Taking Business Seriously

Designers often complain about not having “a seat at the table.” By this, they mean they have no real power in their organizations. You’ll hear them say their company doesn’t “get” design, or sees it as merely tactical. While some or all of these things may be true, whenever I hear this kind of talk I wonder what the designers there are doing (or not doing) that leads their organization to not see their value. Often, there is a cause-effect relationship at play: “the business” doesn’t “get” design because designers don’t get the business.

I’ve interacted with designers in organizations who don’t understand (or care to understand) the purpose, strategy, or objectives that drive the work they’re doing. I’ve even heard some who have apprehensions about the idea of for-profit business. Somehow, these folks think they can be effective in business contexts by “showing up and doing their job” — cranking out wireframes, interviewing users, or what have you — without being truly committed to what they’re in service to.

This is a recipe for frustration — for everyone involved. For the designers, it means spending a considerable part of their time and cognitive energy in activities that aren’t aligned with their values. For “the business” it means trying to collaborate with people who aren’t committed to learning their ways or truly supporting them.

To be clear, this is a false dichotomy. Designers in organizations are the business. Once a designer commits to becoming an agent in the organization, his or her work is in service to the organization’s purposes and objectives. This doesn’t mean designers shouldn’t have a say in what work they do or how it’s done. Design has much to contribute towards making organizations more user-centered and ethical.

But this must be done in the context of what the organization is trying to achieve. If a designer disagrees with the organizations’ purposes, strategy, motives, etc., he or she won’t be effective there, will be miserable in the process, and will perpetuate the stereotype (alas, still all-too-common) that designers only care about superficial aspects of products and services. For the business to take design seriously, designers must take business seriously.