Design leaders are seeing their profession with a bit more humility


Are major companies taking the idea of design seriously? More companies are hiring top designers, with 36 of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies now having a chief design officer, compared to 18 in 2014.

Yet recent history is littered with new products, redesigns, and other design-forward initiatives that failed to get any traction in the marketplace. And then there’s general ignorance: A recent survey from McKinsey found that only a third of CEOs and their direct reports could confidently state what their designers even do. As Fast Company’s Suzanne Labarre argued in October 2022, design is “no magical solution for transforming companies and conquering competitors.”

The recognition that design may not offer an easy path to success pushed three design leaders last week at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Design conference in Macau to be more humble about what the practice can do.

“This sort of disappointment in the design discipline has to do with…the notion that was sold for a solid 20-30 years that design was a process, as opposed to a product or an outcome or a thing you made at the end of the day” said Cliff Kuang, author of User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play. Companies incorrectly hoped that by having a design process, hiring consultants, and then putting “all the people in the right room” would be enough to yield innovation.

“Not that many businesses are so fluid that they need constant reinvention. Not every business is going to be one that actually needs to introduce new ideas to people on a constant basis,” Kuang said.

Katrina Alcorn, the former general manager for design at IBM, dismissed the “magical thinking that you can just buy a bunch of designers, put them in a room and magic will happen.”

“It doesn’t work that way. You have to create the conditions for design success, and that involves the entire company and it usually involves culture change and changing mindsets,” she said.

Instead, a designer’s strength may be asking questions and connecting the dots, noted Ben Sheppard, partner at McKinsey Design in London.

“Maybe our role is best supporting actor. Maybe our role is to be the glue working alongside our friends in data and product, in engineering and project management and finance, bringing it together,” he said.

Yet AI will change what particular skills designers will need to do their work. Kuang said the trove of data that these new technologies can generate mean designers will have to change the way they approach a design challenge.

“It’s just really hard, right? You just don’t know what the data is going to draw. You can’t know every single instance,” Kuang said. “That notion that you totally control the experience is one that designers are actually having to give up a little.”

But Alcorn said she didn’t think AI will fundamentally change the role of the designer. “Designers have to be somewhat experts in people, and that’s not going to change. I think actually with AI, if anything, we’re going to have to understand ourselves better than ever,” she said.

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