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Bridging the Gap Between Designers and Business-Types

What Can Designers and Business Folks Learn from Each Other?


Last Saturday I attended an educational session held at the Creative Coast’s Secret Headquarters entitled What Can Designers and Business Folks Learn from Each Other?. The presenters Peg Faimon and Glenn Platt tackled the issue of the apparent gap between what designers and MBAs learn in their respective halls of academia.

But why is that even an issue?” you ask. Well it’s hard to ignore just how much attention the importance of design in the business world has received in recent years. However, the light speed of change makes it hard for education programs to stay current, causing an ever-widening chasm between what graduates know and what the market needs them to know.

There are specialty programs cropping up like the stanford, and certainly more integration is happening in standard design and MBA programs , so there’s reason to be optimistic. But in addition to the evolving curriculum, public sessions like these are so important for professionals like myself who aren’t in a position to go back to school. These  public forums, books, podcasts, online classes form a good ecosystem of further education to help bridge the gap.

So this past weekend’s session set itself the BHAG of giving Designers a condensed  MBA and Business types an appreciation for what Designers are taught.

Naturally, I was particularly keen to hear from the MBA side since that’s where my knowledge is the weakest. So here are:

My Selections from The Condensed MBA

(or Biz Concepts every Designer / Entrepreneur Should Know that can fit into a 1 hour presentation)
  1. Being 1st matters less than Being ON TIME
    For example, the tech for the iPad and tablet-sized computing in general had been around for at least a decade, but there was something special about the timing of the iPad that made it the success that it is now. So don’t let the fact that other competitors exist in your “space”. Having the right execution for that idea at the right time might be what sets you apart. Look at Reddit, they weren’t the first social news site but who else can rightly boast of being the front page of the internet right now.
  2. (Biz Words) Fixed Cost vs Marginal Cost
    Fixed costs are spent up front, you can’t avoid them, they’re just the cost of doing business in that field. Marginal is the cost of “making 1 more”. This is really what matters as far as profits are concerned. Plus side: for digital products, this is $0 since duplication is essentially free. You’ll need to know this later.
  3. A Rear-view mirror is useless (most of the time)
    There was some discussion as to whether this lead to a disregard for history or precedent. What I took from this though, was that history shouldn’t be the only reason for doing something. “Because we’ve always done it this way” is not a good enough reason for proceeding down a particular path. This was what allowed Intel to pivot away from the increasingly competitive memory chip business where marginal costs (see, told you) were being driven down by Japanese competitors. The story goes, that Intel’s higher ups considered what they would do if they faced the exact same conditions but weren’t a burdened with what they’ve always done before. The decision to change was a no-brainer.
  4. Eventually it’ll always be about Cash
    Recent Tech IPOs aside, the metric that will always matter in the end is Cash. Sure users, downloads, traffic and press mentions are great metrics, but if those don’t lead to revenue at some point, then you don’t have a business you just have a great idea.
  5. Keep Presentations short, and meetings shorter
    Nuff said.
  6. Have a focussed, tangible North Star,
    This is a  sentence mission statement (ideally 8 words) that keeps your business focussed and makes decisions easier. Not necessarily a public-facing tagline, you use this statement more as an internal litmus test with which you measure any potential opportunities. Southwest, for example is notorious for sticking closely to their mantra of being “the low cost airline”. So any decision is weighed by determining how it helps them become or remain the low cost airline carrier. If it doesn’t, no matter how attractive, it’s seen as a distraction from their North star.
  7. Read all of the things
  8. Look for ways to help everyone you meet
    The most effective way of making use of networking is to bring something of use to the relationship. People respond more favorably to people who’ve shown their usefulness, rather than those who seem to be asking for something.
  9. Work should = FLOW
    Strive for high skill , high challenge in the workplace. Particulary insightful if you’re a manager of other designers. Hire high skill workers and keep the challenge level high. In fact, hire people better than you.flow
  10. Solve Problems, don’t just deliver products / services
    Always think about what value you offer your customers / clients rather than just the final output. You don’t just sell hammers and nails, people need a hole in the wall and that’s what you facilitate. This is more than just a marketing / messaging trick it insulates you from obsolescence if hammers ever go out of style or get replaced by newer hole-making technology.
  11. (Biz Word) KPI -Key Performance Indicators
    If it’s not measured it’s not managed. How will you know if you’re succeeding if you don’t keep track of the important metrics that indicate success? If downloads are the true indicator, then why are you measuring Twitter followers?

A list of Business buzzwords was requested during the discussions,
here are a few to get started:

Also, I thought I’d throw in some business podcasts I listen to that could be helpful:

Now here are:

My Selections from the Condensed MFA for Business Types

  1. Get comfortable with killing your darlings
    The phenomenon known as The Crit in design school develops an ability to view critique as a helpful tool rather than a personal attack. Feedback used wisely, can only improve your ideas. This requires a measure of humility to think that the 1st idea you present isn’t the best idea or at least isn’t the best form that idea will take. There’s always better and sometimes you can’t see it. Based on the group discussion around this topic, it seems this is something business and marketing types “just need more practice at.”
  2. Design is as much about Strategy and Process as it is about aesthetics
    The popularity (some would say over-popularity) of terms like design thinking, service design or experience design has at least introduced the biz community to the idea of design as a systematic, albeit flexible, process rather than just a group of creative types sitting and waiting for inspiration to strike.

The Concluding thought seemed to be that as the bridge between Design and Business gets firmer, the higher education programs will need to merge. The presenters saw a future where MFA and MBA grads share an interdisciplinary knowledge set where MBAs are more design-savvy and MFAs are more prepared to contribute in the boardroom not just the studio. They’re even co-authoring an Experience Design curriculum. So keep an eye out for that.

Andrew Davies

Drew's degrees in Illustration, 2D animation and Broadcast Design, and his volleyball skillz mean he can get your design done and play well with others at the same time. He’s the Creative Director at Paragon and will call you out if you start hanging out with shady-looking fonts and messing around with whacked-out color palettes.