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Years ago, inspired by something I heard Terry
Irwin describe, I created a diagram to explain to clients just
where design fits into their business plan. It was as much about
managing expectations as it was about selling the value of design.
This is how it works:
Concentric model of a strong brand. Only the inner layers affect
the outer, not the other way around.
At the center of any organization is its
leadership—an individual or small group of
partners on whose vision the organization is founded. The leader is
the heart. The core.
Next are the people—the managers, directors,
employees, members, volunteers, etc., who believe in the leader's
vision. They contribute their own qualifications, expertise and
perspectives to the organization, but most importantly they
participate in a shared purpose.
After that is the product. The product is the
thing that the people make. They make it well when they share a
common purpose. They share a common purpose when the leadership
unites them around a compelling vision.
The product (which can also be a service) must be supported by a
strategy. The strategy is the plan that will help
deliver the product to the right people in the right way.
Finally, there is design. Design is the
language that supports the strategy that promotes the product,
which is imagined by people that believe in the vision.
If you want to be a brand, I tell clients, you must work
from the inside out. A great logo isn't going to make a shitty
product any less shitty, any more than a hard worker is going to
make a bad boss a compelling leader. In this model, the inner
layers affect the outer ones, not the other way around (with the
possible exception that a well-articulated brand can help employees
feel pride in their organization which can, for a time, boost
Critics will say that this is an outmoded view of design—one
that relegates the designer to the role of a stylist who merely
dresses up an idea after all the hard decisions have been made.
They will argue that design—particularly “design thinking”—should
permeate all levels of an organization, that designers should have
a seat at the table. That's true. And it's false.
It's true because a design methodology can be useful in
identifying need, discovering opportunity, developing insight and
driving innovation. It's false because the elements that drive the
success of an organization are two layers deeper than most
designers are equipped to go. Generally speaking, we don't have the
skills to train bosses to be leaders. Generally speaking, we don't
have the skills to truly, fundamentally inspire a workforce or
volunteer base. That's the leader's job. To make it ours is both
presumptuous and undermining. The designer who wants a seat at the
table must first acknowledge who put the table there in the first
place. And who built the room it's in.
This doesn't mean that designers are simply form-givers, and it
doesn't preclude us from developing deeper engagements with our
clients. Companies and organizations routinely and necessarily rely
on design to capture and attract people to the truth of who they
are. Graphic designers do this visually. Interaction designers do
this by creating experiences. Architects do it with spaces. And so
on. The accomplished designer, then, is expert at utilizing their
skills to enroll others in a vision that radiates from the inside
out. That inside out part is key. It's a conclusion I came to based
on observation and intuition, but which, it turns out, is supported
Simon Sinek's recent TED talk is probably the clearest and most
compelling explanation of the biology of why this is true,
and Debbie Millman's well-researched presentation “Why
We Buy, Why We Brand,” also dovetails tightly with this
concept. I recommend seeing them both.
The designer occupies a powerful space, mediating the interface
between brands and the context in which they live.
Where this model is deceiving is that it suggests that design
comes in at the end of the process. In fact, there is another ring
beyond design where the consumer lives. There is a ring beyond that
that represents the affiliations of that consumer, then a ring for
society, then a ring for culture and so on. Design, then, is at the
center of another process—that of mediator between consumer and
product, between message and audience. It is a position of such
profound influence and such limitless potential that I've never
understood why so many designers seem so reluctant to fill it.
This article was originally published onChristopher Simmons'
blogfor his class at the California College of the
Arts. It has been modified slightly for this forum.
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