The toll of the bad economy is far greater than its direct economic impact. It affects virtually all elements of management, including the psyche of the personalities involved. Design, the less familiar and less established of corporate methodologies, is suffering a great deal from these strong undercurrents of turmoil. We are living through a crisis of confidence in Design.
Unfortunately, managing design has never been a prerequisite skill for any senior executive. The gut-instinct of some executives might be to push design away given today's harsh realities, and that's a big mistake! This is not the time to finger-point at the executive suite—designers' creed of "design management" share the blame. Design management "managed" to disassociate the credible persona from the top executives. If you wanted to win a market by design, the creed offered two paradigms: The Artist and the Process. Both are ineffective today.
The "Artist" can be defined as the business-model behind self-branded design stardom, with the requisite mannerism to justify the stature. The notion that publicity alone makes products fly off the shelf was defamed long ago as Target aborted Philippe Starck's product-line. The lesson was loud and clear: Products must deliver far more than mere association with stardom. With that in mind, execs will surely think twice before betting the farm on unruly flamboyance. Against that "unreliable" branded-personality design management, multidisciplinary agencies push the notion of large teams and a rigid process. The message of the process crowd is simplistic, "have a few more disciplines in place and we can create the winning product with the right design." Here comes the ethnographer and the strategist and the focus-group studies and the 500-page dissertations, and so on. I have yet to see any hard proof that these large processes yield higher rates of success in design. I have met more than a few large organizations that will not take this any longer. The process method managed to stifle creativity and nourish argumentative myopics while exhausting corporate budgets and personnel. The case of Doug Bowman, Google's just-resigned lead designer and the 41 shades of Blue sounds painfully familiar. As you churn out more creative work, more data-points and more "scientific" validation, your design never gets better. The process method justified large design budgets yet never reliably delivered. It catered to the corporate ladder that is now gone. It required time and the ability to commit resources that we've probably lost for the next decade.
What we need is a new/old model of wisdom, precision and accountability. The case here is for the design management styled after the old Meister—the trustworthy practitioner with the proven experience and the concurrent creative prowess. These Meisters (think IBM's Richard Sapper, or Apple's Jonathan Ives) operate in a way unrecognized and never acknowledged by the design management creed. They work in parallel to the corporate org charts with a small band of trusted designers. They are true consultants to the top-executives as they offer invaluable experience, decades of insight, personal integrity, confidentiality and trust that is critical to any major design or business decisions. Their ability to connect to the very top people and apply their design sensibility to the right problem is indispensable in our time.
Tasked to find one of these extraordinary personas, my advice is to look for three signs:
1. Can this designer maintain relationship for years? Ask for their track-record.
2. Can he or she deliver consistently? Verify the real-market performance of their work, not the talking-points of a PowerPoint presentation.
3. The disruptive question: What is the exact size of a detail in their latest success story? A true practitioner with hands-on command of details will answer right away—178mm.
Now you know who's reliable, effective and in full creative shape.
As hired-guns, both inside or outside the corporate boundaries, none of these master-designers is immune from personality slants. Yet they get the job done, deliver design reliably and know how to work their boss for the greater good of the company. In this new era of frugality and precision in design, instead of self-branded Artists or large agencies Process, it is time we embrace the design consiglieri.
Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.