Should Designers Fear Design-Thinking MBAs?

The tangible success of design has propelled business schools around the world to innovate their MBA programs by introducing courses on design thinking as a valuable complement to traditional analytical business thinking. This has the potential to create friction between strategic designers and business strategists and begs the question: Will designers lose design strategy to business strategists learning design thinking?

In discussing this issue with colleagues, I’ve found that many of us in the design community have become somewhat defensive and protective about the unique qualifications we possess and quick to point out the essential differences between the two practices. It’s too simple to just call it a right-brain, left-brain divide, but the fact is designers do tend to think very differently than business people. No matter how many design classes business students take, they are still business students receiving a business education--they can’t learn design in a semester any more than a designer can learn to be a businessperson by taking a few MBA electives. These courses do not enable them to develop unique capabilities that can generate business transformation by design, such as the ability to reflect the customer voice through design research and analysis, to visualize and communicate complex information, or to create, test, and evaluate advanced prototypes. This takes a design education, followed by experience, focus, and maturity.

Those worried about these developments, however, believe that business strategists may be able to learn enough to act as their own strategic design managers, reaching a certain comfort level on the strategy for design, and then handing off to the designer the task of making it real. They worry that design schools aren’t set up to teach business thinking, and so designers aren’t qualified to take part in broad strategy discussions. They fear that it will set the emerging strategic design profession back years to a place where our business colleagues will once more use designers tactically: Make this prototype, make this strategy presentation look good, make this product yellow not blue, etc.

As valid as these concerns are, however, I think they are only half the story. Designers are missing the opportunity presented by this positive perception of design’s influence on good business. To balance the initiative of our progressive business colleagues, designers must educate themselves on the pertinent aspects of business strategy in order to meet halfway and collaborate on the outcome. Those with ambition to be more intentionally strategic about their work must expand their notion of what it means to be a designer, beyond a focus on the craft and design-award competitions, to take a more holistic view of how their designs will actually be received in the marketplace. In fact, design schools should take a page from their B-school colleagues and introduce their own courses to teach these skills to designers to ensure they will play a role in that process.

At the end of the day, designers create products and services to be used, if not create real and lasting differences in people’s lives. Understanding how design drives business success is not only helpful but also essential for the designer in order to be successful in creating the innovations he or she wants to make. An ability to speak the language of finance and marketing will only empower designers in their discussions to argue strategically for the features in their designs they feel are important.
Some in the design community balk at this thought--many designers don’t give a damn about business, or worse, feel there is a danger to injecting business thinking into their process that could commoditize and compromise their creativity. To them, I’d point out that good design is often inspired by the right constraints. The constraints provided by the right business considerations can be the catalysts of great creativity. A designer who can not only “design think,” but also “design do” is in a great position to translate strategy into action.

Design agencies don’t own creativity, but they do have the ability to take an idea and make it real. Showing the real value of naturally integrating strategy and design through creativity is the future, and those designers motivated to develop that skill are poised to succeed in it. It is not about a world where designers do their thing and MBAs do theirs, but rather where both recognize and value the power of a successful collaboration, built on solid communication, that brings the strengths of business and design thinking together to drive business innovation by design.

[Image: Chalk Board via Shutterstock]