Smart Thoughts on Smart Design

It's rare that I find something of interest in a business school alumni magazine. But there's a remarkably thoughtful essay on design in the latest issue of the University of Toronto's School of Management alumni mag. It's written, no less, by the dean of the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin. He convincingly argues that business people don't just need to understand designers better — they need to become designers.

Writes Martin: "They need to think and work like designers, have attitudes like designers, and learn to evaluate each oher as designers do. Most companies' top managers will tell you that they have spent the bulk of their time over the last decade on improvement. Now it's no longer enough to get better; you have to 'get different.'"

So what does Martin suggest? As design skills and business skills converge, here's what we need to consider. "The skill of design, at its core, is the ability to reach into the mystery of some seemingly intractable problem—whether it's a problem of product design, architectural design, or systems design—and apply the creativity, innovation and mastery necessary to convert the mystery to a heuristic—a way of knowing and understanding...

"Traditional firms will have to start looking much more like design shops on a number of important dimensions...Whereas traditional firms organize around ongoing tasks and permanent assignments, in design shops, work flows around projects with defined terms. The source of status in traditional firms is 'managing big budgets and large staffs,' but in design shops, it derives from building a track record of finding solutions to 'wicked problems'—solving tough mysteries with elegant solutions. Whereas the style of work in traditional firms involves defined roles and seeking the perfect answer, design firms feature extensive collaboration, 'charettes' (focused brainstorming sessions), and constant dialogue with clients.

"When it comes to innovation, business has much to learn from design. The philosophy in design shops is, 'try it, prototype it, and improve it.' Designers learn by doing. The style of thinking in traditional firms is largely inductive—proving that something actually operates—and deductive—proving that something must be. Design shops adds abductive reasoning to the fray—which involves suggesting that something may be, and reaching out to explore it."

Makes great sense to me.

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  • Mark Zorro

    I think it would be a giant step forward if business people adapted a design framework in their business thinking but with the proviso that they don't mistake tactical design with strategic design (and there is an article in the same Rotman Alumni Magazine by Jeanne Liedtka which is on the right lines, even though I wish professors would stop using words like dialectic and abductive to describe their reasoning) for if one is pushing an argument for business people to adapt to a design mindset, then the focus of design should be on simplicity not added complexity.

    The other part missing from the articles on design is the one introduced some time ago by Micheal Schrage of MIT - that of simulation. Business simulations are a form of design so business is already using certain design criteria - its not all left brain (algorithmic processing) and its not all right brain (heuristics) either. The issue is that this design input has come with the paradigm shift required to incorporate technology into the business process - and management teams who are most design minded understand that business architecture is a design proposition, that strategy doesn't start from point of strategy but point of design. One can also argue that marketing is already a product of a design mindset and that progressive steps in marketing are more algorithmic than heuristic - i.e. the Sergio Zyman school of marketing which is moving marketing into being a more exact science rather than an art. So one has to be careful how we position design for the business person because art and science are finding their points of optimization in the current business landscape, but we shouldn't be coy about raising the petard for acceptance of right brain thinkers in the executive boardroom or devalue the need for left brain thinkers either - and we invariably do that by inferences, inferences that business people pick up much faster than wiley old professors do.

    (Mark Twain wasn't Mark Twain, Mark Zorro isn't Mark Zorro)

  • Theresa Quintanilla

    The "profitability" of good design has been recently research by the British Design Council:

    "The Design Council has recently completed an analysis of the performance of UK FTSE quoted companies over the last ten years, between 1994 and 2003, encompassing a long bull market period, from March 1995 to March 2000, the bear market period from March 2000 to March 2003, and the more recent recovery period. The key finding of the study is that a group of 63 companies identified to be effective users of design outperformed the FTSE 100 index over the full period by 200%, and also beat their peers in the recent bull and bear markets."

    Citation:, by way of Herman Miller DesignLink:, by way of ID,, by way of Xplane:

  • Steven Raft

    I've always considered the identification of an opportunity in a marketplace, the development (or design) of a strategic plan to exploit that opportunity, and then the design of an operational plan to allocate resources and execute to achieve that strategic plan an iterative design process that subject to the success in the marketplace may go back to the proverbial "drawing board" in order to exploit the opportunity yet more effectively and efficiently. This is similar to the design process of "try it, prototype it, and imporve it" mentioned in the the original post. Business leaders should recognize the similarity in process and encourage innovation in every way in order to improve the way their companies reach their markets - similar to product design and even ad design.