Design’s Glass Ceiling

Having spent the last six and a half years working in-house for financial services companies, I have seen many sides of the relationship between design and business. From my own experiences, it seems that corporate America sees design as a service rather than a collaborator to the business process, thus the value of design is frequently discounted. I can't count the number of times I've been told it isn't important for me to be in the initial project meeting with a client. Important enough for the writer to be there but not the designer? I've pushed my way into more client meetings than I'd like to admit and personally, I'm a little exhausted from what's become essentially a solo effort.

In the beginning (1999), when we presented our design solutions to our London-based head of branding for approval, I felt that design was considered an important part of our business strategy. There was always a sound business rationale provided for any changes we had made and as we grew in the relationship, the design team pushed beyond the 'given standards' and developed solutions that were more applicable to the needs of our business and its goals than the standards manual. While I haven't measured the ROI of our efforts, our getting around the perceived design illiteracy of American management proved a worthy effort. A perfect, and the most rewarding, example was our divisions' pocket folder.

Our clients were asked to adopt a blue on blue (PMS 286) pocket folder with the visual being a blurry globe with the center being the only part that was in focus (the particular world region. I was concerned that this solution wouldn't work for our American audience. So I presented an alternative, first to our sales group (they “liked” the color better), and then to our branding group in London. The layout guidelines were followed but the folder was a flood of PMS 877 with a strong image of planes, buildings, and financial symbols. (This was two years before the tragedies of Sept. 11. That image today would most likely not be approved for use.)

The comp was sent to London for approval. The approver of materials was about to reject it when the global head of branding saw it, thought it worked, and approved it for use in the US. Even better, our team no longer had to send London our designs for approval. We'd earned the respect to do our work without oversight and it was clear that our co-workers in London understood the role of design. We had earned their respect as a designers who understood the needs of the business and could be expected to create work that met those needs.

When I moved over from the retail side of the business to the institutional business, things changed. London was out of the picture and all the decision makers were US executives. I had to become not only a design educator to upper management, including our head of marketing, but even to my own boss who was a writer. As I alluded to in the beginning, this mission of mine, to “sell” the power of design internally, has been a two years project.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, the lack of respect for design(ers) in corporate America once again was all too apparent. A headhunter contacted me about a 'marketing' position with a major mutual fund company in the US; the position would oversee the creative efforts, support the brand and work with sales to help promote a specific sales channel. Based on my own experience in the financial services industry, the headhunter told me I was a great candidate for the job. The outcome was the hiring managers didn't feel I was 'senior' enough, which the headhunter put as 'your resume is all design.' Peter Phillips, of the Design Management Institute, pointed out the thinking of American management when he wrote, “hearing from the nondesign managers, who said they did not understand design well and therefore did not value it.”(1)

Even as “Design” has been pushed into the American conscious, or at least the mainstream media, with articles in Business Week, Fast Company and Time, the majority of corporate America does not value the role of design in their organizations. (It is interesting to note that most of these articles or special issues rarely mention graphic design.) In comparison, much of Europe and the Far East have a clear understanding and respect for design and the power it has as a cultural force. I'm reminded of a story about a group of designers discussing the topic of “What is Design” and a woman of Asian descent sat quietly as the group chattered. Finally, as the discussion was wrapping up the group leader asked the woman if she had anything to add. She said, “I'm from Japan. We already know what design is. I want to know what we want to do with it.” And if you just look at companies like Sony, Nokia, and Mini Cooper, you quickly understand that these are companies that understand and respect the value of design.

But it was not always this way in American business. Recently Design Observer wrote a post about a time when some large corporations encouraged and supported the use of design. It seemed like a time when design was seen as a collaborative and shared function of business and society as a whole. In 1946, Walter Paepcke, then CEO at Container Corporation of America (CCA) wrote:

“Artists and businessmen, today as formerly, fundamentally have much in common and can contribute the more to society as they come to complement their talents...It should be made easy, remunerative and agreeable for the artist to 'function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant. The artist and the businessman should cultivate every opportunity to teach and supplement one another, to cooperate with one another, just as the nations of the world must do.”

Thirty-one years later, Walter Hoving, then chairman of Tiffany & Co., attempted to bring the most influential designers, business leaders, and educators of that era to an understanding of their interdependence. His vision of design was that while it may not be obvious, design had a direct impact on a corporation's bottom line. In order to further this vision, he organized a lecture series at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. It was his hope that this series would “serve as an inspiration for business leaders, students and all of us concerned with promoting the highest standards of excellence.”

Kathleen Formosa, of the New School, and Steven Kroter, former chair, Design and Management Department at Parsons School of Design, researched in 2002 how future business leaders were being educated in terms of the role of design in business. Their research led to a conclusion that I don't find surprising. “According to our recent review of top-tier American MBA programs6 we found that not a single one addressed or incorporated design into its curricula in any significant way. Even in those programs focused on marketing and branding, curricular attention to the principles or theories of design is cursory, at best. We view the result of this omission to be an epidemic of design illiteracy in the ranks of mid- and upper-level [management].”(2)

What's lead to this change in the attitude of business leaders in terms of the value of design? How did we get from the Paepcke's and Hoving's of the 20th century to today's brand sensitive but design ignorant business leaders? Clearly there are firms that value design, including Tiffany, Apple, Nike, Target and others. But why do they seem to be in the minority? Have we as designers failed to build the case for the value of design in corporate America? (I would avoid the blaming-it-on-the-computer thing.) Is there an inherent problem in America with understanding design and its value? And if there was a more thorough understanding of the power of design in the past, what happened? How did the 'knowing what design is' become such a mystery to American business?

A lot of questions, but they are important ones as we work towards moving our profession ahead. These are problems that we all face and share. They aren't going to go away unless we find a way to solve them and redefine design's standing in the business world. And that's what we do best, solve problems and deliver solutions. That's what we do for our clients, now we need to do it for our profession and ourselves.

Some solutions that are being implemented to change perceptions and inform clients and management include having clients complete a design brief. This allows them to understand that there is process to design and it's not a case of, “let's jump on the computer and see what happens,” as well as tuning the designers into the business goals of a project. Additionally, I've worked to spread word of our successes outside our immediate group. This has generated work from groups outside our division, which I consider a success for the design group. Another change is that the word “like” is out of the equation in meetings. Solutions are presented the in terms of the goals setout in the brief and the key word is that it “works” for the business. A charge-back system, which I think will bring something that all business people understand to the equation, monetary value is now on the table. This last point I struggle with because I don't necessarily agree that an internal unit, that's acting as a partner in the business process, should charge back, but this I think is becoming a liability. So, despite my reservations, I'm beginning to think that a link between the design costing something and viewing design as something of value, are intrinsically linked. Of course, the quality has to be there too. Finally, and most importantly, the name of our department does not contain the word “Art.” We are called the Strategic Design Group and we work to remind everyone we can, every time we can, that without design, the business strategy of most corporation's isn't much different than most of their competition's.

First published on SpeakUp 


1 “Lessons from the Trenches: Insights from Design Management Seminars,” Peter Phillips, Design Management Journal, Summer 2002

2 “Toward Design Literacy in American Management: A Strategy for MBA Programs,” Kathleen Formosa and Steven Kroeter, Design Management Journal, Summer 2002