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Designing Business; Businessing Design

Before I used computer-aided design to create products, I had pencils. Before I had pencils, I had Legos. Before Legos, crayons. Before crayons, blocks. And with these tools, I have always been a designer.

The act of exploring alternate ideas, prototyping them, testing them and then breaking them down in search of new ideas has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. It is a way of being that shapes everything I value, everything I do and the way I see the world.

That's probably why it's always a little surprising to me when non-designers find my way a novel—or even useful—way of experiencing life.

I just spent two days at a conference held in San Francisco by the venerable Design Management Institute. The conference, entitled Re-Thinking...Design, was a meeting of about 200 designers and business managers gathered to explore how the practices and processes of design are influencing business.

Leaders from the world of business spoke about how the designers have had it right all along. It's the analytical orientation of business training that is getting in the way of effective business, they argued.

Edson DMI
From left to right: Roger Martin, dean, Rotman School of Management, U of Toronto; conference co-chair Darrel Rhea, CEO, Cheskin Added Value; conference co-chair Thomas Lockwood, President DMI

"The world of business is absolutely ready for design. And designers are selling themselves short," said Scott Cook, founder of Intuit. Cook shared with the group about his growing awareness of the importance of listening to customers. At some point after Quicken's enormous success, their customer research revealed that an enormous number of respondents were using Quicken at work. It didn't make sense: It was a personal finance product. After ignoring the findings for three years, Cook finally decided to dig deeper. It turned out that small business owners were in fact using it to manage their business finances rather than using more complex software aimed at accountants. Intuit immediately created QuickBooks, which shot to number one in the business accounting software category in its first month.

Empowering the drive to create products aimed at the needs of real people is this question: Does the business culture favor conversation—or is it stuck in hierarchical control? Classic business management education values control and it depends on deductive reasoning to create that control. "The most important business transformations cannot be proven before they are undertaken," promotes Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. "Analytical and deductive reasoning practices in business destroy value."

Scott Cook continued with an example from another successful company that values the conversation over control. "Toyota is empowering design at all levels." They use an "emergent" model of leadership. They "let the customer vote instead of the boss voting."

Claudia Kotchka, former VP of Innovation at Proctor & Gamble, then used one of my favorite phrases: "Design is more than just making products pretty." Other designers repeated this refrain in their own ways. But at the same time, nearly all of us admitted that we each have an almost instinctive process of designing that is never regular or predictable or repeatable—the opposite of the kind of operations-oriented culture that business craves. Some even eschewed the idea that designers need to learn the language of business.

In my view, it's crucial for business to awaken to the powers of design. I don't think that future enterprises will be able to connect to customers or remain competitive without increasingly fluid and agile management practices that respond more to the idiosyncrasies of real people than to the current fiscal quarter's numbers.

But when it comes to the profession of design, discovering and answering the unmet needs of customers requires a designer's ability to move beyond the expected. It's our job to to create these wonderful expressions, giving personality to a company and delight to the customer.

What do you see as the role of design in business?

Read more of John Edson's Powers of Design blog
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As a seasoned product developer with a background in both analytical and creative thinking, John Edson's primary role is to build new programs for clients with the right innovation processes led by the right creative team to make a real difference for clients. His experience includes managing the birth of successful products for Philips, Motorola, InFocus, and several startups. Products developed under John's management have been honored with accolades from the ID Magazine Design Annual, the Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award, iF Hannover, PC Magazine's Editor's Choice Award, and IDSA's Industrial Design Excellence Award.

Developing the contribution of design creativity and innovation process in the service of business, society and the environment, John explores the impact of design creativity in a weekly podcast, Icon-o-Cast, that he hosts with guest speakers ranging from Business Week's Bruce Nussbaum to author and cognitive scientist Don Norman. John is also a regular speaker, having lectured at Wharton School, given a keynote at Intertech's Flexible Display Technologies conference, and participated in a talk for the Business Marketing Association of Northern California. A lecturer at Stanford, John teaches courses in product design and creativity.