This year marks the third anniversary of the Rotman Design Challenge. It started out as a commendable experiment by the school’s Business Design Club to expose MBAs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to the value of design methods in business problem solving. This year, the competition drew teams from a few other MBA schools and some of the best design schools in North America. As a final-round judge, I had a front-row seat to the five best solutions to the competition’s challenge: To help TD Bank foster lifelong customer relationships with students and recent graduates while encouraging healthy financial behaviors.
Both this year and last—the two years that Rotman invited other schools to participate—business school students were slaughtered by the design school students. Of the 12 Rotman teams this year, not one of them made the final round. And while only seven of the 23 competing teams were from design schools (including California College of Arts, Ontario College of Art and Design, and the University of Cincinnati), design teams scooped the top three places in the competition, doing significantly better than their MBA counterparts. So what does this tell us?
It might tell us that MBAs significantly underestimate the skill and expertise a designer brings to the table. After all, about 80 MBA students volunteered their evenings and weekends, believing they had a chance of winning a design competition with minimal, if any, design training. Would you go toe-to-toe with even a purple belt in jiu jitsu having never taken a lesson? While the typical design-school competitor has (at the least) studied the design process in depth for several semesters and practiced it in co-ops and internships, for many MBA students, this was their very first exposure to the discipline. So while we should applaud the organizers’ efforts to open MBA eyes to the importance and value of design in solving business problems, it seems that even its most forward-thinking students may not have fully digested that design is a serious pursuit that requires serious training.
The competition outcome might also tell us that designers have reason to be encouraged. With only 15 minutes to convince a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today, they fared significantly better than their MBA counterparts. Why? Because they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making.
Finally, it tells us that we still have a long way to go to develop business professionals who both appreciate and can engage the tools of design effectively. Rotman gets kudos for taking a step in the right direction. But a few workshops and an extracurricular competition won’t produce business leaders with real design-thinking skills. Business education must be completely redefined to include the best, most appropriate principles of design in every curriculum. Marketing classes should teach a deep reverence for the user in context and the power of observational research methods. Finance classes should teach the art of storytelling and information design. Strategy classes should teach systems thinking and synthesis. If the goal is to create great "hybrid thinkers" who will have real impact, design should not be tacked on to existing business education but infused throughout it.
I’m not letting design schools off the hook either. While design students fared much better than their MBA counterparts that Saturday afternoon, I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.
And I was less than impressed with the business-thinking skills of designers the following Monday morning, when I interviewed 10 of them at the Institute of Design in Chicago for jobs at Doblin. To most candidates, I asked of the ideas they presented in their portfolios, “But how does it make money? Who will pay for that? How much would you need to sell to be profitable?” and was met with far too many blank expressions when I did so. Design schools have a long way to go to integrate good business thinking into their programs. In order to make their value known to the world, designers need to speak the language of business—that’s where great ideas get funded and developed. Design education needs as much of an overhaul as business education if we are to benefit from the talents of design thinkers in the business world.
I hope that we see meaningful reinvention of both design and business education so that the business world can realize the true value of design thinking. Until that happens, Rotman’s Business Design Club would be wise to require challenge teams to comprise both designers and MBAs. At least it would level the playing field, and it may improve the educational experience for both—assuming each can decipher what the other is saying.