Phew. On the couch at my apartment, wiped out from the first full day of learning, thinking, and occasional (no, copious) partying at Connecting ’07, the IDSA/ICSID Congress in San Francisco.
Synthesizing such an absurdly large undertaking (there were literally up to 12 sessions running at a time this afternoon) is impossible, so I’m going to keep this post brief and point to my biggest takeaways.
- Great data visualization can show the world as it really is, not as we imagine it to be. Hans Rosling of Gapminder officially blew my mind this morning. Click through to do likewise.
- No one has good answers around sustainability. I attended multiple lectures today about using design to effect change around sustainability, and they all left me unsatisfied. Some were very materials- or efficiency-oriented, others were focused on depressing statistics, but no one offered real hope for change. Alex Steffen from WorldChanging was an incredibly inspirational speaker, but his presentation didn’t provide concrete direction for designers. Shared property business models work very well for certain kinds of goods — cars, videos, homes — and really poorly for others: computers, TVs, furniture. They aren’t everything. And he implied they were. I hope someone has something more actionable on sustainability to say this week.
- Students are awesome. I had the pleasure to meet a young man named Joshua from Auburn’s product design program. He was so inspired and excited by everything around him, and he was also incredibly professional and put-together. Reminds me that I need to up my own game sometimes.
- Design is not design strategy. It’s easy to believe, based on the current discourse, that design is a unified field that applies to everything from the very front end of exploration to the final look of packaging, the ad campaign, and logos. Having talked with a lot of other people at the conference, we come from very different places. They really value the final artifact and the aesthetics above almost all else, and I come from a position about growth and moving the needle for the business — through the products, services and businesses that it gets into, the platform strategy, the overall portfolio. Just interesting.
- Designers view intuition differently from anyone else. I was at a good presentation this afternoon from Susanne Gibbs Howard of IDEO. She’s an anthropologist, and shared some case studies about the companies current process, which began with a fairly familiar process of ethnographic research, but then took a very odd turn. Essentially, designers at IDEO have complained that doing Human-Centered Design impinges on their creativity. They would rather be designing. So she’s created a practice called “Sacrificial Concepts” to bring design back to the front end and then gather feedback from people out in the world based on those concepts. We work this way, too, though we call them Pre-emptive Solutions, and the point is to surface assumptions about the area we’re exploring and move past them, not to constrain the area being considered. This Sacrificial Concepts notion was described as adding intuition to Human-Centered Design. I have to say, if you think intuition isn’t critical to Human-Centered Design, you have little business doing it. Intuiting people’s needs and walking in their shoes to know what’s a good idea and a bad idea in their world? The essence of good design in this realm. Just because the artifact doesn’t necessarily just represent whatever seems like a good idea to a designer at the time doesn’t make it lacking in art.
Phew. I’m bushed. Good night, and I’ll be back tomorrow!
By Pete Mortensen
Helen Walters wonders whether a current boom in the art world for the fine work of subversive graphic artists might portend a graphic turn in the business world. It’s an interesting notion, but there’s always a tension between success in the art world and the under-pinnings of a new booming industry.
However much I love their work, no one with any sense will ever hire Banksy or Stanley Donwood to do corporate identity work for them. They’re simply too subversive, and they would find a way to undermine and make ironic the output. It would be Nike ID running up against shoes with the word “Sweatshop” printed on it all over again.
As well-intentioned as business people are sometimes, they will always value very different outcomes than any pure artists they might hire. And Donwood and Banksy are quite different from the folks over at Pentagram. We are appreciated graphic art and design as fine art now. Will this translate to the business world more than it already has? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Filed under: Design Tensions
By Pete Mortensen
On BusinessWeek’s Next blog, Helen Walters poses a provocative question from Head Rotman-Man Roger Martin: “Is Design Dirty?” In other words, do designers freak business people out?
To be blunt, yeah. Because they don’t understand what we do, and far too often, we don’t get them either.
Right now, the burden of proof is on designers to prove to business that they aren’t the biggest flakes in the world. Granted, that’s a really difficult case to make, because as Roger points out, some things that really matter to designers are absolutely irrelevant and touchy-feely to business types.
So what should designers do about this burden of proof? Well, they should go right after it. The only reason designers are in a position to even get told by MBAs that they need to dress more professionally is because designers have pushed for decades to gain more influential roles. This doesn’t have to look like conformity — it can look like being shockingly competent at the most unexpected times.
Designers wished for a seat at the strategic and development table for years, and we’re here now. But now we actually have to do something with that opportunity. We could approach that challenge from a number of different directions. The one I favor most is to position design as a facilitator of conversations between critical stakeholders in a multi-disciplinary development program.
As much as we worry that engineers, marketers, supply chain-ers, six-sigma ninjas and executives don’t get us, these people often have trouble communicating with each other, too.
As designers, we need to be genuinely interested in people to create products and services that really connect with ordinary folks. We can carry that genuine interest in people over to our own organizations and work to understand what’s keeping all these folks with competing interests up at night. If we build those bridges and stay at the center of a consensus-building campaign, we become someone who “gets it.”
That’s our biggest problem right now: We face a million MBAs in charge of billion-dollar budgets who have no evidence that anyone else understands their plight, and we haven’t had great tools to make our cases and to look smart in a way that matters to these people at the top.
I’m not saying this is the only way to make headway, but it’s definitely an easy step in the right direction. If we do as Dale Carnegie advises in “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” we’ll, well, win friends and influence people.
(Image from Project Me)