Posts Tagged design management

Design In/Is Business

Leveraging design and design teams to increase competitive advantage is getting more notice in large organizations thanks in part to events like the Design Management Institute’s (DMI) “Re-Thinking…The Future of Design” conference in San Francisco this past June. Key design leaders across a broad spectrum of industries shared conversations on stage about how they used design thinking tools to create value for, and facilitate change in, their organization.

What struck me most is that design teams increasingly seem to also serve as innovation teams for the business. John Fly, the VP of Strategic Planning at Miliken & Company talked about successful designers being able to toggle between solving both business problems and design problems and often solving business problems with design solutions. The biggest hurdle in this process usually comes from finding a common business/design language. However, understanding the business inside and out increases credibility and leads to better decisions for the business.

I was most focused on what Bob Schwartz, GM of Global Design for GE Healthcare had to say because of my personal interest in improving healthcare through design thinking. His decades in design management had obviously honed his business navigation skills and it was through a combination of analogies, storytelling techniques, and an empathy workshop that he was able to build consensus and unify his design team of 46, spread over 5 countries.

Pushing empathy as a key driver for design and business decisions led to the redesign of several GE products – particularly in the pediatric space where the design team created a MRI scanner and scanning process from the perspective of a child. A story was developed for the children to engage in before they came for the office visit and the scanner room maintained the story’s imagery throughout. This environment reduced anxiety during the procedure and ultimately improved test results. The success from this storytelling approach filtered to the sales force and acted as a powerful motivator to increase sales.

My hope is that more examples like this will bubble to the surface and motivate investment in design teams and the value of design thinking processes across the entire organization. Giving every business team the license to think creatively and more empathetically will foster solutions to support humanity and not just the bottom line.

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Design and the Art of Complexity

DMII recently attended the Design Management Institute’s annual meeting titled “Design Complexity and Change” at MIT. Without a doubt, this was another call to action for great design minds to help save our increasingly complex world from destroying itself. The message was echoed by speakers from corporate design centers within Nike, Virgin Airlines, and GE, within design education by John Maeda at RISD, and also from a political source pushing legislation to form a US National Design Policy to create national design standards within the government.

The motivation to engage design and designers in solving some of the most complex problems from pollution to social justice has finally come, even if only from a place of desperation. The decades of excess and deregulation have given way to economic hardships that demand more creative problem solving to ensure survival. Corporations have been discovering that design often provides a competitive advantage, but how many more times must we endure requests to make whatever we are designing look like it came from Apple? And really, does Apple-style design solve all problems?

Virgin DesignFor some, yes. Joe Ferry, Head of Design at Virgin Atlantic stated simply that they “design to survive.” A competitive advantage based solely on design (of every aspect from crew attire to corporate website interaction) has allowed the tiny airline to not only survive, but also remain profitable while almost all other airlines are stuck in the red. Virgin has transformed the unpleasant experience of flying back into a glamorous event by eliminating complexities and coveting details from mood lighting to the sexy leather bomber jackets pilots wear.

However, design thinking can be used for much heavier lifting than a sexy user experience or sleek interface. Nike is in the process of redesigning their products down to the component level to reduce waste and energy via a process they coined “considered design.” Lorrie Vogel, GM of the program, explained how integrating environmental impact into each step of the design and production process has yielded dramatic returns in reduced company-wide energy and water consumption and increased recyclability of their products.

But what stuck me as the most valuable use of design thinking was Dori Tunstall’s presentation on her work to form a National Design Policy. This document (and subsequent organization) would be responsible for creating national design standards for communications and materials produced by the government.

Dori emphasized that design plays a significant role in social inclusion as it translates values into tangible experiences. As an example, government butter and its generic, uninspiring package design pronounces to the consumer that they are not worthy enough to get a color picture on their food package like everyone else. National design standards could also help with daunting problems like simplifying the complexities of voting though coherent page layout and typography. Guidelines would set standards for legibility, literacy and accessibility for all government communications.

Alan WebberSo many of the complexities we deal with in modern life can be simplified though design if we choose to engage our creativity. As Alan Webber noted, design can be used to solve problems, initiate change and announce innovation but, at the same time, change only happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the cost of change…

Article published on the DMI site here.

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Design is the Strategy

DMILast week I assisted the Design Management Institute (DMI) with their “Re-Thinking…Design” conference here in San Francisco. During this dynamic meeting, several talks focused on validating and communicating design value in the business environment. Perhaps this focus had something to do with the fact that Roger Martin (dean of the Rotman School of Management) was one of the MCs. For someone so steeped in classical business education, his adamant support of design thinking was a remarkably refreshing thing. What struck me the most was the dialog he set in motion about how design IS the strategy.

Roger opened the conference with a compelling discussion about the process of migrating design into business thinking. Acknowledging the demand for ever-increasing innovation, he conceded that design thinking was one of the more successful ways to achieve the volume and diversity of ideas needed to help an organization successfully compete. However, the ongoing challenge is how to convey and garner support for this very non-linear and non-structured creative process within a left-brain-dominated and risk-adverse business environment.

Claudia KotchkaUniting two seemingly disparate disciplines is obviously a challenge, and so leveraging a pull vs push strategy for design integration was advised. Claudia Kotchka explained how she brought design light to Proctor & Gamble (P&G) by first keeping a cache of design success stories on hand and then actually making management participate in design problem solving exercises with the IDEO team. Only after personally engaging in the design process did the management team truly understand the value of design thinking and the need to integrate it into the overall business strategy. In fact, design is now so highly valued at P&G that there are several senior design leaders who sit at the strategic decision-making table.

Another approach is to attack design integration as an actual design problem itself. Jesse James Garrett, president of Adaptive Path, suggested that the organizational structure/decision-making process should be viewed just like any other design constraint within the project scope and thus navigated accordingly. IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, recommended to experiment and prototype in volume early in the process while savoring the surprises such as finding out that the accounting team is shockingly creative.

However, it doesn’t make things easier that designers are notorious for not accepting the value of business thinking. In fact, many downright oppose the constraints and rigid process of business operations. One of the funnier quotes of the conference came from Bill Buxton, principal Researcher at Microsoft, who simply observed that “designer rhymes with whiner.” But opportunity lies in these differences and finding a common language is well worth investing in.

What it comes down to is that strategy is about inventing a new tomorrow. After decades of profit-maximizing objectives driving strategic decision-making, the economy has finally run out of steam and gumption. The time is ripe for the human-centered values of design thinking to be recognized as a valuable way to archive a more sustainable future. DMI’s agenda is exactly on this page and the conference, supported by all the dynamic speakers, called on us to learn the language of business, become part of the strategy and help facilitate change.

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“Some of the Things I Look For in a Designer…”

frog designI was lucky enough to get a few minutes on the phone today with Catherine Sun, Principal Designer at frog design here in San Francisco. I was picking her brain for what skills and attributes she looks for as she interviews designers (mostly from an industrial design perspective). The below summary starts with junior level skills to what she would expect from a senior design manager and executive:


  • Hand sketching, conceptualization, 3D CAD rendering.
  • Design research and observation, responding to competitive landscape.
  • Strong communication skills: be able to produce a cohesive presentation of their work (clarify role, tell a good story: what was the problem, process, solution and result) and then be able to present a clear case for why a particular design is important by phone or in person.
  • Resume must be well laid out, portfolio teaser should be clear and engaging.


  • Leadership, initiative, depth to mentor others, management style (which they should be able to demonstrate through a case study).
  • Personality traits – what are their motivations to want to be a manager (use a hypothetical situation to gauge their response).
  • Design managers must be willing to deal with people issues, how much time will they spend on their people? (personnel management, creative management and working hands on).
  • Need to understand negotiation and have an approach for time and resource issues (team, client, vendors).
  • As a creative leader, a person’s credibility needs to be established with the team to form trust. This can be achieved either through reputation or demonstration.

VP of Design

  • The most senior positions are more about leadership style, personality, charisma, confidence.
  • Must be an excellent communicator, listen well, address and prioritize multiple needs to balance different demands of the organization, project and client.
  • Be persuasive (consensus building), collect all info, make assessment, be able to present back so that everyone understands and feels like they have been heard and are on board.
  • Must have vision.
  • Need a sense of humor…

Of all these attributes, I asked Catherine to list what her top 3 would be when considering someone and she listed accomplishment (must have the skills), interesting ideas, and good communication. Now if only there were some jobs out there to interview for!



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Don’t forget that the Arts and Sciences are still BFFs

Article published in the Design Management Institute’s Quarterly Newsletter, Q4.2008

@ BIL conference in Long Beach 2.7.09

Just as DMI’s Remix conference recently shed new light on the mixing and converging forces within Design Management, another interesting conference held in mid-November at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View explored the connective tissue forming between Nano, Bio, Info and Cognitive (or NBIC) technologies. Although these two conferences, Remix and Converence08, were held on opposite coasts, their nature and societal implications are actually much more intimately linked than one might think.

It’s not by coincidence that classical education has consistently partnered the Arts and Sciences under one roof. As we know, many great scientific discoveries come from leveraging design thinking rather than from analytical brute force. However, over the years we have squirreled our scientists away in labs and transformed artists into commercial tools. But times are changing, and it is exactly in these labs that radical technologies are brewing along with the growing need for an artist’s sensitivity and intuition to help make these new resources and their benefits accessible to a wider audience.

For example, some of the technologies discussed at Convergence08 were AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), which pushes machine intelligence beyond single-skill proficiency to a more robust and sensing interface capable of helping humans make better decisions. On the Nano front, substrates developed with nanotech coatings form materials with luminescence, strength, weight and conductive properties unimaginable even 5 years ago. Developments in Biotech offering personalized gene sequencing for an entire family shed light on what inherited land mines may await. Where it really gets interesting is when these fields converge, as in DNA computers that replace silicon with DNA or in nanomedicine, which uses machines the size of cells to carry out medical procedures.

But really, what do NBIC technologies have to do with Design Management? Well, opportunity for one. User interfaces have to be designed, the data portrayed in the most intuitive and useful way possible, the benefits, functionality and risks communicated visually, and radical new products branded. These technologies are no longer amorphous what-ifs but rather have very real applications, many of which are already seeping into daily use within our electronic gadgets. As futurists such as Ray Kurzweil like to point out, we are at the point in the curve where exponential technological growth is about to shoot through the roof, and now is an excellent time to think about how we plan to manage the future.

So shouldn’t the design thinkers, who are experts in modeling products, services and communications precisely to the needs of humanity, have a greater role in directing the way society interfaces with the exploding new science and technology? Right now we have the opportunity to help design a positive future by choosing first to be aware of what’s being developed and then actively participating in how and where these scientific advances are applied in our products, services and daily life. This partnership between design thinking and scientific thought was once the norm; maybe it is time to rekindle the friendship.

Natalia Ilyin responded to my article in her blog…

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