Laura Weiss | Essays

Why We're All Designers

Photo: Teo Sze Lee, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I give a talk at MIT’s Sloan School of Management each year to an MBA class on the design and marketing of new products. I usually lead off my presentation by asking, “How many of you think that design will be a big part of your next job?”

About a third of the hands go up, and I take the opportunity to suggest the reality is probably a much higher percentage. The successful introduction of new products, services, environments, etc., requires not just professional designers, but also people who are advocates, builders, marketers and purchasers of the stuff designers produce. These roles are hugely influential in the innovation process, and they help determine whether the results are an academic exercise or a world-changing concept. So as active participants in that process, they'll have the opportunity to be designers themselves.

To illustrate my point I like to recall a memorable learning experience of my own. When I was a graduate student in architecture, I served as a teaching assistant for undergraduates who were exploring architecture through a hands-on design studio course. The professor in charge got all of the instructors together one day and advised us not to view these students as future architects. There was a much greater likelihood, he said, that they would become lawyers, bankers, teachers, or business executives. In other words, they would become the people in our communities who make decisions about design, which in this case meant the design of the built environment. At the very least, they’d be writing the checks.

The idea that everyone is a de facto designer is a sobering one because it is dependent on proper education. Without an appreciation of the design process, it is difficult for someone who has a stake in the outcomes to be a productive participant. Design, and the professions that engage in it, are still pretty exotic to most of the American public. By the time we’re all young adults, we’ve had exposure to professionals such as doctors, lawyers, maybe an accountant, and we generally understand their value. But professional interactions with designers are rare, and an understanding of how they do what they do is a mystery. So when the concept of "design thinking" was introduced to the business world more than a decade ago, it became hugely popular. Designers started promoting the tools of their trade as applicable to core business decisions, and this education has enabled more productive collaborations between designers and their clients, as well as product managers and their bosses. Both translate into better outcomes in the form of successful commercial products.

Today design tools and methodologies have begun to find their way to the social sector, and this is no surprise. Nonprofits are inherently innovative enterprises because most were formed by a social entrepreneur with a vision to change the world. Yet as they grow, they become exclusively focused on the challenges of daily operations. The kinds of continuous innovation activities that are critical to organizational growth and program renewal give way to more basic functional needs. To avoid the threat of stagnant maturity and potential decline, nonprofits must actively develop techniques for better understanding their communities, for taking those insights and refining their programs through iterative prototyping, and for telling their story through creative communications. We cannot afford to rely solely on costly design resources or consultants and do not typically have the means to manage a dedicated innovation project. Social sector organizations must develop the most basic of these skills if for no other reason than to make better decisions about how to proactively direct the use of limited resources for maximum impact.

When such capabilities are widely developed within the social sector, we’ll be able to say that we’re all designers too. To thrive, we’ll have to be.

Comments [19]

As a "still practicing" architect after over 20 years, I think this is all too true. So many of my classmates have moved on to other fields. It's much easier to work with clients who have even a little design education in their background.
Very good article!
Paul Byrne

There are a growing number of designers who are looking for a sustainable business model that can serve the social sector. There are successful models out there, but ultimately these models will be limited to a relatively small number of firms. As you point out, the true scalable answer requires a shift in how NGO's exploit design methodologies both in and out of house.
John Peterson

Once again, great node of brilliance from Laura Weiss!

Perfect advice for future leaders and thinkers of tomorrow. We must consistently reach outside our existing methodologies to experiment with new concepts and ideas and create a greater impact. Giving everyone the opportunity to engage in design in one way or another will yield more productive solutions to pressing social and economic issues.

I think promoting access to design thinking as a pedagogical tool is key to eschewing this divide between professional designers and us "regular" folks. How can we create these opportunities and allow those MBA student to identify their skills within that schema?

Francesca Krihely

The true value of my architectural education was system thinking, problem solving and, most importantly, empathically understanding and relating to the people who would inhabit and use the structures I helped create. I never felt particularly creative (as in artistic). Rather, I believe my "education" helped me to exercise atrophied brain cells and muscles (pattern recognition, synthesis, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.) that had been suppressed or ignored earlier in my educational life.

I believe that we're all natural designers. Curiosity and play are native to the human condition. Our education system beats the "designer" out of us in unfortunate ways. Our corporations create environments where natural design behaviors die. We are ALL natural explorers, experimenters, prototypers. We are all designers, whether trained or not.

Learn to embrace and learn from failure. Make sloppy/crappy prototypes and iterate endlessly. Experiment with a wide variety of scenarios. Never make the perfect thing first. Go ahead adults, play!
Thomas Stat

Well said, however, I disagree with this statement: “We cannot afford to rely solely on costly design resources or consultants and do not typically have the means to manage a dedicated innovation project.”
There are many small firms happy to do work for non profits at low cost and often pro bono. Many times I have seen non profits use costly “specialty” for profit firms (usually marketing and advertising firms *not* a design firm) for an identity design or; for other materials that needed a designer. When I hear what they paid for, ahem, basically total crap, I am shocked. Universities are notorious for hiring firms specializing in colleges or sports logos. The cookie cutter work is horrid and blends in with all the other supposedly safe work these firms make.
If more non profits would just learn more about design (which the writer advocates) but know that, many designers and design firms would do amazing and unexpectedly interesting work at low cost. They need to be willing to let the designer design and they will get incredible work.
If the project budget is even so low, they cannot afford anything, that is the time to contact a reputable state university or not for profit design school graphic design department or area and see if they have a practicum class or working design studio where advanced students work for outside clients. Typically, not for profit clients.
Many times this non profit with academic experience has been amazing for students to experience and more so, for the non profit to learn all about the design process.

Fantastic piece, very thought-provoking. It's less about the democratization of design (Hey! Everyone can do it!) than it is about an awareness of design influence so that it can be harnessed by anyone. It's a reminder to…observe and participate.

In fact, I've had the privilege of working directly with Laura at IDEO, and can personally attest to the importance of design thinking for non-designers. As a Creative Manager in advertising, the "advocacy" role is hugely important, but sadly undervalued in many non-design firms.

Here's to sowing the seed in all types of organizations.
Louise Wainwright

the best client is one who pays the bills on time and shuts his or her trap. if they could do it, tell them to do it themselves.

Weiss put forth the idea that everyone is a designer, but the truth is that anyone can have an idea, but few possess the skill necessary to produce the final product.
After reading this article, I pondered whether "cookie cutter"images are presented to clients because the designer feels that the client will feel comfortable with a proven or rather more recognizable concept.
Weiss seems to believe that today's clients are familiar with the "abductive" reasoning associated with "Design Thinking" and will welcome an "outside the box" approach to advertising.
It is my opinion that anything that has to be explained to a client will create friction in the designer/client relationship, and the client will be hesitant if he can not see the "business sense" behind the campaign.
Philip Johansen

Great article and very interesting.
It reminds one to step back and look at everything around us. Everything has been designed... and it’s easy to point out successful designs from bad ones. I am a believer in the idea that anyone can create and design; but people who recognize the design process and utilize their knowledge make good design. It’s easy to create something that looks cool, but it’s much harder to consider the practicality of design, its function and how people with interact with it.

Very interesting article. You do not realize how many occupations out there rely on designing of some kind. I have had the liberty of taking a graphic design course which challenged my designing capabilities in many ways I didn't think was possible!

Working as a designer in the social sector, an adaptation of an old bumper sticker comes to mind: If only good causes came with good taste.

I find myself sticking with clients who I would not otherwise work with, because I believe in their missions. But I frequently have to 'settle' for design results that are less than I would like, which is frustrating.

I found this article really interesting. Furthermore, I found it relevant with my own education because I am currently taking a design class. Though I am a communications major and hope to pursue a career outside of design but I do find it helpful to be able to see situations from a designer point of view. Also, I will most likely have to work closely with designers in the future and will find it helpful when I can convey my thoughts to them intelligently.

As a student in the communications major, it is very helpful knowing that there are many other job opportunities that in some way involve design. I think everyone can benefit from such design courses and this articles shows us just that.

Design is everywhere, and everyone plays a part in design. I agree with the article about education in design. It would help a client understand key points that you are trying to use and why you did what you did. It's an important aspect that is usually overlooked, but when people are educated about design, they learn to appreciate it.

I love design. It's unfortunate that today design seems more about "sales" than actual good design.
Schools across the country need to change the name of their classes to "how to lie, cheat, and seduce your clients".

Laura Weiss makes a compelling case for the citizen designer--as ambassadors, clients, etc. But the greater lesson here is around communication, and storytelling, in particular. If designers want to convince the social or philanthropic sectors that design matters, we need better stories--including and especially centered around client voices--to illustrate it. The stories can humanize design, and either deconstruct or better leverage that exoticness described by Weiss.

I heard the phase "sector agnostic" at a conference recently, and I think this especially applies to the design world. Small wonder that the social sector and others don't understand design or design thinking. Designers can take a crucial first step by working to understand the social sector and its challenges, and ideally identify opportunities to work together. As author Steven Johnson so beautifully illustrates in his viral video, that's 'Where all good ideas come from.'
John Cary

Having had a successful architectural practice for 25 years before taking a position outside of the architectural profession, I realized immediately how starved the "outside world" is for individuals with design experience. Often I encountered the enthusiastic reaction of "OMG, you're an architect!" Our world would benefit greatly from a broader base of design awareness. Education and experience in design are valuable assets throughout the full spectrum of human endeavor.

This is a great argument for why designers should contribute time to organizations in the social sector. It calls to mind a directive given by James Orbinski, former President of Médecins sans Frontières, during a lecture. He argued that we should all pick just one organization or cause to contribute to - and preferably not just financially but with our time and skills. The reasons are many (building relationships with the people who promote that cause, getting to know the ins and outs of the cause/organization to better apply one's skills, seeing the effects of one's efforts over time, etc.) but point primarily to having greater and longer lasting impact. It's admirable that organizations such as Taproot exist such that more designers may become ambassadors for change.

tal vez no entendi muy bien el mail, pero suelo creer que el diseño debería tratarse como lo que es actualmente y no como lo que fue, y que por ende se piensa que es, pues para mí el diseño es el lenguaje indispensable que el hombre ha creado como forma de comunicación masiva, a gran o pequeña escala, y por el cual debemos estar agradecidos... esto último, una vez que realmente lo entiendan.

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