Made to Measure

Illustration by Adam de Souza

This article was published in Live Magazine. You can learn more about the magazine and buy the print edition here.

How many hours did you spend on your most recent project? In my office, we know down to the quarter-hour. At any given moment, I can check the financial health of our active projects, compare projects across different teams, even see colleagues’ efficiency.

We’re not unique. Most studios I know keep timesheets, despite them being so disliked by designers that it’s a point of pride when offices can avoid them. This is not without reason. As designers, the work around the work can seem wasteful and not what we “signed up for.” When I was at a much larger studio, another designer I worked with used to joke, “I need a timesheet code for doing my timesheets.”

The amount of time we spend managing our process has become remarkable. In a study quoted by Collin Whitehead during his talk “Project Management Is Dead, Long Live Process Design,” sixty percent of the work we do was found to be managing the actual creative process. At Dropbox, Whitehead is focused on just that. “My craft is not writing, or photography, or typography—it is process design. All I do, every day, for my teams is focus on the how. I don’t care what we make, I just want my team to have a good experience.”

Managing the design process is a growing conversation within our community. In addition to Whitehead’s talk, DesignThinkers also featured others such as Jenna Niven and David DeCheser’s “Connected Leaders: The Art of Team Curation,” Berkeley Poole’s “Blank Slate: Building a Team and Fostering Creativity in a Net-New Industry,” and Eric Snowden’s “How to Run a Healthy Design Team.” With the number of tools at our disposal, the ever-increasing speed of design, and the data we’re generating about how we work, it’s not exactly surprising that we’re talking about this. But what effect does the obsession with metrics have on our work? Is the data misleading? How much does it change the design process? And what about things that cannot be measured?

The 1990s saw the popularization of the term design thinking; the story of how design filtered into the business landscape has been well-documented. Today, many big design firms are owned by even larger management consultancies: Lunar is owned by McKinsey, IDEO by Steelcase, Fjord by Accenture, Frog by Flextronic, and the list goes on. Even my former employer, Toronto’s Bruce Mau Design (BMD), is owned by MDC.

Whether related or not, the speed of design is also increasing. Last year at DesignThinkers, I spoke with Laura Stein RGD, now chief creative officer at BMD, who agreed. “Things are speeding up, expectations are different, and clients are under pressure to deliver things more quickly,” Stein said. “Things move faster and people are more responsive to what’s happening in the world, so they jump on opportunities. ‘We need things now’ is part of the world we live in.”

The design process—the actual methods we use to work, not the stock version of happy young professionals huddled around a wall of Post-it Notes—is easy to describe at a high level, but can be ambiguous, intuitive, and fluid when you get into it. Yes, we all do research, iteration, and critique, but how we actually do those things changes from studio to studio and project to project. It can be hard to teach and even harder to measure.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Design is fundamentally about people, right? It’s about how we interact with the world and with one another. It’s about the things we use, read, consume, edit, stand for, and even identify with. And so the process for doing it well can take years to learn and is probably never exactly “right.”

Contrast that with the practical need to ensure you’re getting paid fairly (or, more cynically, to ensure your parent company makes more money) and you can see why maintaining a good process can be a struggle. When Whitehead jokes about how we so easily forget the pains of a project before enthusiastically saying yes to the next one—and everyone in the audience laughs—I know it’s because they’ve all been there. The DesignThinkers sessions suggest this is a near-universal conflict.

Many people share the belief that design’s intangible qualities cannot be duplicated by robots. So why do we treat the design process so mechanically?

The solution for many is to better understand how we work and then create a process that effectively quantifies some of those intangibles so that design and business can speak the same language.

In this regard, McKinsey has the loudest voice. Its 2018 study, “The Business Value of Design,” was referred to by multiple speakers at DesignThinkers, and not always in a positive light. Described as “the most extensive and rigorous research undertaken anywhere to study the design actions that leaders can make to unlock business value,” it introduces the McKinsey Design Index to rate a company’s ability to create good design, which is then compared to financial performance. If you are a designer, at this point you are rolling your eyes.

Interestingly, many of the qualities the Index attributes to strong design companies are actually things I think most designers would love more of. For instance, it outlines design as a “top management issue,” something to be understood and practiced at the highest levels of leadership. And a company’s integration of design across departments, as well as its ability to nurture top design talent, is considered a positive trait. So far, so good.

It’s the framing of the value of design as a measurable statistic, to be compared with time, costs, and financial success, that’s dangerous.

For Whitehead, good design and, more importantly, a good process is more than a number to improve upon. “We’re a super friendly, in-person-type culture, so that means my schedule is nothing but meetings all day,” he said. As an experiment, he introduced No Meeting Wednesday to give his designers unscheduled time. Now it’s a company-wide practice.

At Dropbox, Whitehead also advocates for clear roles and responsibilities going in to every important meeting. It allows him to keep the discussion productive, even when getting feedback from his CEO. For example, in a meeting with the company’s senior staff he was able to manage unsolicited feedback by leaning on the predetermined structure of the project. “I wouldn’t have had the permission to do that if I hadn’t established [their] role in the project.” A unique case, to be sure, but something that can benefit even the smallest project or office.

In response to growing specialist talent in the industry, from front-end development and machine learning to user interface design and business consulting, R/GA employs specialists and connectors—people with broad skill sets who work across teams to bring outside perspectives to projects. With specialists working across teams in clearly defined roles, the company benefits from deep expertise without siloing. It also allows people’s success to be measured against qualities that are unique to their work.

But finding connectors in your organization can be hard, and nurturing them even harder. “I worked with an associate creative director who had no idea what I did, what value I brought, and just looked at my title of visual designer,“ said Jenna Niven, now group creative director at R/GA. In her talk, Niven recounted an experience in which the fluidity of her role got in the way of meaningfully contributing to a pitch. “One day, a brief came in for a campaign pitch and I thought, ‘Finally, this is my opportunity to do something beyond visual design—so I put my hand up.” Her team, still new to the connector role, didn’t see the value she would bring and gave the task to the campaign team. Luckily, with some persistence, she was given the chance to contribute ideas, one of which landed them the project.

Photo of designer Natasha Jen onstage at RGD Design Thinkers 2019. Illustrations of animals are projected onto the screen behind her.
Pentagram partner Natasha Jen onstage at DesignThinkers 2019. Photo: Connie Tsang

It’s good that we’re talking about these things, and no coincidence that this was a popular theme at the 2019 conference. And while McKinsey stands out as the bad guys of design management, I can’t help but remain conflicted about this conversation. Yes, for many, the design process is in desperate need of an update, but is the solution to bad process more process? Are we obscuring the original problem? And, if so, how do we make room for intangible steps like exploration in an environment that demands structure?

Pentagram partner Natasha Jen has been vocal in ensuring we don’t lose our sense of purpose: “When you embrace good design, what you get is not just the potential for revenue. You also produce cultural phenomena.” Yet because cultural value produces no measurable data, it’s been left out of the design-process equation.

Herein lies the heart of the problem: Just because something can be quantified doesn’t mean it should drive how we work. By relying on data to measure the value of design or the efficiency of its process, we’re actively ignoring those things that aren’t measurable. We’re forcing the design process to be something that it can’t always be.

Many people share a belief that there is something special about design, that it has an intangible quality that can’t be duplicated by robots. So, then, why are we increasingly treating the design process so mechanically?

My most cynical self reduces this issue to a few emotions: fear that designers are becoming too corporate when they work on huge teams; anxiety that designers might be replaced; and a vaguely desperate hope that mimicking data-driven, metrics-obsessed capitalism in our process will help designers better fit into a cut-throat business environment.

That said, I try to keep my cynicism at bay, and hope, instead, that designers’ unique skill sets will influence broader business culture and soften its quantitative impulses. Replacing a punch clock with a web-based timesheet is not much progress. Perhaps, once design thinking has been properly digested, business leaders will recognize that the capacity to measure does not necessarily mean we must measure—and that fostering high-quality, well-rounded, profit-enhancing work requires more than a set of rules and an app.

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