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Readers respond: Is design as important as we think it is?

Last week, John Maeda told Fast Company that “in reality, design is not that important.” Here’s how readers responded.

Readers respond: Is design as important as we think it is?
[Photo: Hal Gatewood/Unsplash]

In his annual Design in Tech report, design luminary John Maeda made a radical claim: that designers should be the supporting actors of a company, rather than taking on the leading role.

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As Maeda told Fast Company in an interview published last week, he thinks design-led companies are flawed because these organizations tend to privilege design at the cost of other elements that are crucial to building a product–namely, engineering and product management. “I have friends at all the companies and I kept hearing about ‘design-led’ and all that and it got me excited. I was pushing for it,” he said. “Years later now, I’m in a phase where I realize that [advocacy] was really important, but in reality, design is not that important.”

It’s a provocative stance given Maeda’s history. He’s currently the head of inclusion and computational design at WordPress parent company Automattic, and has long advocated for the importance of design in business. It also proved controversial within the design community. We asked Fast Company readers to write to us with their comments on his position; here’s a selection of their most thoughtful responses.

Forget design-led or engineering-driven: Companies should be customer-led

“Thank you for this provocative article. After working hard over the past five years on establishing a design-led culture in our company, it was irritating to read this but at the same time it echoes a doubt that was growing inside of me for a while now. Do we want design to really lead the product development process? Would it be better if design would be just another supporting function to development or product management?

“I profoundly question this. I understand the problem with putting design in the lead. ‘Design-led’ is as limited as ‘engineering-driven’ or ‘market-driven.’ A product can only be successful if it unites excellent engineering and market-impact with great design. It is the combination of those three qualities that create great products; drop one and success becomes accidental.

“Therefore, I believe that setting design back to a supporting role to engineering or product management is not the right solution.

“If there is anyone who leads, it is the customer. Engineering, product management, design, as well as any other role all are just supporting roles to the customer. Successful companies intuitively get this and stop wasting energy in discussing dominance of one role over the other. The success of the product relies on all three parties contributing their best in collaboration, each role providing their unique and valuable perspective and advocating for it.” — Kai Richter, chief designer, SAP Design

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Code must be considered

“I have been an advocate of Dr. Maeda’s for years, and, yes, again I am agreeing with his views. A functional integrated group creates a successful project. No one idea drives the team other than the working successful deployment of the project. The difficulty is that today the projects/products are mainly virtual not physical so almost anything can be proposed. Materials (today, code) are almost unlimited, which leads to hubris. So in reality–executable code needs to be considered. I would advocate for an evolving form of code–a bit AI–but not too much.” Patrick Aievoli, associate professor, Design and Digital Technologies Dept., Long Island University

Airbnb shows why “design-led” works

“John Maeda made some excellent points in his opinion that designers should focus more on being better teammates instead of trying to take over. Designers originally just wanted a seat at the table, and in some instances it has morphed into a need for control. However, John’s view lends itself towards a rejection of ‘designer-led’ vs. ‘design-led.’

“I will use the same example the article used, which is Airbnb–which is the antithesis to your example of Jawbone. Alex Schleifer can somewhat afford to have his designers in a ‘supporting actor’ role [that] focuses on good design because they put the user perspective in the product manager’s hand. The reason this works is because Airbnb is a design-led company at its core. The founders are RISD grads who understand the value of user perspective and good design. This is not always the case at companies that are product- or engineering-led because they can tend to focus on their foundation and ingrain that in the core of the company. This can lead to more of a focus on cool tech with quality code or just following the dollar or vanity metrics devoid of outcomes.

“It is in these cases where advocacy and ‘getting a seat at the table’ are still quite important. I believe there is value in a company being design-led, engineering-led, or product-led. The key is making sure all perspectives are still represented so we are creating quality, human-centered products that solve a need and resonate with customers or users.” Dane Robertson, product design manager, Capital One

“The failures Mr. Maeda is describing are the result of design culture”

“I understand the concept of a catchy headline, but Mr. Maeda’s perspective could end up misleading decision-makers: I have to respectfully suggest that the problem is not with companies that are design-led, it’s with companies that are design culture-led. Design, by its very nature and definition, is never the problem. Bad design almost always is.

“I’m a multidisciplinary designer with about 20 years’ experience across several industries, and I’m sensing a perpetual (and accelerating) misrepresentation of ‘design.’ I think this sentence sums up my main issue: ‘Worrying too much about whether design has enough influence over a product or a company distracts from the real vision: making great products that solve people’s problems.’ Design IS problem-solving. Great designers ARE focused on making great products that solve people’s problems.

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“The failures Mr. Maeda is describing are the result of a design culture—the kind of tumorous-if-natural product of any group of specialists. He’s spot-on about ‘the microworld of high-fives,’ but that’s not the same thing as design, which is increasingly bastardized by self-aggrandizing online hubs, where countless Adobe jockeys stew in pixel-perfect douchery. Companies shouldn’t step away from the whole concept of design-led just because a percentage of egomaniacal designers have squirmed their way to the top.

“The professional world simply needs to hit refresh on the definition of design. Yes, please: restructure! Make strong teams of collaborative problem-solvers from diverse areas of expertise. That IS design. So let’s call THAT ‘design-led’ and move forward.” Mitch Baker, freelance designer, mitchlogo.com

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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