Design and the corporation

Razr_ii For the last couple of days, I have been surrounded by some 180 designers. (I’m at at the Design Management Institute Meetings in Chatham MA.) It’s been interesting. Things are changing fast.

This is a happy time for the profession. Once a stow-away on the S.S. Corporation, design now has its own stateroom. The CEO of P&G, AG Lafley created the first VP position for design. This is a massive endorsement, and we might think of Lafley as a prince awakening design from its slumber.

Of course, this sudden ascent was hard earned. Design can claim iPod, Razr, Chrysler 300, ThinkPad, VW Bug, Virgin, Starbucks, W Hotels, JetBlue, and Target among its successes. To an outsider like me, it looks as if the Razr helped return Motorola from a depressive episode to its accumstomed place of glory. At lunch today, I heard myself say (normally I try not to listen), "This is what stands between corporate greatness and failure? A single piece of design? Good lord." (Motorola announced earnings of $933 million for the second quarter of 2005. This compares to a net loss of over $200 million for the same quarter a year ago.  In Q2 of 05, Motorola shipped 43 million handsets, 10 million more than Samsung.)

I think design truly was an anomalous presence in the corporate world. It was conducted by "creatives" and other people who insist on wearing "interesting" glasses. The corporation was nervous and if it could have figured out some way to dispense with or automate design, it would have done this eagerly.  Or we might put this another way: design was to the corporation what sex was to the English ("only when necessary and as little as possible"). So it’s come a long way.

Where is the profession at this moment of transition? I can’t claim to have conducted anything like a thorough ethnography but a couple of things are clear.

First, design was clever to move into the branding area. The ad agencies had sometimes made a hash of this. And marketing MBAs were systematically deprived of the intellectual and practical concepts they needed to manage it. Designers were right to move in and this will serve them well.  They were also right to move into ethnography.  Anthropology was being it’s usual hamhanded self, and along came IDEO, Sterling, Toniq, and other players and helped themselves.  Very wise. 

But (second), new competences are called for. To deliver against the demands made by Lafley and other CEOS, design will have to become deeply knowledgeable about contemporary culture and increasingly skilled in the ability to read its shifting trends. It is not enough to wear interesting glasses. The designer will have to have a deep and systematic knowledge that takes them outside the aesthetics and design communities they normally inhabit. (This is another way of saying that living in NYC, going to the right clubs, and reading the right magazines, will no longer be enough.)

I know someone is thinking about this issue. I talked to a woman at lunch who wanted to know whether I thought MIT and the Comparative Media department might enable her to add a deeper knowledge of culture to her design practice. So someone is looking at (and for) the big picture. (For the record, I said, "yes." )

But it is not clear that the professional associations are well prepared. As I read them, they are anxious to leverage the dignity, seriousness and standing of the design field by giving it academic associations and credentials. This is an antique and wrong. No one in the corporate world (especially outside the capital markets) cares where or whether someone went to school. Furthermore, academics are badly out of touch with contemporary culture (with the distinquished exception of my colleagues at MIT, of course). Hankering after academic prestige at this moment in the career of the design profession is, I think, a little like putting a suit of armor in a modernist home. Yes, a little status still attachs to this sort of thing but, really, it’s not clear you’re quite grasped the the larger strategic agenda (or design opportunity).

At the moment, the honeymoon continues. Designers are being invited in into the corporate world, and at this stage in the game all successes are praised and all failures forgiven. But capitalism and the corporation have a way of coming to take for granted what once seemed exceptional. And when this moment comes, creating the Razr will take new competences and especially the ability to read contemporary culture as never before.

In this moment, it might make sense for the design community to reach out to an Andrew Zolli or for that matter a Bruce Nussbaum. But, no. DMI just hired a Ph.D. I am sure he’s a brilliant guy. Certainly, he is a charming one. But this was not the time to tap the ivory tower. On balance, I would have thought it would make more sense to engage with movers and conceptual shakers in the real world and stear clear of this and other looney bins.


Nussbaum, Bruce. 2005. Target is a great design innovator. here.

Reingold, Jennifer. The Interpreter [on design at P&G]. Fast Company. June. here.

For more data, on the razr and Motorola: here.