more experienced designers are developing their business and management skills to move their careers into a new arena: design management.

Design management is a fairly new field in the U.S.; it’s more widely known and recognized in the U.K. and is emerging in other parts of the world, as well. However, the term “design management” is often misunderstood, because its meaning has evolved from the traditional definition of managing a design department or firm.

Technically, design management is the identification and allocation of creative assets within an organization to create strategic, sustainable advantage. Simply, design management is design-minded leadership, the bridge between design and business. It moves design beyond the aesthetic to change experiences, organizations and opportunities—and design managers are trained specialists in this role.

In many companies, design is an afterthought rather than a central component of every strategic decision. Mary McBride, director of the graduate design management program at Pratt Institute’s Manhattan campus and a partner in Strategies for Planned Change in New York City, teaches students and clients that design needs a strong voice within an organization in order to fully support corporate strategy. “At the point where executives are having conversations about the company’s strategic intent,” McBride explains, “designers need to be directly involved in that conversation, not told about that conversation later.”

A Black-and-White Case
Creative assets are operational assets that, when used strategically, can add value to the business. Branding specialist, educator and design manager William Schroeder, who works in-house at the Manhattan headquarters for the global law firm White & Case, explains: “Within the realm of graphic design, creative assets should be seen as everything visual attached to the brand. For example, print materials, premium and gift items, retail environments and signage, uniforms?anything physical or visual that has been designed, including the office space, the choice of fabric on the sofa.

“Brand helps drive the success of the organization,” Schroeder continues, “and the strategic management of design is an important part of that success.”

However well-designed the assets, though, a strong brand must be supported by a quality product or service. Because the components rely on one another, creative assets alone are difficult to measure in terms of financial success. Fortunately, published case studies and financial reports are becoming more available to support what designers have known all along—that good design is good business.

For example, a recent study by The Design Council tracked the stock market performance of design-award winning companies in the U.K. during a 10-year period. Not surprisingly, the design-led companies outperformed the FTSE 100 Index (an index of the 100 most highly capitalized companies traded on the London Stock Exchange) by more than 200%. The Design Index report demonstrates the direct effect of design on company performance and provides tangible evidence to help persuade corporate executives.

Increased financial performance isn’t the only rationale for incorporating the discipline of design management into a company. Design can be a pathway to positive change and innovation, as well. Design management aims to add design thinking to every area of the company—from the employees to executives. With a seat at the boardroom table, design has an executive voice that aligns design with the company’s strategy. It connects design to the top level and validates the role of designers within the organization.

Calling all Design Leaders
Bringing all these elements together requires determination and big-picture vision. Design managers enter the field because they want to expand their business skills, but most feel the call of design leadership. Creatives can build their design-management abilities by taking business classes and gaining real-world experience. While an advanced degree isn’t required, it’s a plus; programs that are specifically oriented toward design management, like Pratt’s, offer a unique mix of creative and business learning not available in traditional MFA or MBA schooling.

“Students are entering Pratt’s graduate program from all design disciplines,” McBride says. “They seem to have one thing in common: They’re talented, creative professionals who want to take on different sets of responsibilities—more directive, more managerial, more strategic—even if it takes them away from the thing that they love to do most creatively. They’re signing up for strategic leadership of design rather than drawing, illustrating, building and fabricating.”

As businesses continue to realize the potential of design, exciting opportunities should emerge for creative professionals. “That kind of intelligence is now really necessary,” McBride says. “It’s a creative intelligence that enjoys problem-solving and can find opportunities in places where other people have given up. That’s way past strategic—that’s leadership by design.”






One thought on “A Voice for Design

  1. FlameDesign

    It definitely would have been nice to design management classes in university. It was a tremendous help having veterans in the industry who were willing to volunteer their time on the phone to share their experience. I recommend that any new freelancer or manager give a quick call to somebody at an established firm to has him or her for guidance.