Designers and business people – is it a match?


In early February 2018, five young designers from EGGS Design met with executives from the transnational consumer goods company, Unilever, at INSEAD’s campus in the rural Fontainebleu region of France. The two groups participated in a three-day collaborative workshop as part of one of INSEAD’s tailored executive training programs – geared towards exploring the relationship between both design and business. I was one of the lucky designers from EGGS who got the opportunity to embark on this exciting adventure.

Investigating how business from INSEAD and design can be a match

We’ve all heard it before, read the book and maybe even bought the T-shirt: business and design are a match. It’s not news, yet despite the rave reviews many of those who have tried to arrange this “dream team” has met some resistance.

So, how does it work? To investigate, EGGS Design and INSEAD – a prestigious business school and provider of some of the world’s best MBA’s and executive training programs – set up a collaboration.

Three days of exploring design and business collaborations

The three-day workshop was goal oriented and well-structured, with each day kicking off with an inspirational lecture that illustrated what the outcome of successful design and business collaborations could lead to.

Each group discussed working across disciplines, gaining insight into how we viewed the world and how we could learn from each other throughout the course. To further fuel our progress, each day was built up around a four-hour group activity of exploring different design techniques.

Despite being a concentrated three-day interaction, the collaboration revealed numerous ideas about how design and business can benefit from one another.

Day one: playfully finding our common ground

On the first day, we were all curious about how everything would pan out. On one side was us designers, and on the other, our business counterparts. Both groups had a very different way of seeing the world.

Therefore, challenge number one was to find common ground. So, we were given an assortment of materials, from playdough to brightly coloured marker pens, and spent the day getting familiar with how each of us thought. Together, we built cardboard models, played games with chocolates and experimented with new ways of working.

All this helped us take small steps in the same direction. By playfully interacting, we established the foundation for the next couple of days – one of mutual respect, curiosity and understanding.

Day two: how to handle good and bad ideas. And user needs.

On the second day, the group work had begun to kick off, and the discussions were running wild.

Design is often touted as being a collaborative discipline, one that’s well acquainted with criticism, user-perspectives and working iteratively – “kill your darlings and all that jazz.”

We know how to share, and also how to let go of an idea. However, our business friends worked quite differently. They tended to place ideas up against each other until the best idea won.

To counteract this, we began to work more closely in teams. And to add a little zest to proceedings, we made sure there was one designer per team.

We had a project goal that we had to achieve quickly. As a result, there was very little time to battle out who had the best idea and why. Despite this, we still had some trouble finding the best way forward. So, we each tried putting ourselves in the shoes of the end user. Our project now included a critical aspect of design, i.e., focusing on the receiver of the idea rather than the maker of it.

Next, we conducted a short field trip geared towards honing in on the needs of the end user. Back at the drawing board, we could now focus more objectively on needs rather than ideas. It was here that some real magic happened.

Once we shifted the focus away from individual ideas to real needs, we started to share a similar point of view. We stopped firing ideas at each other (well, maybe some ideas were still rattled off, but there was a significant improvement), and were able to build on each other’s ideas and work towards a solution in unison. The focus was now on coming up with a better collective approach to the improvement of someone else’s situation, as opposed to any individual recognition.

Day three: Hallelujah - navigating the unfamiliar together

By the third day, things were starting to pick up speed. The next task focused on working against our assumptions. We applied a variety of methods to map out our predisposed ideas and opinions and then had to ignore them to think radically different. We were now charting the unknown – something that proved challenging for both groups.

Armed with both business and design knowledge, we were able to draw up some impressive ideas, despite navigating the unfamiliar. But the “Hallelujah” feeling happened when we began to show genuine appreciation and understanding for each other’s skillset – knowing how and when the others’ skills applied and when to use them to our advantage. When we started to understand each other, we all got a greater appreciation of how powerful business and design can be when combined.

Ultimately what we experienced on the third day was a cultural shift within the groups that allowed us to maximise the output of our collective skillset.

So, what do we know now? Appreciate and apply our differences.

After three intense days of both design and business being in the same room together, one thing’s for sure – we’re different. But what we can learn from this experiment is that it doesn’t mean we can’t work together. The key to achieving successful collaboration between design and business is that we first must establish a solid foundation. There’s no skyscraper without a ground floor, right? The foundation is what we created together the first day. Via playful interaction, we built up a common language. We also need to work closely together with a clearly defined mutual goal, as we explored on the second day of the workshop.

An appreciation and understanding of each other’s skillsets also helps to drive collaboration between business people and designers, just as we saw happening on day three.

These factors alone are not the only things that we designers need to address together with our business collaborators. There is no quick fix. However, what can be concluded from this microcosm of professional integration is the importance of having a common foundation, working towards a mutual goal and an appreciation of our different skills are essential to successful business and design collaboration.

Sounds interesting?

Sanna Nordin

Get in touch with Senior Service Designer
Sanna Nordin
+47 919 05 119

Caterina Forno Rios

Have a chat with our Senior Digital Designer
Caterina Forno Rios
+47 907 11 031

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