Design has changed. Designers, not quite.

It has become clear to (almost) everyone by now that the word design does not simply fit into the “beautification of objects” slot any longer. A great deal has already been done, and continues to be done, to take Design to a more holistic level, positioning it as a problem-solving approach for companies, governments, and society in general. Results are already showing up as more and more companies include design as part of their primary focus, and as design starts to climb up the ladder on these corporations to become a central part of their strategy.
But what about us designers? Have we stepped out of “Designland” yet? Sadly, for the many of us, the answer is still no.

Even as Design Thinking gains importance in the strategy of large corporations worldwide, and more executives embrace it, designers on those companies are not necessarily ready for the climbing.

As a Design Thinking professor at ESPM business school, and responsible for the Service Design discipline of the Branding MBA at Fundação Rio Branco (both business schools in São Paulo, Brazil), I feel fortunate to be able to help designers, executives, and entrepreneurs take their first steps on the Design Thinking path. Over the last few years, I have become personally involved in guiding some of my students in developing their theses, rethinking their professional and academic ambitions, or just quitting their lame design jobs in order to find something more meaningful in which they can apply their newly acquired mindset and transform things for the better.

Yes, I do stand firmly behind the fact that we need designers moving up to senior management decision levels, but, truth be told, not every designer is fit for the job. I would even go a bit further than that and state that in actuality, most designers are not ready.

Who should we blame for this? Well, if we were to start pointing fingers, blame would go to, among others, design education; “do-it-for-yesterday” advertising agencies; the complex organizational boundaries that prevent “normal” people from accessing the golden streets of Designland; the fact that most designers are design-centered; and lots of other well-known and sometimes polemical issues. But I will not take that road here; instead, I’d rather try to explain my point of view on what needs to be changed, so that we designers can become a relevant part of the revolution we ourselves have ignited.

Although I am sure this is only a partial list, I believe that these old-school behaviors listed below are clearly preventing us from gaining more strategic relevance.

1. Be empathetic: Become good at switching from “Designese” to business language.

No excuses! A designer won’t hold a design thinker credential if he or she still thinks that businesspeople are too dumb to understand and produce creative ideas. Truth is, businesspeople are not even close to being dumb; they’ve been able to keep things going for a long time with what they already know. And guess what, for most of them that is working just fine. The really difficult thing for them is to understand our “Designese” language, and that’s one of the reasons why business functions end up shutting their ears to designers.

Make it easy for them, deep dive into their world and walk the talk on that “empathy building” thing we all preach about. Instead of thinking of them as a bunch of dumb analytical people, think of them as part of the design process; after all, the ability to tell engaging stories and sell ideas is a crucial part of this process. And that ability reaches a whole new level of importance now that we are looking for a seat on the upper management table, alongside people that have been selling their own ideas successfully over the years.

Remember, it is not enough to grab a seat; you have to learn how to listen and be heard once you are there. Just consider the technology departments of some companies you may know—they normally have a seat on the board, but do they pitch strategically? Not often. Most of them are locked into the position of constantly responding to demands.

2. “Gestalt” the business you are in.

Now that’s a bit weird for some designers, as they think they are in the business of “designing things.” But they are wrong. The business you are in, is the Business you are in. And guess what, you have to step back and understand the whole thing, get into the guts of how it works, how value is created for the company, and how the company generates value for all its stakeholders. It is only after you get a good idea of the company ecology that invitations for strategic meetings will start to show up in your mailbox. Remember, you need to be able to contribute at all levels; it is not just about bringing ideas to the table, it is about being able to co-create and improve on those ideas with other seat holders, and in order to sustain that you need to have your business mind up to date.

Remember the technology department example? One of the main reasons they don’t pitch strategically is because businesspeople believe that they don’t have enough “gestalt” for the business they are in.

3. Get out of Designland: Find, create and nourish non-designer allies.

Yes, it is cool to be in that cozy place where you don’t have to convince anyone about the relevance of the things you are talking about. But guess what, those people have already bought it. It is time to move on and conquer the other foes of innovation: the skeptics, idea killers, devil’s advocates, “we tried that before”—those previously avoidable people that Design Thinking has transformed into today’s must deal-with people. Get another designer to buy your idea and you will find yourself some comfort. Get an influential but skeptical executive to buy your idea and you have a project. What are you looking for exactly?

4. Drop the rock star attitude and forget about always taking credit.

Look, we will always have artistic designers in the world. Not everyone in the business will move to Design Thinking, sometimes it is about what the designer feels and thinks, his vision and not anyone else’s. But that’s not what Design Thinking is about.

It has become clear to me that some designers are caught between their will to embrace Design Thinking and their desire to control the creative process. Although it is true that in a project a designer’s ability and creativity will always influence the results, it is also impossible to take credit for a new solution when, in fact, it developed from insights and ideas that were not created by you, but instead, fomented and developed upon by end-users, front-line employees, business partners, and so on.

Finally, there is the urge for us designers to start walking the talk and crystalize a strong strategic presence in this new human-centered business world. But there clearly is no point in continually screaming that design needs to be put into the center of strategy if you are not well-equipped to face the challenges that this will bring.

So be honest with yourself, and the next time you feel like complaining about design not being taken as a serious matter in your company, take a breath and ask: Am I fully prepared to sit side by side with marketing and finance, and contribute to discussions about the future of the business?

If the answer is not a resounding yes, my guess is that you’ve been somehow contributing to the situation you find yourself locked in. Design has changed. Shall we?

By Tennyson Pinheiro, Director, live|work Brazil

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