What Design Can’t Do

NB: A modified version of this post has now been published by GAIN, AIGA’s journal of Design and Business.

Design diagram by Christopher Simmons

Years ago, inspired by something I heard Terry Irwin describe, I created a diagram to explain to clients just where design fits into their business plan. This is how it works:

At the center of any organization is its leadership — an individual or small group of partners on whose vision the organization is founded. The leader is the heart. The core.

Next are the people — the managers, directors, employees, members, volunteers, etc. who believe in the leader’s vision. They contribute their own qualifications, expertise and perspectives to the organization, but most importantly they participate in a shared purpose.

After that is the product. The product is the thing that the people make. They make it well when they share a common purpose. They share a common purpose when the leadership unites them around a compelling idea.

The product (which can also be a service) must be supported by a strategy. The strategy is the plan that will help deliver the product to the right people in the right way.

Finally, there is design. Design is the language that supports the strategy, that promotes the product, that is imagined by people, that believe in a vision.

If you want to be a brand, I tell clients, you must work from the inside out. A great logo isn’t going to make shitty product any less shitty any more than a hard worker is going to make a bad boss a better leader. In this model, the inner layers affect the outer ones, not the other way around (with the possible exception that a well-articulated brand can help employees feel pride in their organization which can, for a time, boost morale).

Critics will say that this is an outmoded view of design — one that relegates the designer to the role of decorator after all the hard decisions have been made. They will argue that design — particularly design thinking — should permeate all levels of an organization, that designers should have a seat at the table. That’s True. And it’s False.

It’s true because a design methodology can be useful in identifying need, discovering opportunity, developing empathy and driving innovation. It’s false because the elements that drive the success of an organization are two layers deeper than most designers are equipped to go. We generally don’t have the skills to train bosses to be leaders. We generally don’t have the skills to truly, fundamentally inspire a workforce or volunteer base. That’s the leader’s job. To make it ours is both presumptuous and undermining. The designer who wants a seat at the table needs to first acknowledge that somebody else put the table there in the first place. And they built the room it’s in.

This doesn’t mean that designers are simply stylists, and it doesn’t preclude us from developing deeper engagements with our clients. Companies and organizations routinely and necessarily rely on design to capture and attract people to the truth of who they are, to enroll others in that vision that radiates from the inside out. That inside out part is key. It’s a conclusion I came to based on observation and intuition but which, it turns out, is supported by science. Simon Sinek’s recent TED talk is probably the clearest and most compelling explanation of why this is true and Debbie Millman’s well-reserached presentation, Why We Buy Why We Brand also dovetails tightly with this concept. I recommend seeing them  both.

Where this model is deceiving is that it suggests that design comes in at the end of the process. In fact, there is another ring beyond design where the consumer lives. There is a ring beyond that that represents the affiliations of that consumer, then a ring for society, then a ring for culture and so on. Design, then, is at the center of another process — that of mediator between consumer and product, between message and audience. It is a position of such profound influence and such limitless potential that I’ve never understood why so many designers seem so reluctant simply to fill it.

  • I like your model, although I would argue with this belief: “…the elements that drive the success of an organization are two layers deeper than most designers are equipped to go. We generally don’t have the skills to train bosses to be leaders. We generally don’t have the skills to truly, fundamentally inspire a workforce or volunteer base.”
    My experience is designers are far better equipped to play roles in corporate training and leadership than most MBA graduates are; especially when innovation becomes strategic. If you’re saying our naivete and/or lack of understanding of the value we can play in these areas keeps us from assuming the leadership role we could well be playing, I will not argue that point.

    • I think there are a number of factors, Burney. Certainly naivete is one — both of our potential and of many of the fundamentals of business.

      That naivete probably doesn’t apply to a designer who runs a business; they are also a business person and probably a leader. Whether they were trained for that role by education, mentorship or experience, they likely have the skills to fully engage with other leaders. I think many who are involved with AIGA also share an interest in leadership issues as much as they do design issues.

      On the other hand, the designer who is a year out of school and frustrated that they’re not being given the opportunity to tell CEOs how to restructure their business falls into a different category.

  • Fantastic graph…expresses both what makes it so enjoyable to work for a client that does have a clear vision and strong leadership, and why it’s so hard to do the opposite. Instead of a layer cake in the middle, you get a soup.