We have a (design) problem

Let’s face it, design is still not where it should be. It’s not discussed, understood and appreciated to the extent it should be, considering the impact it has for organisations, businesses and in our everyday life. 

2018-12-20 – 7 min read

When fitting projects into budgets, design is rarely compromised or questioned. It’s often given due time, space and resources to “happen.” But do those who do the fitting - who are paying for design to happen - actually know what they are paying for? Considering designers are rarely sat around the same table as the budget fitters, surely they must know something about what they’re getting into? 

They might know that design is an essential part of a greater whole - like a dessert that follows a main, that follows a starter. Whereas a workshop would be the starter and concept work the main, design is the dessert - the taste you’re left with when leaving the table; the course you are most likely to remember; and ultimately, the dish that interests all diners. I have yet to come across anybody who doesn’t like cake.

However, like a designer working within the constraints of a concept, only the pastry chef knows what ingredients work given the prior courses. Yet, the work of a designer isn’t discussed and understood in equal measure with the courses that come before it. Something doesn’t add up.

“If people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient, or just happier, the designer has succeeded.”

Henry Dreyfuss, 1955

Table of titles 

In his book Designing for People, Dreyfuss pretty much defines what we know today as UX design, graphic design, interaction design, service design etc. But if we forget the various subcategories that designers pigeonhole themselves into on LinkedIn profiles and CV’s, Dreyfuss’ remarks ring true of all design. They also ring true of profitable business. 

Again, despite this likeness in their raison d’être, designers find themselves blacklisted from executive level discussions where “how do we make people buy more” must be central talking point.

It would be easy to interpret my cry as a demand for designers in higher positions. That it is not. Sure, it’s great if a Design or Creative Director is part of an executive team, helping CEO’s understand the scope of work and time it would take to do X or Y. However, a title shouldn’t be the only golden ticket to the table.

“From a high-level perspective, we are seeing a clear differentiation between the seniority levels implied in job titles and the actual impact designers are having in their organization.” 

Fabricio Teixeira & Caio Braga, 2018

Now that we’ve established what isn’t happening, as problem solver I feel obliged to propose a solution. 

Designing more than design 

A few weeks ago I attended the annual Slush conference here in Helsinki. As an experience it’s somewhere between the casino scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Disney Land for entrepreneurs, investors, students and tech-heads. The whole thing can be a bit overwhelming for a first-timer, but as their former Head of Design, I can wholeheartedly say that Slush is most of all educative. 

Incidentally or not, several of the discussions at this year's conference revolved around the relationships between designers and executives. And particularly in the context of branding and product development. 

“As opposed to speaking about design, speak about product development and customer experience.”

Lisa Lindström, 2018

A designer could, at an early stage, evaluate what features and aspects of a product are worthwhile investing in, speculating its potential for success. A designer could, at an early stage, assess where the real value lies for customers, thus avoiding major pivots later on. A designer should, at an early stage, be sent meeting invitations to their inbox.

Acknowledging a knowledge gap 

Another thing that stuck with me from Slush was how executives rarely see the benefits of an iterative approach to design. They often seek new features that have been mentioned by someone somewhere, instead of refining their own through research and feedback. 

Therefore the problem at hand isn’t solely about titles, but also about a shared knowledge and understanding that form the foundations of any healthy relationship. This is where we must take greater responsibly in communicating what we do, and why. 

The significance of user research - which goes hand-in-hand with successful design - needs to be communicated and understood at the tables we aren’t currently sat around. Iterations are how designers keep themselves in check. It’s a means to ensuring our work meets your expectations, 'making you safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient or just happier.' 

“Good design needs to come from the very top. If the CEO doesn’t really care about it, then it’s not going to happen.”

Irene Au, 2018

To listen to good designers talking about good design, I would encourage you to watch The Frontiers of Design - a short film created and produced by Doberman. The film premiered at Slush and it includes 20 interviews with influential designers working at some of the world’s leading organisations and agencies. The individual interviews can be watched at frontiersfilm.com.

We need to talk about design. More.  

At the end of the day, whether you’re a CEO, CFO, lead designer or a graphic design intern, everyone talks design to some degree. Everyone thinks design. Anyone can design. But it’s our responsibility to stand up for design where it matters most for businesses. That is, before the eyes of consumers. But before that, before our desserts are served to the salivating, we need to stand up for design at executive tables. 

There is no solution that we can just plug and play, expecting to find chairs being pulled up for us left, right and centre. Much like design, this is a process. What the Frontiers of Design as well as this piece will hopefully do, is spark much needed conversations about what we can do differently, so that design is better understood by all.

So, here’s to conversations. Conversations about how we go about creating desserts that make people happier, more comfortable and leave them wanting more. For these are the conversations through which we can make strides to be sat around plenty more tables in the years to come.

My Slush highlights

"The Role of Design in Tech"

w/ Lisa Lindström, Co-founder & CEO of Doberman & Caroline Hardy, Senior Design Lead at SoundCloud & Matt Jones, Principal Designer at Google AI

"A Conversation between Designer and Product Manager"

w/ Bradley Horowitz, VP of Product Management at Google & Irene Au, Design Partner at Khosla Ventures

"Building a Brand from Scratch"

w/ Sophia Bendz, Partner at Atomico & Arnd Mueller, VP of Marketing at Lilium & Natasha Lytton, CMO at Seedcamp & Babba C Rivera, Founder and CEO of ByBabba

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Written by

Sami Hakkarainen

Sami is a Designer at Motley

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