Designing Design Teams

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The importance of structuring design talent in future-oriented organizational processes

In 2016, the Design Market Monitor by Bain & Company certified how the design-driven business propositions and product lines reached the value of 100 billion Euro. Already in 2015, Design Thinking also made it to the cover of the Harvard Business Review as “the” new business and corporate asset, acting as mission-critical differentiator for the future. This major achievement of a people-centric, problem solving, holistic approach to the management of business challenges was perhaps one of the most striking manifestations for a discipline that in earlier cycles of corporate life was constrained to the creation of suitable aesthetic packages around technologies born our of scientific labs or at most to the performance of marketing functions supporting sales. Nowadays, “design” within both corporate giants as well as creative industry firms is perceived and articulated as a multidisciplinary, multicultural portfolio of competences, where talent meets business ambitions by focusing on end users and societies. In this new conception, “design” is a paradigm-changing practice for those enterprises that aim at switching from a modernist, top down style in their internal and market relationships, to a dialog with people as the starting point and the main focus of their existence.

Having performed and consulted in design management and in the management of design talent within both complex organizations as well as small medium enterprises, three key learning points might be distilled in terms of what appears key for the purpose of leveraging the possibilities of this specific traits:

a) being  an agency with a systematic future orientation

b) being an agency of thought leadership

c) being a resilient, reliable practice based on a formalized process.

These three traits of the contemporary design competence for corporate and digital enterprises will be further articulated in the notes below, for the purpose of offering a helicopter view of those qualities that respond to the notion of effective and efficient design team management:

  1. design is about the future: the natural mindset of designers lies in the future, as it is the natural purpose of all design work to envision, conceive and prototype what will be in the world later on. From this viewpoint, it is important to connect design teams to futures research capabilities. The last two decades saw a proliferation of what Prof. Richard Slaughter defined as “pop futurism”, mostly connected to fashion, colors and materials, with their regular roadmaps and intrinsic pace of aesthetic change. Since the 2008 financial crisis, this kind of pre-digested trends appear insufficient in their limited reach, as the new questions emerging from societies are not simply the shade of pink of the next accessory line, whereas an ability to redefine and reframe what society itself is about, starting from specific sectors. In this line of thinking, Lighting Design Collective initiated for example a yearly cycle of uniquely formatted events, “Think in a Tank”, host in the iconic SILO486 during the Helsinki Design Week, as a “meeting of minds”. Here artists, architects, entrepreneurs, sociologists and creative thought leaders of the next generation consistently generated working hypothesis on the future of light, beyond plain traditional lighting. Beyond such example of experimentation, what appears crucial is to structurally integrate foresight and futures research methodologies in the design process, ensuring that design teams can tap into truly original visions of the future, stretching beyond their comfort zone, by design;
  2. design is about thought leadership: the future orientation of design teams, be it in the corporate environment or on the creative industry market, cannot however be limited to episodic fragments within anonymous processes. The integration of foresight methodology should instead represent only one specific moment of the structuring of a systematic design practice with characteristics of intellectual independence. An intellectually independent design center or design consultancy is the best guarantee of a true “Design Thinking” contribution to economic or industrial processes. The future orientation that is a natural feature of design work, as designers project the present challenges into future solutions, becomes then the backbone of future visioning and of thought leadership, beyond aesthetics and beyond the limits of project work. Because only a true vision of the future might reconcile necessary everyday tactics at level of category or pricing, with tomorrow’s major challenges, from sustainability to social justice, by design. In this respect, the great tradition of designers of the past century might find in the digital age a new motivation to add even more value to the corporate constituencies or the market customers of a design practice. Here, the example of enterprises like Philips Design, with its constant output of programs and publications since the early 1990’s, that determined true brand strategic value at a time when no marketing function was active in the organization, or -once again- aforementioned Lighting Design Collective, with their ability to steer a team that systematically anticipates new paradigms beyond boundaries, might stand as the natural continuation of the “design discourse” that was started decades ago by academies like the Bauhaus or by masters like Lissitzky. Value can be conceived not only as immaterial contribution to IP generation or problem solving but also as the natural leadership that derives from consciously partaking into a long standing tradition of future forming;
  3. design is about a resilient, repeatable processes and structures: be it a corporate department or an enterprise born and grown around the vision of individuals with exceptional talent, design is no artistic or aesthetic matter only. On the contrary, a design team requires both the strategic leadership and the tactics that will enable its positioning in the internal corporate matrices or in the external markets, or both. There are intrinsic complexities, namely the selection of competencies that will embody the design team proposition, or the adoption of appropriate multicultural management approaches and processes to stimulate diversity and dialog. There also external complexity factors, from market dynamics for those enterprises operating as a standalone commercial entity to the organizational dynamics of corporate organizations that might sometime be described as political and social automatons. Independent firms benefit from their natural independence, however require rigor and structure in their brand marketing and organizational design. One of the possible proofs of the pudding for such design teams comes when the choice is made to spin off or sell the company. At that crucial time, managerial practices might pay off. One can mention Italdesign Giugiaro, that operated with total independence as Italdesign since 1968, to be then transitioned from the Giugiaro family to a major German automotive conglomerate. Giorgetto Giugiaro, one the most prominent and successful designers of Italian history, managed to secure contractual privileges for hundreds of workers and contributors, converting what started as his own boutique firm into a corporate asset within a portfolio of brands that include Volkswagen, Audi, SEAT, Skoda, Lamborghini, Ducati and more, each with their own design departments. At the other end of the spectrum, Lighting Design Collective recently announced the start up of a new software company, UNSTATIC Technologies, that represents the flexible and dynamic embodiment of the future of digital systems and content management in lighting, a sector that is being revolutionized by IT forces as we speak. The ability to identify a new market development and timely responding to such dynamics with a spin off or a new entrepreneurial direction is the natural child of both a future oriented design enterprising, as well as a small medium enterprise where processes and structures enable the rapid growth of a new generation of leaders, sometimes at the same lifestage as the partners and founders. The notion that creative industry business might be based on sole intuition is more of a literary myth of the last decades, than a reality measured by business success.

The most fascinating aspect in consulting either small medium enterprises in the design and creative industry or corporations about their design teams and processes, is the extent to which these two worlds benefit of each other in terms of knowledge transfer at organizational design level. Here, firms born out of the intuition of visionary leaders might learn how to structure themselves and give a sense of longer term direction to their original intent, while corporate management might benefit of principles and lessons matured in fine arts or start ups. The hybrid nature of design and creative industry work is such, that requires a deep mix of both corporate strategy and talent management based on criteria that require a humanistic approach relying on appreciative enquiry, positive psychology and the ability to evoke strategies from the team itself, to let talent systematically blossom according to their own DNA and principles. Here, the role of the organizational consultant might be redefined for the future.

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