The Business of Design

In his seminal 2004 article The Design of Business, Roger Martin helped usher in a new management zeitgeist focused on infusing business professionals with the sensibilities and tools of a designer. “Businesspeople don’t just need to understand designers,” he wrote. “They need to be designers.” Design thinking remains quite the rage, with companies and business schools alike embracing it as a fresh take not just on how to rethink key products and services, but also how to reframe everyday processes and projects.

Now comes frog senior designer David Sherwin with the yang to Martin’s yin, a book on the business of design, called Success By Design: The Essential Business Reference For Designers. Sherwin’s primary goal is to help anyone in design to become a better businessperson.

F06-06_Sherwin“Some processes can be put on the shelf,” he writes. “But the business process – that’s what keeps us up and running. For the sanity of both co-workers and clients, it can never be sacrificed. Never.”

The book has three main parts:

  1. Working With Clients
  2. Managing Your Projects
  3. Operating Your Studio.

It’s chock full of practical insights, tools, and techniques, and lives up to its billing as an essential reference.

I found the following handful of insights and perspectives on the intersection of design and business to be among Sherwin’s most compelling.

On Leadership

The design leader is a special animal in Sherwin’s view, as he or she must master two domains: the craft of design, and soft skills of business leadership. He suggests a model merging both, called “The Six C’s of Creative Leadership”: conjuring compelling design, communicating actively, coaxing stellar work out of the creative team, compelling their teams to realize a vision, cajoling through critique using open-ended questions, and cheering the team on by publicly promoting their work.

“Much like a kung fu disciple, who must climb the tall mountain peaks in order to find the secret dojo where he can learn a particularly rare fighting style, many design leaders must mature in their craft before they can realize their leadership skills under the right mentor. Some of these skills are not easily teachable. They are behaviors that a design leader must infuse into his daily work habits. At the same time, a design leader must be aware of the same skills and behaviors she is trying to grow in the people that she manages.”

On Strategy

The consumer and market demand for high design has given design firms like IDEO and frog a seat at the strategy table once reserved for management consulting firms. Many argue that design firms are the new management consultants.

“This is a good thing,” writes Sherwin. “With the ongoing expansion of design’s role in business, today’s designers are helping to solve problems that transcend mere decoration and instead impact the core functions of a client’s business. But in our haste to be strategic partners, we’ve added a host of new services to our capabilities that we may not fully understand: Design strategy. Brand strategy. Content strategy. Interactive strategy. Media strategy. Business strategy. We may have overstepped our reach.”

Sherwin calls on the work of well-known business strategists as well as resident frog design strategists to arrive at three conclusions regarding strategy and design:

  • Design strategists have an interpretive role; they must speak fluently about various disciplines such as business, marketing, technology, design and culture.
  • Design strategy works with design research; good strategists understand how to translate the information gleaned from research into insight.
  • Design strategists focus more on the framing than on the actual design making; they may not execute designs, but they collaborate with teams to generate design ideas.

On Process

Sherwin makes the point that the “tidy charts” displayed on design firm websites and in marketing collateral in an attempt to illustrate how they produce their work is simply the designer’s attempt to fuse creative process with some semblance of a business process.

“But do studios actually follow these processes to the letter?” he asks. “Do they have an in-depth manual they use to guide their designers through Step 4A? Do clients swoon at the process diagrams when you’re competing for a project? Or is this packaging of process solely a way to pitch and secure business?”

The implied answer to the last question is yes. “Instead of establishing and following rote guidelines for how to design and sell your firm,” advises Sherwin, “become a perpetual student of your process so you can design the design process. Each time I design a project, I learn something that I fold back into the process, changing how I may approach design in the future.”

On Politics

Sherwin cautions designers not to overstep their bounds. Only if a design client specifically asks to craft company strategy should the designer consider doing so. However, it would be remiss for a responsible designer to blindly follow company strategy without challenge if that strategy was deemed to be fundamentally flawed.

“In most cases,” writes Sherwin, “You will know less than your clients about the business strategies they are executing out in the market. And if you do have more knowledge, then you don’t want to be the therapist who on the first appointment with their new client says, “You don’t have to tell me any more. Quit your job, go back to school. By the way, your boyfriend is cheating on you, so move out now. Competing political priorities can cover up the most innovative design solution in the same way that dust dulls a diamond. If you help your client sweep away the political debris throughout the design process, your work will sparkle just as it should.”

On Culture

To the non-design business person, there is something mystical about the design studio culture. Many traditional companies strive to replicate the atmosphere of the studio, hoping to inspire and encourage creativity and innovation in their organizations.

Sherwin talks about culture in terms of building blocks: hard blocks and soft blocks. Hard building blocks are things like space, amenities, training, and the type of work conducted–all things that are part of business overhead, and can be realized by allocating time and money for them in a budget.

Soft building blocks are those created by employees through their daily decisions, and include things like philanthropy, community, ownership over work, challenging projects, leadership, and recognition.

As Sherwin argues: “A studio’s culture is not created solely by the business owner. For a design business, culture is generated from ongoing contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees. A healthy studio culture draws equally from both sides. Don’t assume that your studio’s culture will grow organically over time. Leave spaces for your team to tailor the studio’s physical space and workday to their own interests. Otherwise they won’t be able to fully express themselves at work – and over time, they’ll be punching the clock with frustration.”

While these are some of the more high-altitude takeaways, Sherwin covers all the bases, at all levels: proposals, contracts, design briefs, project management, time sheets, hourly rates, and even such mundane but critical elements like insurance and accounting.

There’s no better resource on the business of design than Success By Design.