The Third Culture Way to Better Business Relationships

In 2008, 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. 

Culture 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. 

Over the 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.”

One of 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:

“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?”

There is 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.

As with 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.

First, let’s 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 outcomes.

On the 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.

Business people 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 return.

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 way.

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.

Because I 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 line result.

This 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 projects.


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