Who Are We Kidding?

For designers, there’s nothing like a recession to stimulate thinking about the value of design. If IBM legend Thomas Watson, Jr. is right that “good design is good business,” why aren’t clients lining up for our services? Designers have practically deified Watson for uttering these five words, and we’d love to believe they’re true. (Or rather, we’d love it if our clients believed they’re true.)

That Watson could at least partially attribute his success to design should be a boon to our profession. And his credibility is enhanced by the fact that, under his reign, IBM hired a pantheon of great designers: Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Paul Rand among them. But if designers are the only ones reciting this mantra, it isn’t doing us much good. In fact, it could be clouding our view of where the value of design actually lies.

If we look at design from the perspective of someone leading an enterprise, “good design is good business” isn’t an easy statement to support. It’s clear from Watson’s autobiography that what he means by “design” is essentially making things look good. He wanted the world to regard IBM as a leader in good taste as well as good products. But his epiphany about “good design” wasn’t based on some deep understanding of the value of design in growing profits. It stemmed, at least partially, from envy of his famously design-centric competitor, the Italian company Olivetti.

Lately, we’ve heard phrases like “the power of design” and “Design with a capital D” to signal the profound insights designers bring to managers. But these phrases are hollow unless we can build a convincing case for why good design is good business in terms that managers can embrace. In some cases, it’s possible to link increases in sales directly to changes in the design of a package or a product, but the effects of most design projects are impossible to isolate and measure in financial terms.

Like Thomas Watson, Jr., most business leaders invest in good design as part of the theater of how they present themselves to their employees, their shareholders, their competitors, their peers, their customers and their community. It’s part branding, or being identifiable in a distinctive way, and part credibility, or showing that the organization is substantial enough to invest in quality design. Our challenge is to measure design outcomes against qualitative business goals, not quantitative standards. Designers should respect the financial metrics of business, but neither designers nor clients should be so naive as to believe that all business goals can be reduced to numbers.

If clients aren’t hiring designers, it’s not always because they don’t value what we do. Even design-savvy clients understand that design isn’t the best investment to make in a uncertain economy. It’s usually when business is growing and profits are up that organizations invest in design. Good design is good business at some level. But what of the claim that designers would thrive if only businesspeople understood the value of design? I’m skeptical.