How to Find a Design Consiglieri

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.

Read more of Gadi Amit's blog: The New Deal

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3 Comments

  • christopher delgado

    A good article. Touching on a topic that I have waded through at every step of my career. My journey has been hard fought, and one where my understanding of 178mm was also to know it to be +/- .5mm. Supplemental knowledge such as that often doesn't improve your "quality of career" and that drove me to my MBA in order to understand and position myself to deconstruct many prejudices surrounding designers and engineers.

    It is a reasonably easy conversation to have regarding the two types of design resources mentioned, including how they have grown in the ecosystem of the recent past, and the decision making processes that drive organizations to choose one or the other.

    However, I do find myself wanting in terms of more touchstones regarding the profile of "design consiglieri." By definition "consiglieri" infers criminal activity or part of an criminal organization. I have been part of design activities that were "off the books." The end results were often the same; orphaned innovation, and concepts that might align with top level strategy yet do not align with marketing or manufacturing plans and budgets. Further, putting VPs in positions where innovation was coming from activities other than theirs is not constructive. Therefore, is"consiglieri" a valid label?

    The three questions also intrigue me;

    "Can this designer maintain relationship for years?"

    Is this a measure of consistency of work? or is this a measure of consistency of the structure of the management? Consistency in Economic forces that drive corporate strategy?
    I say ask about he relationships and if they changed,why? What was made of the change? New opportunities?
    I have seen individual "trusted adviser" dynamics live and die, and just as a long lasting relationship can be envied, how often can a product line languish needing just a cosmetic refresh because a close relationship is short circuiting product life cycle management?

    "Can he or she deliver consistently? Verify the real-market performance of their work..."

    As an adviser to " the Capo" and part of an organization or group, where is "their work" fenced off?
    Further, how is that quantifiable in different markets? I concede that products in production past and present are an important metric however, design is just part of the brew by which items are brought to market. There are 4 other "P's" that need to be accomplished with as much skill.

    "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."

    Downside to that is "one-man-band", a "control freak", and or a "pathological drawing checker" will give you the right answer.
    Drill down! tell me about the tooling, tell me about your relationships with those resources!

    In general, the article is framing in a basic truth for product designers regardless of economic conditions.
    Unfortunately, the specifics of the definition of "consiglieri" opens the article to questions, and many will write it off as "who you know - not what you know"

    Best Regards,

    CHD

  • Gadi Amit

    Steven, I use the names to make a point: We need 'Credible Designer persona' more than Artists or Process. With that credibility comes the designer's professionalism, including the use of methodology, intuition and much more. Yet the key point is about the need for the right kind of design decision-making prowess.
    Best!

  • Steven Keith

    Gadi,
    Insightful read. Thank you. However, I cannot see how what you advocate can work, in reality.

    I believe one of those incessant problems with design management is that everyone who cares or seeks methods to address their own challenges is too unique or idiosyncratic to borrow workable insights, processes or anecdotes from all the great thinkers and practitioners out there. I wish I had a dollar for every time I had a client proclaim they're going to do the Sapper or Ives thing. Whatever that is. Is this the consiglieri you speak of?

    In the final analysis, I see a gorgeously articulated avalanche of design mgmt ideas, methodologies and articles anchored to edge cases like Apple, Google, IDEO and the like. They're easy to swan over and even fun. But, these edge cases are so disconnected from what will work for most. In fact, I see them doing potentially more harm than good. How many presentations at conferences do you see about really average companies that believe in the promises of design thinking but are struggling because they cannot bridge their "today reality" with the mythological fully integrated design business of tomorrow? There are good reasons why. I don't know that the design consiglieri can do what you say aside from the theoretical or shiny edge cases.

    What's valuable to my company in arranging a marriage between design and management is so different from most others trying to accomplish similar feats. Because I work hard to create defensibly differentiated design strategy and business models that are realistic. (I know, realistic is the arch nemesis of innovation.)

    I agree we need a model of wisdom (be it old or new) to help designers and their "less designerly" brethren manage these seemingly opposing frameworks. I just hope that we do so with the understanding that we are all different. Stretching to adopt a design management paradigm that most only see in theoretical planes, isn't going to work for them, me, many of my clients and others out there who probably aren't paying attention...yet.

    Aside from all that, I look forward to more of your insights.