Power Points

A graphic featuring circles connected by arrows and the words Power Points

This article was originally published in 2019 in Live Magazine Issue 02.

When designing for global-scale clients, managing instincts, ethics, and the requirements of big business is a source of tension within design firms. Though trends and strategies rise and fall, the underlying challenges remain the same: To deliver successful work for multinationals requires effective design management and an ability to anticipate user and market needs that goes beyond making attractive work.

At DesignThinkers, Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram, critiqued “The Business Value of Design,” a recent McKinsey report that attempts to define the financial return to big business of design. (McKinsey always wants to locate sources of financial return.) The text outlines a measurable benchmark, The McKinsey Design Index, based on a survey of three hundred publicly listed companies. There’s nothing the average C-Suite executive loves more than a McKinsey figure for their PowerPoints, and this one “rates companies by how strong they are at design.”

Everybody loves a model, particularly one that scales, and a model that says “good design pays” can be useful for design firms of all sizes—even if agency founders can’t elaborate on McKinsey’s “advanced regression analysis.” But what the spreadsheets told the management consultants is what anyone working in a modern design business already knows. The report distilled good design into four fundamental tenets:

  1. Measure and drive design performance with the same rigor as revenues and costs
  2. Break down internal walls between physical, digital, and service design
  3. Make user-centric design everyone’s responsibility, not a siloed function
  4. De-risk development by continually listening, testing, and iterating with end-users
A Venn diagram that reads: A) "There's nothing …"; B) "… the average C-suite executive loves more …“; c) “… than a McKinsey Figure for their PowerPoints.”

Perhaps we could simplify that further: work efficiently, avoid silos, create things people need, and adapt to their responses. I think I’ve seen that tattooed on an ambitious junior designer’s arm.

“There’s an unhealthy way to look at this really entangled and unresolved relationship between two disciplines,” Jen told the audience. “I don’t see these two disciplines as in an imbalanced power structure. Business has the financial capital, but design has the intellectual capital. I see these as two disciplines trying to find a way to work together, but I don’t think we have actually found it yet.”

The instinct for designers can be to lean on knowing what’s right—that good design should always find a home, or that the task is simply to convince the client that a design is good. “That notion is simplistic,” Jen said. “I know, as a designer, that good design doesn’t guarantee great business return. I may say that knowing I’m throwing an entire industry under the bus, but history has proven repeatedly that good design by itself may not survive in the world, for many different reasons.”

She pointed to the example of Paul Rand’s branding work for NeXT. When considered through a purely qualitative lens, it should have been a major success: “everything about it was impeccably and accessibly designed,” said Jen. But the failure of NeXT is one designers should heed—a great brand can’t create market share if it doesn’t understand the broader marketplace.

At DesignThinkers, Brian Collins of experience agency Collins recalled a lesson he has carried with him since taking a masterclass with Ray Eames at age twenty-one. “The role of a designer is to be a thoughtful host anticipating the needs of your guests,” she told him.

“Anticipate—that’s a pretty good word,” he noted. For Collins, though, the idea of anticipating what consumers want, wish for, and may not yet conceive has been replaced in marketing by the cutthroat language of business, where anticipation suggests war rooms, guerilla tactics, disruption, trend tracking, and the like. It’s the sort of thing that fits into a McKinsey briefing. “That’s the language of marketing,” he said. “It’s violent and it’s weaponized, and we’re so used to it we don’t even notice it.”

A graphic featuring concentric circles and, at the center, text that reads, “We need to think about the ethics of the things we’re putting out into the world.”

Design thinking promised a research-based means of saving designers from that trap. But Collins sees it only as providing a new technocratic language and processes that still move away from the core question of anticipation. “Why don’t we say, ‘Let’s just ask people what they think?’” Collins asked.

As Jen also pointed out in her earlier “Design Thinking Is Bullshit” talk, lazy application of design-thinking tropes often manifests as Post-it Notes brainstorming, not as a genuinely iterative approach to designing with purpose.

David DeCheser, VP and group executive creative director of R/GA, told DesignThinkers attendees that his company’s cross-disciplinary approach to design practice was informed by the need to operate for large clients at speed. “As designers, life’s become a little more complicated because everything around us is connected,” he said. “We have to factor data into everything that we’re designing. That has an impact, and we need to think about the ethics of the [products and services] we’re putting out into the world.” It’s not just about the ethics of how we’re using data, he adds, but also about how products impact people’s lives—and how designers influence consumers to choose certain products. “[It’s about] the habits that we’re creating, the roles that we’re playing in people’s lives, and ultimately the roles in the broader culture of what we create.”

This idea is echoed by Jan Chipchase of research organization Studio D Radiodurans (and a previous DesignThinkers speaker) in his Field Study Handbook: “every new thing introduced into the world creates consequences which, in turn, also have consequences. [...] The more things are interconnected, the harder it is to anticipate what the second-order effects will be.” He adds, “as products become ever more interconnected, the distance between the designers of  the systems and the people and contexts they are affecting grows.”

A graphic featuring four circles connected by an up-sloping arrow. Inside the circles is text that reads, “A one-percent loss in market share is damaging, so large companies are risk-averse by design.“ –Brian Collins

Creating work that resonates in global-scale, risk-averse corporate environments means aligning internal creative processes with cross-disciplinary teams that prioritize research and listening. For DeCheser at R/GA, this means fluid, interdisciplinary teams in which all designers are both empowered and expected to understand different skills. For Jen at Pentagram, it means doubling down on the firm’s famous federated model, enabling low-friction shifts from large-scale branding to small-scale non-profit work. The unique Pentagram model, she said, celebrates “the power of design enabled inside of a business structure” that avoids the predictability of a traditional corporate pyramid.

“In the conglomerate, corporatized situation of design, there’s still anxiety between the creative people and the management people,” Jen said. “There’s also a profound distrust from the creative people, therefore you really have to increase the quality of management in order to govern, if not control, the creatives. Then you can scale. But what happens is that though this pyramid is seemingly stable, it is actually very vulnerable, it can break. When the CEO is not making big revenue, the CEO gets booted. Or you get disgruntled designers, because they’re not at the table.”

Prior to DesignThinkers, Collins told the podcast Private View(s) that working with large organizations means understanding that the consequences of your decisions resonate at a different order of magnitude, but so too do the opportunities. “It wasn’t until I was at Ogilvy and working on global brands that I realized the consequences when we got it wrong,” he said. “A one-percent loss in market share is damaging, so those companies are risk-averse by design. I learned how to really understand the problems the CMO was tackling: it was either a scale problem, a growth problem, or finding new customers. If you can find a way that your thinking, your strategy, your creative work [...] can drive that, then they’ll listen. It’s our job to create systems and solutions for these puzzles, things that creative people can take ownership of.”