OK, so the business world is finally getting it:

Design is the best way to innovate.

All business schools with respect for themselves now have some sort of Design Thinking class, all the big consultancies are buying design agencies in heaps, and large companies in all industries use design to innovate, to create better customer experiences, to become more human centred. Management consultancies are learning the tricks of the design trade, and creativity is the new black in business. A lot of MBA students now want to work in design, innovation, or product management. The business world is becoming design savvy.

There is only one problem:

Designers are not becoming equally business savvy.

As designers are moving up the strategic ladder, they are being confronted with a new set of challenges. They need to understand how business models work, how to read a P&L (or at least know what a P&L is), they need to understand supply chains and business models. And above all, they need to understand the internal politics of a large corporation. In fact, they need to create empathy with the top execs they are helping, not only with the users.

To make design-driven innovation work, designers need to be able to talk the talk on the top floors, and take the perspectives of senior executives.

We sent designers to business school

Earlier this year we did it. Manuel Sosa, a professor at INSEAD who researches and teaches innovation management, and I decided to conduct an experiment. Manuel has been building up INSEAD’s “Innovation by Design” executive education program and is an eager advocate of bringing design methods into business. But he has realised that business people don’t really get it, before they get to work with designers for real. As an old business person, myself, and as a CEO of a design agency, I have an interest in educating designers in business.

So, we agreed that EGGS would send 5 young designers to INSEAD to participate in a company specific version of the “Innovation by Design” program. This program in particular was for vice presidents of a global company.

It was an absolute success!

This experiment, mind you, was not to teach designers about numbers and business models. It was to see what both camps would learn from each other during three intense days and nights at a top-ranked business school.

Learnings and surprises

While the designers came in with loads of self-confidence in all the creative methods and ways of thinking, the biggest surprise to them was how hard it was to get the VPs in on the games of ideation and playfulness from the start. They had to build trust first, both parties had to understand each other’s perspectives and to appreciate each other’s competencies.

This was somehow different from a regular consulting setting where the goals are clear from the beginning, and the end users/customers’ needs have been identified, when the co-creation with the business people starts.

After the course, Manuel and I debriefed the experiment. It confirmed our two hypotheses: 1) that top execs would really get it when working directly with designers, and 2) designers have a lot to learn about the business setting.

Designers need to step up their game

As a consultancy we work closely with business people on a daily basis, and we collaborate with management consultants in joint projects. Of course, we are adopting business thinking and are moving into business design like many of our colleagues in the design industry.

However, for designers to speed up the learning process, we need to combine theory and practice. In addition, there is still a cultural divide that needs to be worked out, and both sides have to give.

I recently talked to some of my colleagues in the industry, and some of the feedback they are getting these days, is that designers are sometimes perceived as arrogant towards business people for not really getting it. Hence, also the recent heated discussions about the term design thinking, probably sparked by the talk by Natasha Jen, “design thinking is bullshit” last year.

While design is being flooded with non-designers who want in on the game, designers generally still stick to designing.

Are designers currently risking being marginalised or even get their profession diluted when everyone with a stack of post-it and a set of markers call themselves designers? Can designers forget the dreams of working more holistically and strategically, and just go back to craft?

I hope not.

It would be a shame, as so much would be lost in the translation. Let’s not forget that design is not just a set of tools, it is also a mindset, years of education and decades of research.

Instead, I think it is time to introduce Business Thinking for designers!

What would a "Business Thinking for Designers" class look like? I would like to see introductions to these topics:

  • Strategy development

  • Basic company financials and KPIs

  • Organisational theory and leadership

  • Business model generation

  • How to deal with the politics of large organisations

What would you like to see in a potential "Business Thinking" course for designers?

Looking forward to hearing from you!