Design and the corporation: a reply from Darrel Rhea

Darrel-Rhea-Lockwood-ResourceI sent my recent “design” post to Darrel Rhea to ask for comment.

And he sent me this beautifully observed, informed and thoughtful reply.

Thank you, Darrel.

“Yes, corporations are indeed hiring up designers like crazy. And buying companies too. The sheer numbers are impressive.  Ask Roz, Rita-Sue, Tom, or the other Tom.  The head hunters are flat out busy.  But the buying spree of firms has been going on for 20 years. Frog and IDEO sold years ago.  The substantial firms are selling because of the age of the principals and basic economics.  But there are tons of small firms founded by hot young designers who are replacing the larger name brands. There isn’t a shortage of independent design firms, there is a shortage of larger firms owned by 50-60 year olds who are tired of the fee-for-services treadmill and looking for an exit.

Here are my own observations on our evolving practice with an emphasis on your area of cultural insights:

Ten plus years ago, the focus was on tidy efficient design departments. The value of design was being recognized, but only to a certain level. The value was focused on the aesthetics and functionality of products, or it was focused on the efficiency and ease of the user experience.  Design was thought of as a set of practices most relevant as a part of product development, or as part of brand communications.  Executives could just think of it as a resource that could be hired out when needed, with just enough internal competence to hire and manage the consultants.  Culture (deep cultural insight) might be interesting and was acknowledged as useful to the design practitioner, “But just do what you need to do and don’t talk about it. Like engineering, we trust that there is physics and math involved, but we don’t want to hear about it — that’s your job.  Culture is dark matter, and we don’t want to screw up with it, but we don’t want to have it be an internal competence we leverage.”

We then went through a period where many experiments were done to try bringing design into the company to “infect” the business more broadly.  Management wasn’t creative enough. They didn’t have a vision for innovation.  They needed some disruptive juju. Designers were put in “innovation centers” or “labs.”  McKinsey would hire up a hundred designers, T-Mobile would hire a hundred designers, lots of big companies were getting on the band wagon.  One by one, these experiments would fail.  They were on the periphery of the organization, they were edgy and provocative, they were expensive, and they weren’t managed in a way to create value for the organization.  These experiments would last on average 18 months at best before they blew up and everyone was laid off.  Organizations knew how to use designers for improving functionality and aesthetics, they didn’t know how to use them for thinking, for strategy, etc.  And to the extent these design groups had a deep competence in culture, it just made things worse.  Culture was a set of abstractions that designers valued, but not something practical that typical line managers could access and leverage. And Design Researchers were experiencing turf battles with more established Market Research Departments.

Now we are seeing a phase where big companies are trying to figure out how to leverage design for impact on creative leadership.  Management is seeing it as an important competence (and hence we are seeing CDOs being hired at tradition companies). Hundreds of designers are being hired.  And consultancies are being picked off for acqui-hires.  Design isn’t just working on aesthetics or functionality, they are making contributions to strategy, they are generating new value propositions.  Having design be more prominent is allowing these organizations to leverage the insights they have been gathering on customers and consumers.  They are becoming institutionally empathetic.  They are moving beyond tactical market research and beginning to ask better questions.  And, if you have 1000 designers in your company (Msft has 1400!), Culture is now important.  It is mainstream.  While it is still dark matter to senior execs, cultural understanding is a required competence for a contemporary designer (even if they aren’t trained and don’t have the most robust tools, they have the right values, and they will recognize good and useful insight when they see it).

Frabricant says Design Research is harder to do from the inside, I say bullshit. Give me access to a business with a category leadership role, a strategic need to grow and dominate, and a big corporate development budget, and you’ll see that these big companies developing unique, proprietary POVs on culture and consumers because they have to.  The truth is that the consultancies have always had a had time selling more rigorous Design Research, and they have been happy to rely on their intuition.  Deeper and more rigorous work happens on the inside where there are the resources for it and there is a way to leverage it over time and over multiple products.

Grant, I think your characterizations of designers is out of date.  More and more of the people coming up through design have social skills, and have been trained in integrative thinking and business.  They actually blend better. Previously, classic industrial designers would be asked into the board rooms, and they’s show up in torn Levis, Chucks and a tee shirt, long hair, swearing…  being authentically weird to the horror of my clients and righteous about it.  Now it’s likely to be a designer with an MBA speaking the language of both business and design.  They are impressing the hell out of the execs.  Programs like IIT, CMU, Weatherhead or CCAC are producing designers who are creative but not always weird.  They don’t wear the funny shoes as often.  And they aren’t domesticated and wearing Dockers either.  There is a small but growing group of designers that have a passion for designing business. And on the whole, these types do better on the inside than as external consultants.

Now, plenty of designers ARE domesticated as multinational corporations grind down their best people who eventually leave, or figure out how to survive by being complacent zombies.  But the companies are changing themselves.  Corporate culture is changing.  Corporate culture is getting better.  They are recognizing Design and inviting Design to the table.  They want and need creative help.  They need innovation. They need cool.  They need different.  At the same time, Design is getting better, it is getting more mature, more sophisticated and practical. (Frankly, it sucked before. Designers were often idiots. We wanted respect but we rarely deserved it.)

The good news is that with more sophisticated approaches to design and innovation becoming common, Culture (at the level you practice it, Grant) is more relevant. With greater capabilities in design, the organizations are hungry to have a solid foundation for thinking about their customers and consumers.  They are more willing to move beyond basic validation research and are now asking about meaning.  They are thinking about relationships.  They want to understand how to make love last.  That makes me optimistic.”

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