5 things designers can teach us about business

A representation of a user journey flowing from the needs of a specific user.

In training designers, we work hard to give them a grounding in business principles – but do businesspeople spend enough time learning from designers?

I’ve spent the last twentysomething years working as a researcher, lecturer and strategic design consultant, at senior levels. I’ve worked in academia, with agencies, and even set up my own consultancy.

A few years into my squiggly career, stepping from one connection to another, I was fortunate enough to be supported by my employer to undertake a PhD.

At the beginning of that research journey of discovery, I thought I wanted to study how designers learn about business.

My master’s degree was about managing creativity and innovation but my design pals often said that they found the business aspect of their degree boring. They couldn’t understand why I found the area of design management and managing creativity so fascinating.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t understand why more designers didn’t enjoy the business aspect of their degree.

Then I came to realise that, unfortunately, the business education they’d experienced was dull, dull, dull.

It was largely about how to fill in spreadsheets or do their business accounts. A tick-box, lip-service exercise.

And it wasn’t taught with passion, because the people teaching it were also designers and, frankly, didn’t find it interesting.

I felt that the way business was taught in the design curriculum needed to change – and my PhD was going to start the ball rolling. Or so I thought.

Thinking about design thinking

When I was doing my PhD I was working in a successful design consultancy. I could see my colleagues having great conversations with clients about the value of design, and how it could help them achieve business objectives.

Despite how badly business is taught to designers, they were largely astute and business savvy.

And I thought, wait – if they didn’t learn about business at college or university, then how did they come to sound so expert?

Some of their advice was so good, in fact, that I started to wonder if perhaps designers might have more to teach us about business than we had to teach them.

Fast forward a few years and design thinking is everywhere – and certainly not ‘dead’ as some would have you believe.

Books like Design Attitude by Kamil Michlewski have made explicit what it means to be ‘designerly’ and there’s been a corresponding increase in the number of courses intended to help businesspeople to think more like designers.

So, it would seem, my initial hypothesis might not have been entirely correct.

Here are 5 specific things I think designers can teach us.

1. Understanding the brief is critical to success

People who work in design always talk about ‘the brief’ as if it is a sacred text.

When I dug deeper into this I learned that the value is in briefing as a process – not as an output that gets filed away.

It’s that dialogue that shapes the scope of design work to be done, capturing the client’s business goals and needs.

It occurred to me that there was no point in teaching designers about Excel and accounting if they weren’t able to have a conversation with a client. They need, more than anything, to understand what they’re trying to achieve, and how design can help them achieve it.

Without that they can’t win work, do good work, or bill for it.

Designers absolutely live and breathe the brief and we in the business world should learn to do the same.

2. Understand the context before responding

Another important lesson that designers have taught me is the importance of listening, reflecting, and asking questions. This helps them understand the context and sense check before they respond.

If you want to know about this in more depth you can read an article I wrote for the journal of the institute of Design Management in 2017.

It can be tempting to start rattling off ideas and possible solutions, to show we understand and are experienced – that we are eager to help. But what’s more important is deciding on the right approach.

For businesspeople, too, it’s important not to impose solutions or approaches on clients. Listening and asking questions actually project confidence, not self-doubt. And your client will thank you for it in the end.

3. Empathy is hugely valuable

Whether it’s imagining how a colleague is feeling when planning a meeting or considering a user of your product or service as a human being, empathy will always help you do better.

Designing great products, services and experiences all starts with empathy – and it’s a uniquely human skill.

Listening to and working with designers helped me make the shift from consideration to empathy in my own approach.

4. Simplify complexity with visuals

Anyone who has ever worked with me, or has listened to any of my lectures or talks, knows that I’m always hammering this point.

A large part of the power of design is its ability to make the tacit explicit.

Service designers visualise complex services that were previously invisible but are felt. Architects draw plans. 3D visual artists create flythroughs so that we can imagine buildings that don’t yet exist.

In workshops and research sessions we encourage people to pop their thoughts on sticky notes and to sketch their ideas, rather than getting hung up on expressing them in words.

Designers are trained in visual methods but we can all have a go at visualising our thoughts.

5. It’s a trade-off between expertise and experience

One of the most powerful things I learned when I studied for my PhD all those years ago was that designers and clients bring their own strengths to the table.

Designers bring their expertise in design but, in a good partnership, the client will learn to become more ‘designerly’ along the way.

Equally, a client has experience of their business, organisation and sector. But any designer worth their salt will make it their mission to absorb that contextual information. They’ll immerse themselves, ask questions, be curious, and keep doing so until they understand enough to do their thing.

It’s this trade-off between the designer’s expertise and the client’s experience that signifies true design partnership, with both sides enriched as a result.

A happy but challenging place

I feel incredibly lucky to work in design. It’s my passion, an itch I need to scratch, and something that I learn more and more about with every project.

I get a wee bit nervy when I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t found design, and I feel fortunate to be able to learn and grow with each collaboration.

My final thought for those of you working in and around design: if it feels difficult and complex, and if you are having to ask difficult questions and have difficult conversations, and call out the elephant in the room – keep going. it's a sign that you’re doing the right thing.