Design and the corporation, first wild, now tame?

RobertFabricant-620x415Have you seen the piece Robert Fabricant wrote for Wired as a year-end review?  I think you’ll find it both chilling and cheering.

Fabricant says “leading design firms are contracting or exiting the business.” Where did all this talent flow? Fabricant says it went to Fortune 500 companies.


Well, yes. This is good news for those of us who believe that the corporation is systematically challenged when it comes to capturing and thinking about culture. No, not corporate culture. I mean the body of ideas and practices with which each of us (and all of us) construct and negotiate the world. (AKA “trends” but of course so much more than merely trends.)

THIS culture is an essential knowledge for the corporation. It is the source of “black swans” and “blue oceans,” the dangers and opportunities, that confront the corporation. Mastering culture will help the corporation flourish even in a world of terrible, otherwise inscrutable dynamism. But no. The corporation prefers to treat culture as a dark matter. It knows culture is out there, but it can’t retrofit its models to account for it. The result is tragic.

So it’s good news that designers are now joining the corporation. Though we can just imagine the moments of first contact as the C-suiters look out of their princely offices over the parking lot to observe…anomalous data.  Colors, shapes and models that break the otherwise uniform sea of sensible sedans. Minis, Fiats, BWM i3, Teslas, cars that say the owner pays attention to the world around her, prizes the exquisite visual choice and the witty design decision, likes that shock of recognition when a shape in the world gives voice to an idea in our heads, who actually lives for a material culture that makes culture material.

This is not the C-suiters reaction. No, their reaction is “wait, what?” This is their idea of pattern recognition, noticing when things look, like, weird. Welcome to the designers. They are, like, weird.

I remember my first contact with designers. I was a freshly minted PhD and I went to a conference on built form staged by Setha Low. I was doing the anthropological thing, which is, when in the presence of people different from yourself, trying to guess the grammar, the culture, from which their view of the world springs. And the best I could do in the early days was to notice that designers managed a paradox that seemed beyond the rest of us (or at least me). They had their feet on the ground, even as they kept their heads in the clouds. Weird, yes. Wild, too.

Designers managed to be more or less fully domesticated, capable of adult behavior and professional careers, even as they harbored an enfant sauvage within, a creature who put creativity above conventional niceties, who was in fact not so domesticated after all. To use the cliché, designers somehow managed to think inside the box and live outside of it.  This impressed me deeply.

Which brings us to:


Is there something chilling about the fact the design is now taking up residence in the corporation? I think there might be. For all these years, designers kept a careful distance. They were in but not of the world of business. But now, if Fabricant is correct, they are at risk of falling into the gravitation field of the corporation, into what for some may be an incinerating embrace.

What if we are looking at the domestication of design, the end of its ability to think in restless, anarchic ways, the very extinction of the discipline as the fount of creativity in our midst. Those of you who have the ethnographic data, please do comment.  Do you see any of the early signs? Designers getting complacent? People going home at 5:00? The end of that thrilling charrette-mentality where it’s all hands on deck and we’ll sleep when we have to, eat when we must. The real sign may be this: when the designer’s car in the parking lot begin to go out, now good grey sedans, no longer colorful, provocative, counter-expectational “vehicles” for passengers of any kind. Then we will know the thing is done, the field is dead.

I suggest designers think of this as a hostage negotiation. They must insist on a trade. We the designers will bring you this precious knowledge, the ability to use design thinking and cultural knowledge, if and only if we may remain an edgy, disturbational, counter-intuitive presence in your midst.

More probably, the outcome will look like this. The corporation will hold designers in its thrall for a couple of years. Then two things will happen. Noticing how miserable they are, some designers will leave. The corporation will see they have so wounded the golden goose that culture and creativity is no longer forthcoming. It will then turn into a willful child, throwing away its “broken toy” and moving on to some new enthusiasm. Released from their Babylonian captivity, designers will return eventually to form.  And the world will be, like, weird again. And wild.

post script

I set this post to Darrel Rhea for comments and he came back with a beautifully observed response.  I will post this tomorrow.  Please come back!

3 thoughts on “Design and the corporation, first wild, now tame?

  1. Grant Post author

    Andy, thanks, yes, this could be a generational thing, on the other hand, I have met designers who work inside the corporation who feel a little complacent when compared to those who live outside. Thanks again. Best, Grant

  2. Indy Neogy

    Some vignettes on complacency:

    1) The head of a large design firm (name redacted to protect the not so innocent) got talking to Gregg Fraley and he told them about some of our KILN products – and said CEO said: “oh yeah, we’ve gotten really out of the habit of systematically searching for new ideas.”

    2) I think this isn’t confined to being inside corporations, but the culture of a (for example) financial firm exacerbates it: The trend to being “data-driven” as justification for design decisions and choices.

    Problem here? Digital design and UX provide lots of neat numbers (e.g. heat maps, etc.) but many crucial design decisions – esp. those that interact with cultural issues/trends are not easily reduced to numbers. This isn’t just an issue about qual vs quant, it’s also about weak signals.

    I took a group of students through this last term – if you think about rolling out something across an entire corporation’s service offering – something more complex and less centralised than a webpage, you’re certainly talking about months of development time. So you’re already in the position of creating something to fit into the future. Sometimes data helps, but sometimes all you have is weak signals about what that future will look like.

    “Domesticated” designers may not be able to actually get things past the suits without data… so they are hamstrung.

    3) Related to this – so much design is now focussed on webpages and mobile apps. Some of the service ideas underneath are radical – but it’s easy for the corp to contain design ideas inside the “app/web” cage and refuse to let them reconfigure other things.

    4) Design thinking has all sorts of positives, but as I’m watching it evolve I’m seeing less and less emphasis and innovation on the part that involved watching (ethnography!) of real people. A lot of this is due to pressures inside the corporation – because it’s all a lot less messy if you have a process that fits with the way the corp already works (e.g. focus groups etc.)

    So I’m seeing more and more design that feels radical in terms of the corp. but looks kind of behind the curve in terms of the world. Because the corp. is slowly cutting the design team off from the world.

    (Of course, it’s not just design thinking, a lot of this is about corp. politics and what designers can get budget for beyond one or two big bang projects.)

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