Who needs designers?

For all their qualities, designers can also be described as inexpert and expensive, says Clive Grinyer. So it’s little wonder businesses question the need for them

At the recent Design in Business Week events across the country, a recurring question from the mainly business audience was: ‘Do we need to use designers?’ The obvious answer is yes, but the question remains: ‘What is a designer?’

Talking about design to people just arriving at the realisation that design affects much of what they do, yet is so amateurishly managed, follows a similar pattern. The simplicity of the idea that design helps with difficult decisions by putting the customer first, gives you a co-ordinated strategy and helps reduce the risk can make people giddy. The problem gets worse when they realise they have to work with people they don’t know, from outside their business and whom they must pay. Who are designers anyway?

A designer is someone who calls themself a designer. There is no professional mark, despite the Chartered Society of Designers’ continued efforts. A design-based degree is a usual prerequisite, though there are many design visionaries such as Paul Smith and Wayne Hemingway without them.

Design as a verb is a lot easier to describe and comfortable to hold. Designing goes on in all of us, most of the time. It’s an inclusive definition that shows the creativity that can be in everyone will enhance our ability to make long-term, visionary decisions. For many, creativity in engineering, technology and biochemistry are all legitimate acts of design.

But working with designers of the human interface, to whom we communicate here, is a different experience as they are less decision makers than facilitators of decisions. These are designers who focus totally on creation of the next. They look over your shoulder, fill a blank piece of paper with options unconsidered and let you consider what might be.

The most understandable aspect of design is that it makes what you do look good. This is vital to many businesses, but for most it is imagined that once all the hard work is done to put together a business proposition, design will make it attractive, in every sense. Wrong. With all the decisions made design can only be a rearranging of the deckchairs. Design is the result of many other decisions, but, amazingly, when all these decisions are right, design becomes beautiful. Aesthetics are the proof of good design.

Design is creative problem solving, but does that need a designer? The footballer and inventor of David Beckham’s Predator football boot Craig Johnson says he became an expert in the science of ball kicking as he was so bad a footballer he had to work it out from scratch. Being inexpert is a major design attribute; the best designer may have no experience in your business. If they can untangle the received wisdom of an industry and re-establish a users’ viewpoint, the result can be fantastic innovation.

Every designer has to know what parameters they are working in and push them. The perception is that designers are not familiar with cost parameters or the established ways of organisations. The opposite is true and most design activity results in increased productivity. But forcing companies to make hard decisions about processes, materials, the real needs of their customers and so on, often places a tension between designer and company.

For many business managers and owners, the thought that design strategy may change their business is frightening. So choosing the right designer is vital – one you can build a long-term relationship with so they understand your organisation, yet be familiar enough to occasionally challenge your preconceptions. But ‘challenging’ is hard to measure, yet so central to the design experience. It’s difficult to be simultaneously attractive and challenging.

That makes designers challenging, creative, future-focused, practical, inexpert, artistic, expensive people who give their ideas away for a fee. My dad never could understand the last bit, but as Ideo’s Colin Burns said recently we have to be comfortable with the idea that we can g

ive a client our best idea today, ‘and have the confidence that we can have a better one tomorrow’.

As Raymond Turner says ‘design is too important to be left to designers’ and that reflects the importance of design thinking that sheds new light on problems, creates new possibilities and generates new solutions to other people’s big problems. At the end of the argument, we’re left with real people who think and act differently. Call them what you want.

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