Mind Your Own Design Business

Business and design. Design and business. It seems you can’t open up a business or design magazine these days without seeing the pairing of these words somewhere. Whole companies are starting up around it. We get presentations where designers are “emotional and non-linear” and business people are “rational and linear.” We hear the buzzwords “Design Thinking” bandied about without any definition of what that really is. Design is the new savior of business, and business people need to think more like designers. Business is from Mars, Design is from Venus.

Stop. Just stop.

Look, I’m happy that design is getting a lot of press in magazines other than I.D. I’m glad business people (who are these generic folks in their suits?) are understanding what design can do for them and their business. But I think there’s a fundamental disconnect going on, and it’s not between design and business: it’s between perception and reality.

Talking about design and business as two separate entities sets up a false dichotomy where there is actually none. Design has always been about business, and business has always been about design. Perhaps not good design or good business, but they’ve always been intertwined. Incessantly breaking them apart for the purpose of selling magazines or services does a disservice to both. I’ll say it again: design is business and business is design.

Yes, they are distinct subject areas with distinct points of view. Yes, the people who are in them have some different skills. Yes, one person might wear a tie, the other funny eyeglasses. And yes, you can see how quickly this argument dissolves into stereotypes.

Ever since it became a profession (which I’d say happened in the 1930s with industrial designers like Raymond Loewy), design has been linked to companies. Industrial means “a product of industry” after all. Designers don’t work for themselves; we’re not artists; we design things for people, for companies, for use (often by or in companies). In all but a handful of cases, designers aren’t the ones doing the final making, the production of their designs. Other people (read: other companies) do that; most of the time, we just do the prototypes. We need the collective resources that usually only companies can provide to make our designs realities.

Designers work with, and often in, companies. Without companies and thus business, we’d be a sorry lot. There’s so much talk about what designers can do for business, we forget what businesses does for us, namely give us money, jobs, and projects. It borders on arrogance for us to be seen as the saviors of business when it is so often business saving us. In the marketplace, we rescue each other.

But Dan, I hear you saying, what about the users? Surely design is about them? Business is about filthy lucre, while design is about people! We serve users, while businesses look after the almighty dollar. Right. Businesses hate the people who use and buy their products and services and all designers work for free.

I’m not saying that businesses are something honorable and admirable; sometimes they are, but sometimes they are horribly not. What I am saying is that businesses are what they are: products that are created, staffed, and, yes, designed by humans. And because they are, they are flawed, some more than others. I’ve yet to work at or for the perfect company, and I’m sure I never will. The things businesses have to do and endure are far too complex for anyone to ever design a perfect company. And frankly, I’m not sure you’d want to. Things that are perfect are no longer human.

Make no mistake: businesses are designed, and not usually by designers. Indeed, 99.99 percent of all design isn’t done by designers. It’s a human activity–perhaps the human activity. (See, more design arrogance!) Businesses just don’t spring into being: they are created by people in order to accomplish goals they otherwise couldn’t. They are designed products.

The long and short of it is that business and design together solve problems (and in the process make money). We can apply design thinking with a trough and fill up rooms with our prototypes, but until someone says, “Yeah, go do that,” designers are a powerless lot, actors without a play. Some of the artificial cleaving of design and business is the design community’s response to this powerlessness, of wanting “a place at the table,” not realizing that the table itself was designed. You can go design your own table, you know. You might discover you might not like the big table after all. Designers have become like my four-year-old, throwing a fit because she’s not an adult yet, not realizing that being an adult is damn hard too.

So enough with the business and design jibberjabber. Let’s just get down to business already, the business of design.

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