Being a designer in an environment where most people adhere to a strict path of logic can be challenging. There are few logic-centric people who understand the value design has to a product or service. Instead of beating your head against your desk, do something to get the company on common ground.
The Only Orange in the Apple Orchard
Think back to the first time you discovered that not everyone holds the same respect for design as a necessary part of business as you do. You were just making your grand entrance into the professional world and, much like a child discovering their own hands and feet, you were overzealous about the impact design has on every aspect of society and business. Then something happened—a conversation with a supervisor or colleague, or a meeting with a client—that took the wind out of your sails and revealed the biggest challenge any designer can face: convincing the world of your work’s validity.
Especially with the advancements of Apple and Google within the past few years, design is taking a more dominant role in the business process more than ever. Even if your company knows that design is essential to their success, they may not understand why. Though you have a perfect understanding of the importance of your work, do you know how to effectively explain it in a way that will make sense to them?
Method to the Madness
Many business and technology-oriented people see their work as being the polar opposite of design. Business and technology experts make things work, and designers are often seen as just making things look pretty. As many of us know, design is by definition far more than decorating something to make it aesthetically appealing. So how do we convince those left-brained thinkers that there truly is method to our madness?
Build Your Own Bridge
To help others understand the full weight of the importance of design, the first step is to construct a definition that clearly outlines what design truly is within the context of your environment. Design can generally be defined, but the key is to use terminology that will register with your audience.
Let’s start with the official definition of design given by Webster himself: “deliberate, purposive planning” is one of a few given. Steve Jobs once said “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” One Plus One Equals Three has a lengthy list of definitions for further reference.
This could be a good starting place for those approaching technology-centric executives. Explaining that “design is the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order” (Victor Papanek) will display the common ground between business, technology, and design. Demonstrating commonality between practices develops a greater feeling of a more cohesive bond between colleagues.
If attempting to appeal to an advertising or communications executive, emphasizing design as a visual language would be wise. “…Information only has value when it is successfully communicated. If it cannot be accessed or understood it does not have value.” Dirk Knemeyer, Thread Inc.
Define Common Ground
The “Apples” or “Squares” might have a harder time realizing similarities between practices than the “Oranges” or “Circles” might. After establishing camaraderie, it is not enough to only understand how the other half of your team thinks. You must show them that you are capable of thinking in the same manner. It would be easiest to start with the skills you share, regardless of how you apply them.
The most obvious might be that of problem solving. Design is often much like a puzzle, placing the pieces carefully and strategically. Business requires constant analytical and strategic thinking such as in the realm of project management. Providing analogies between your work and theirs will better help them understand just how similar it is.
Another way to drive your message home is to prove it to them. Give them a mock-up to look at of something in two versions: one well designed and the other ignoring general best practice knowledge. It doesn’t have to be aesthetically unappealing; you could very well use the same graphics and typeface but just rearrange the layout. Let them choose which one appeals to them better. Of course this will only work if they have good taste, but we’ll assume for now that they do.
As Roger Martin said in his STEP article, “Design and Business: Why Can’t We Be Friends?”, take inattention to validity as a design challenge. Since designers are essentially half-breeds with skills spanning multiple practices, it might very well be easier for us to jump on the left-brain-ship rather than expecting our colleagues to even meet us halfway. To paraphrase Joe Duffy, we must start working to convince the business world of the importance of design in our everyday lives instead of designing for designers.
So, how do those Apples think anyway? This will of course depend on your particular environment, just as your definition of design, but take a look around. What are the expectations of the programmers? Most likely they are encouraged to pursue certifications or further education of some sort. Do other people in your company participate in local professional social scenes? If you haven’t found one of your own, some AIGA chapters offer social outings as well as other events.
Keep in mind that certifications aren’t just for programmers. W3C Schools offers both an HTML Developer and ASP Certifications. Microsoft also offers a Web Developer certification. To avoid being stoned on the spot, I will reiterate that we are trying to bridge the gap and get closer to being on the same page as our colleagues. This might sometimes require keeping our opinions regarding Microsoft to ourselves and acknowledging that they are for whatever reason the most successful technology company in the world and having their name on your resume will attain a certain amount of respect. To redeem myself, there is also the Adobe Certified Expert.
For the Apples of the Audience
Still trying to narrow in on the impact design has on your business? There are a number of resources out there to help you understand what design should mean to you. Garr Reynolds has a detailed article on this matter, elaborating on Bill Bernbach’s quote “The difference between the forgettable and the enduring is the artistry.” The Design Management Institute also offers a Design Value for Business Executives seminar.
Reap What You Sow
Some would see the approach of taking the first step towards commonality as a burden, or something that shouldn’t be their responsibility. People often think people should just know how to do their job. But, we all know that’s not the case. So, don’t view your efforts as being for anyone but yourself. You’re trying to make your job easier all while improving the communication within the company. Improving the environment you work in is just as much for yourself as for the company itself. The Golden Rule has never rang so true, because showing respect for your colleagues of all shapes and sizes and colors—apples and oranges, circles and squares alike—will in turn give your colleagues more reason to respect you.
Recap and Further Reading
A company is only as successful as its interpersonal relationships. Relating to those who don’t take you or your work seriously can seem impossible. With some it actually could be. However, any business owner or manager has one primary goal: to succeed. Instead of letting people wonder why you’re even on the payroll, show them that you share the same goal and your work is actually half the battle of selling the company, its service, or its product.
You can find more information in the following articles: