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This is the one skill designers need to develop most in 2020

Legendary designer Don Norman takes designers to task for elevating craft above all else, when what matters most is the willingness to collaborate.

This is the one skill designers need to develop most in 2020
[Photo: Iamstocker/iStock, Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash]
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In his annual Design in Tech report in 2019, my good friend and design visionary John Maeda declared that “design is not that important.” He is wrong, but also correct. Let me explain.

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In his assessment, Maeda is not damning design—he is damning the wrong kind of designer. For technology companies, the wrong kind of designer can be pernicious, but the right kind of design (and designer) is essential.

Let me start by rephrasing his declaration to cover every discipline inside a company—marketing, sales, technology, manufacturing, service, etc.—where any one discipline is “X.” What Maeda was saying was that “‘X’ is not that important.” He is correct. Every discipline is important to the company (or else they wouldn’t be there), but no single aspect of a company is the most important. The best products are made by a collaborative team.

Maeda’s descriptions of designers forcing their will upon the company is an example of designers who put themselves above all others. This is bad, he said (although not in those words). Of course, it is bad—but why should it only apply to designers?

Well, here is one reason: Designers often lack the skills of teamwork, or mutual discussion, and of compromise. Oh sure, designers work in teams and often compromise, but only when the team is made up of designers. But designers need to learn to compromise with programmers, engineers, sales, marketing, service, manufacturing, and of course, management. Many do not wish to do this. In this sense, they are similar to the other disciplines, but worse.

What is wrong with designers? Much of this disinclination to collaborate is rooted in their education—especially if they were trained in schools of art and design. Design is not art. The value systems are different. The skills required are different. A designer needs to understand the world, business models (margins, basic finance, and accounting), marketing, sales, manufacturing, and service. And of course, designing technology that people can use, understand, and take delight in. If the designer is developing a service or a business model, then the designer must consider all the myriad kinds of people, organizations, and frameworks that need to come together to produce smooth, cohesive, delightful results. No discipline, not design nor any of the ones that are “X,” can do this alone: They must form collaborative teams with the other disciplines.

The goals of the organization should be foremost in the mind of the employees, whether designer, engineer, marketing person, or executive. Each discipline usually focuses on one dimension of the complex mix of issues that are important for the company. What do the customers need? This is one of the questions for designers. What do customers want, and how much will they pay? These are questions for marketing. Will the product work properly, be reliable, and be delivered at a reasonable cost? These are important issues for engineers. Will the price be right and will the end result deliver value for everyone? This is something everyone must focus on. Will it be easy to understand and to use—especially when something goes wrong? Here is where good design can reduce service costs, to say nothing of customer frustration. And will the end result enhance people’s trust in the company?

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I am pleased to say that I know many designers who do not fit Maeda’s categorization, including Maeda himself. But these designers are rare: They were able to escape their training and learn to think broadly. In many cases, they started off with degrees outside of design—something that we might require of all designers. Yes, many designers do play important roles in companies, but their life might have been easier had they been trained better. And many designers never escape from their lack of general, broad knowledge. That is why we must change design education. We are in the 21st century, and although the craft skills of many designers still produce wonderful results, the world needs much more than that. We need designers who can tackle major social issues. Designers whose creative thinking can move us forward. Designers who recognize that no single discipline can solve the major problems facing us; instead it will require that designers work with scientists, engineers, businesspeople, ethicists, planners, developers, and politicians.

We need to teach designers the importance of teamwork with the other disciplines. You can’t design a great product without a collaborative team of every discipline, where everyone is willing to make compromises if they will benefit the customers and the company’s profitability. I worked at Apple in the “between Jobs” era, and even though we had the best product in the world of computers, we were going bankrupt. I learned many lessons from that experience. For example, it doesn’t matter how good your product is if people won’t buy it. And you can say that about everything. Why was Apple failing? Ah, that’s a wonderful topic for late-night drinking parties. As for me, I have my answers, but the proper treatment would require a book, and although I do write books, I probably will not write this one. I prefer books that show optimism, that talk about what we need to do for the future. I do not dwell on the past.

So why do I say that Maeda is correct? He is correct when he talks about many of today’s designers. Why? Because of the way they are educated. To correct this deficiency, we have to change the way we educate designers.

Today, most design training focuses upon the design skills that produce wonderful craft. For some kinds of designers, this is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Design training seldom includes business principles, the role of evidence, ethics, and the havoc that our design creates all around the world.

We destroy the environment by mining rare materials we use to make our gadgets. We destroy the environment in manufacturing and shipping, and we destroy the environment in making products that only last a few years, with materials that cannot be readily separated and reused. The results are catastrophic for all of humankind. These are all important issues for designers, because it is the stuff that they design that leads to many of these problems. But we cannot put all the blame on designers: They are the soldiers, not the generals. Designers currently play a small role in this because they seldom are in a position to decide what products should be produced. But with better training, we might see more designers in the c-suites of companies, and chief design officers could bring these issues to light.

How do we change education in design? I’m working on this. For one thing, we have to separate designers from art schools and departments. And we have to ensure that designers have a broad education about history, ethics, and civilization. They need better education on science and technology. And they need to recognize the importance of system thinking. We cannot just concentrate on the small—we also have to think big.

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This requires a major shift in design education: a new set of curricula, a new depth of understanding. But watch this space. I hope that in the next few years we will see movement in this direction, for although we need a revolution, there are many willing revolutionaries who can gather together to make powerful changes for the good. It will take time, because the proper revolution will change the curricula of design schools all over the world. But other disciplines have made this change: medicine, law, and business all are examples of disciplines that in the past century or so made major changes in their approach to education. They are all excellent models.

There is no single, simple answer to how we will make the change. In the three disciplines I listed above, it took diligent work by many people, followed by several decades before most educational institutions changed. Now it is design’s turn.

I hope to prove John Maeda wrong, and I hope one of the people who will help me do so is John Maeda.