Having spent the last six and a half years working in-house for financial services companies, I have seen many sides of the relationship between design and American management. One things that’s clear is that management sees design as a service rather than a collaborator to the business process, thus the value of design is frequently discounted. (If you are, in terms of the P&L, just an expense you’re not valuable). Too often I’ve been told it isn’t important for design to be in initial marketing project meetings with a client. Important enough for the writer to be there but not a designer? As I don’t agree with this at all, I’ve had to push my way into these meetings and, personally, I’m a little exhausted from what’s become essentially a solo effort.
When I started with my current firm, design was considered an important part of our business strategy. There was a sound business rationale provided any time our team pushed beyond the “given standards” and developed solutions more applicable to the needs of our business line and its goals. The key was that this relationship was with our branding group in London. While I haven’t measured the ROI of our efforts, circumventing the perceived design illiteracy of American management proved a worthy effort. The most rewarding example was our divisions’ pocket folder redesign.
Our clients were asked to adopt the standard blue on blue (PMS 286) pocket folder with a blurry globe with the center being the only part that was in focus (the particular world region). Concerned that this solution wouldn’t work for our American retail audience, I presented an alternative design, first to our sales group (they “liked” the color better), and then to our branding group in London. The standard layout guidelines were followed but the folder was a flood of PMS 877 with an image of planes, buildings and financial symbols.
The comp was sent to London for approval. The approver of materials was about to reject it (for being out of standards despite our business rationale) when the global head of branding saw it, read our rationale and thought it worked and approved it for us. More importantly, our team no longer had to send London our designs for approval. We had earned their respect as designers who understood the needs of the business and could be expected to create work that met those needs.
When I moved to the institutional channel (my retail team was wiped out by a merger), things changed. London was out of the picture and all the decision makers were US executives. I had to become not only a design educator to upper management, including our head of marketing, but even to my own boss. My mission to “sell” the power of design internally has been a two-year project.
A couple of weeks ago the ignorance of design(ers) in corporate America once again made itself apparent. A headhunter contacted me about a ‘marketing’ position with a major US mutual fund company; the position would oversee the creative efforts and coordinate with sales in a specific sales channel. Based on my experience in the financial services industry, the headhunter told me I was a great candidate for the job. The outcome was the hiring managers didn’t feel I was “senior” enough, which the headhunter put as “your resume is all design.” Peter Phillips, of the Design Management Institute, pointed out the thinking of American management when he wrote, “hearing from the non-design managers, who said they did not understand design well and therefore did not value it.”(1)
Even as ‘Design’ has been pushed into the American conscious, or at least the mainstream media, with articles in Business Week, Fast Company and Time, the many of corporate America’s management does not value the role of design in their organizations. (It is interesting to note that most of these articles or special issues rarely mention graphic design.) And I’m not sure this will change soon. Kathleen Formosa, of the New School, and Steven Kroter, former Chair, Design and Management Department at Parsons School of Design, researched how future business leaders were being educated in terms of the role of design in business. The y found that “According to our recent review of top-tier American MBA programs we found that not a single one addressed or incorporated design into its curricula in any significant way. Even in those programs focused on marketing and branding, curricular attention to the principles or theories of design is cursory, at best. We view the result of this omission to be an epidemic of design illiteracy in the ranks of mid- and upper-level (sic: management).”(2)
But it was not always this way in American business. Recently Design Observer wrote a post about a time when large corporations encouraged and supported the use of design. In 1946. Walter Paepcke, the then CEO of Container Corporation of America (CCA), wrote:
“[A]rtists and businessmen, today as formerly, fundamentally have much in common and can contribute the more to society as they come to complement their talents…It should be made easy, remunerative and agreeable for the artist to ‘function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant.’ The artist and the businessman should cultivate every opportunity to teach and supplement one another, to cooperate with one another, just as the nations of the world must do.”
Thirty-one years later, Walter Hoving, then chairman of Tiffany & Co., attempted to bring the most influential designers, business leaders, and educators of that era to an understanding of their interdependence. His vision of design was that while it may not be obvious, design had a direct impact on a corporation’s bottom line. In order to further this vision, he organized a lecture series at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. It was his hope that this series would “serve as an inspiration for business leaders, students and all of us concerned with promoting the highest standards of excellence.”
What has led to the negative change in the attitude of business leaders in terms of the value of design? How did we get from the Paepcke’s and Hoving’s of the 20th century to today’s brand sensitive but design ignorant business leaders? Clearly there are firms that value design, including Tiffany, Apple, Nike, Target and others. But why do they seem to be in the minority? Have we as designers failed to build the case for the value of design in the top-floor offices of corporate America? Is there an inherent problem with understanding design and its value in the minds of American executives? And if there was a more thorough understanding of the power of design in the past, what happened? How did the “knowing what design does” become such a mystery to American management?
These are problems that we all face. We need to find a way to solve them and raise design’s standing in mind of American management. And that’s what we do best, solve problems and deliver solutions. Here are some suggestions to get things started:
Have clients complete design briefs. This allows them to appreciate the process of design and realize it’s not a case of, “let’s jump on the computer and see what happens.”
Use the brief to tune designers into the business goals of a project. And make sure that presentations are in the language of business and not design-speak.
Spread the word of successes outside one’s immediate group.
Ban the word “like”. Present solutions in terms of the goals setout in the brief and that the solutions work in terms of the needs of the business.
Utilize a charge-back system, which brings something to the table that all business people understand: monetary value. (I have not always been a fan of this but I am beginning to feel that design costing something and viewing design as something of value, are intrinsically linked. Of course, the quality has to be there too.)
Finally, and most importantly, the name of our department does not contain the word “Art”. We are called the Strategic Design Group and we work to remind every time we can that, without design, most corporation’s aren’t much different than their competition.
1. “Lessons from the Trenches: Insights from Design Management Seminars,” Peter Phillips, Design Management Journal, Summer 2002
2. “Toward Design Literacy in American Management: A Strategy for MBA Programss,” Kathleen Formosa and Steven Kroeter, Design Management Journal, Summer 2002
Rob is currently the Lead, Strategic Design for Institutional Marketing group of Deutsche Asset Management. Prior to that he was Head of Design for Deutsche Asset Management Mutual Funds which encompassed over 60 no-load and load mutual funds. Rob lives and works in Baltimore. He has a BA in Journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and earned his MA in Publication Design from University of Baltimore. He is currently on the executive board of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Artists and is an adjunct design instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He also speaks on design and branding issues, most recently at the IIR Brand Business Forum in 2003.