What Design Can’t Do
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 morale).
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 by science. 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.
What design can do
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.