I led the AIGA Design Expedition to China. We were 30 U.S. designers visiting
two Chinese design and advertising firms each day for two weeks. On the
spectrum of cultural difference, American and Chinese cultures are at opposite
ends, but I still felt more kinship with the Chinese designers we visited
than I did with many of my non-designer family and friends in the United
States. This and other experiences on the trip helped me recognize that there
is a strong designer culture that extends beyond international borders.
is essentially the way a group solves problems, but that process often becomes
invisible to those within a culture. However, when a member of one group
comes into contact with another group that solves the very same problems
differently, the result is often frustration, even anger. This response is very
emotional and it can be difficult to resolve. It’s below the surface, because
culture is below the surface.
years, I have heard many designers complain about their clients, whether
internal or external:
“They are always shooting down the best ideas.”
“They tell me exactly what they want. I’m just a pair of
hands to run the software.”
“It’s always, ‘Make the logo bigger.’”
“We’re trying to help them and they just don’t get it.”
the top issues raised year after year is designers’ desire for the business
community to value design more. And yet I have also seen people in
business management express frustration at the outcomes of working with
“Designers are only concerned about winning awards.”
“The design looks good, but I can’t read it.”
“Their ideas are always pushing some boundary; I just want
the thing to work.”
“The piece looks great, but where is the bottom line?
What’s the strategy? How is this going to lead to new business?”
a lot of emotion and frustration, it seems, between the design and business
communities. It’s a classic culture clash. Designers and business people
need one another, but they see the world through very different lenses.
any cultural difference, the solution is to build a bridge—to establish a
third culture that respects the two distinct cultures and provides a way of
turning difference into opportunity. In fact, I would suggest that the product
of this third culture collaboration may be more productive than the work
independently produced by either group.
take a look at some of the ways in which design and business cultures are
different. In my view, designers are focused on communication, emotion and
beauty. We are adept at synergizing input from many different sources and
working to influence our audience on emotional and cognitive levels. We are
comfortable going into the creative process without knowing what the outcome
will be—the solution may come from anywhere. I believe most designers put their
clients first and are not focused on winning creative awards over business
other hand, designers don’t always hit the mark. Sometimes things get out of
balance. Sometimes designers focus too much on type as a visual element,
neglecting readability. I once observed an agency that believed controversy was
the best way to get people to pay attention to a conservative financial brand,
but most of the pieces that designers initially presented actually offended the
clients. The result was that the clients felt they needed to give stronger
direction. In the end, the work was brought to the lowest common denominator
and neither side was happy.
can be very practical; they are focused on numbers. In the business community
you have individuals with finance, legal, accounting and operations training.
(We’ll set marketing aside.) Each of these disciplines has tremendous strengths
and brings value to the table. Finance people want to strengthen the bottom line.
Attorneys focus on precedent and worst-case scenarios. Operations people are
good at developing and following processes that create efficiencies. All of
these things are important to the overall business. On the other hand, business
culture tends to focus on triumph, so it’s only natural that business people
tend to think in terms of a winner and a loser. They want things to be linear
and predictable and they want to know how their investment is going to bring a
So how do
we build a bridge between these two cultures? I recommend that we, as
designers, take the first step toward understanding the other. In a successful
third culture, the object is to make the invisible visible—to discern the
motives, values and patterns that are normally below the surface. This doesn’t
mean you have to go to counseling with your client (whether internal or
external), but it does mean doing some homework, listening closely and
explaining yourself more carefully.
At my day
job, I lead an in-house marketing and communications team at a community bank.
I consider the attorneys, finance, compliance and operations people I work with my business partners. The first thing I do is to show an interest in their
area, and I try to make sure I look at things from their perspective once in a
while. I work hard to manage my budget. I work with our general counsel to
understand what he is looking for in a good contract and I do my best to get my
vendor contracts in shape before I send them to him for review. I try to look for
compliance issues and bring them up first, so our compliance officer doesn’t
feel he is the only line of defense.
I also built a
marketing dashboard that includes customer attrition and retention, as well as products
per customer. The PR report shows not only impression counts, but also a
positive or negative tone score and a prominence index. I also work very hard
to quantify a bottom-line ROI analysis for as many marketing projects as
possible. So far, I have only succeeded in measuring 10 to 18 percent of my
marketing budget directly down to the profit line, but this effort goes a long
Finally, I write a lot of memos explaining whatever it is that I am proposing to do. These
include as much data and analysis as possible, but it’s the simple act of
putting my proposal down on paper that makes the difference. The business people
I work with respond much better to written communication than verbal
communication. A story or a conversation that gets the design team excited
comes across as hype to the business folks. The very same idea, when documented on
paper, is taken much more seriously.
make these efforts to move in the direction of business culture, I earn my
business colleagues’ trust, and their understanding that I have their best interests
at heart. They feel I’m working on the business in ways they see as valuable. I
can then leverage that trust and look for opportunities to explain why it’s
important to follow certain creative processes. I don’t assume they will
automatically value or understand the way my team goes about things. I need to
ask for a little faith and leeway sometimes. I explain that a large portion of
the work we do will never be directly measurable to the bottom line, but I do
show how one measure leads to another, which eventually leads to the bottom
third-culture approach has been very successful for me, and I’ve made progress
with many skeptics in other departments. There are still a few tough nuts that
don’t want to crack, but there are others, even attorneys, who have become
valuable marketing collaborators. My team and I have gained enough respect and
trust from our business peers that we’re afforded autonomy on creative
direction, in large part because we’re correctly perceived as being aligned
with corporate strategy and purpose. I first moved their way; now many have met
me halfway. They’ve also come to appreciate the value the communications team
provides to the company. And because our frustrations are now fewer and farther
between, my team and I are now able to fully bring our expertise to bear on our
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