Should Designers Fear Design-Thinking MBAs?

What every designer and every design-thinker should know about their limits, according to Continuum’s Brian Gillespie.

The tangible success of design has propelled business schools around the world to innovate their MBA programs by introducing courses on design thinking as a valuable complement to traditional analytical business thinking. This has the potential to create friction between strategic designers and business strategists and begs the question: Will designers lose design strategy to business strategists learning design thinking?

In discussing this issue with colleagues, I’ve found that many of us in the design community have become somewhat defensive and protective about the unique qualifications we possess and quick to point out the essential differences between the two practices. It’s too simple to just call it a right-brain, left-brain divide, but the fact is designers do tend to think very differently than business people. No matter how many design classes business students take, they are still business students receiving a business education—they can’t learn design in a semester any more than a designer can learn to be a businessperson by taking a few MBA electives. These courses do not enable them to develop unique capabilities that can generate business transformation by design, such as the ability to reflect the customer voice through design research and analysis, to visualize and communicate complex information, or to create, test, and evaluate advanced prototypes. This takes a design education, followed by experience, focus, and maturity.

Those worried about these developments, however, believe that business strategists may be able to learn enough to act as their own strategic design managers, reaching a certain comfort level on the strategy for design, and then handing off to the designer the task of making it real. They worry that design schools aren’t set up to teach business thinking, and so designers aren’t qualified to take part in broad strategy discussions. They fear that it will set the emerging strategic design profession back years to a place where our business colleagues will once more use designers tactically: Make this prototype, make this strategy presentation look good, make this product yellow not blue, etc.

As valid as these concerns are, however, I think they are only half the story. Designers are missing the opportunity presented by this positive perception of design’s influence on good business. To balance the initiative of our progressive business colleagues, designers must educate themselves on the pertinent aspects of business strategy in order to meet halfway and collaborate on the outcome. Those with ambition to be more intentionally strategic about their work must expand their notion of what it means to be a designer, beyond a focus on the craft and design-award competitions, to take a more holistic view of how their designs will actually be received in the marketplace. In fact, design schools should take a page from their B-school colleagues and introduce their own courses to teach these skills to designers to ensure they will play a role in that process.

At the end of the day, designers create products and services to be used, if not create real and lasting differences in people’s lives. Understanding how design drives business success is not only helpful but also essential for the designer in order to be successful in creating the innovations he or she wants to make. An ability to speak the language of finance and marketing will only empower designers in their discussions to argue strategically for the features in their designs they feel are important.

Some in the design community balk at this thought—many designers don’t give a damn about business, or worse, feel there is a danger to injecting business thinking into their process that could commoditize and compromise their creativity. To them, I’d point out that good design is often inspired by the right constraints. The constraints provided by the right business considerations can be the catalysts of great creativity. A designer who can not only "design think," but also "design do" is in a great position to translate strategy into action.

Design agencies don’t own creativity, but they do have the ability to take an idea and make it real. Showing the real value of naturally integrating strategy and design through creativity is the future, and those designers motivated to develop that skill are poised to succeed in it. It is not about a world where designers do their thing and MBAs do theirs, but rather where both recognize and value the power of a successful collaboration, built on solid communication, that brings the strengths of business and design thinking together to drive business innovation by design.

[Image: Chalk Board via Shutterstock]

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  • Aaron Payne

    Great article!

    I feel like part of the problem is that there is such a huge variance of definition in the name "designer". Some people think a designer is someone that makes something look pretty and others understand that there's a whole lot more that a designer does or should do. People will probably see a designer as one or the other because of their prior experience with designers. I feel like it is up to the designers of the world to teach people more about design and what is involved. We as designers have to teach people that we do not just make things look pretty (makes me sick when I get this impression from people). Hopefully someday there will be different names for a designer that is strategic and a designer that just makes things "pretty".

  • Vishal Kapoor

    I ultimately believe is that every person is different and hence has a unique talent. Our education system works on a basic platform of generalizing the output and creating a common parameter of measurement leaving majority under rated .
    Designers and managers have been an outcome of that siloed system and strangely before industrialization or corporatist ion individuals in trade or creation of products balanced both. Ask a small time road side uneducated trader how he functions - one would find inherent usage of creative and management sensibilities .Our economy now has taken a full circle and thereby the education to support the system need of integration .
    Creative quotient is a lifeline to growing business as everything around is instantly evolves so rather than creating two divisions of knowledge and naming it MBA and design - creative management is the new kind of sustainable morph ism in evolution .

  • Dave Mariano

    Designers and businesspeople should both be educated about both sides. They both need to exist and are important. My training is definitely on the business side, but my wife was working at a creative agency when we met and just being around her colleagues changed me. I became fascinated with how they thought and dove in. I now think very differently and read different stuff (this site, for example). Conversely, the President of my wife's old company has gone out of his way to take compressed MBA programs, etc. The trick is in leadership - finding ways to bring the best ideas together and generate the best outcome. The best ideas bring both design and business into the conversation.

  • Uriah

    This is a topic always on my mind as an artist-come-manufacturer for Parasoleil now in a round of funding with the vital help of good business strategists and financial advisers.

  • Jan-Erik

    The issue described is valid for many professionals adding their expertise to a collective process: engineers, developers, designers, you name them, are all predominantly serving on an operational or tactical level. There is nothing wrong with that. Why should they act on a strategic level?

    The phenomena of B-schools turning to design, reveals that obviously the skill set of business managers needs to be improved - it lacks empathy and the ability to 'make' or 'create': skills needed to answer the challenges of today's business. Developing their design skills will not turn business managers into designers, nor will the development of management skills turn designers into business managers. 

    It's about time we find a common ground in our professional skill set, which allows all professional to work inter-disciplinary and collectively on solving problems. Maybe it needs an 'studium generale' which is same for all professionals, and provide each and everybody with the same skills to connect: common sense, empathy and creativity. Then designers can just remain designers and do the right thing.

  • Ryan McGovern

    This article couldn't be more timely. I'm a designer who, just yesterday, started to pursue an MBA in marketing. Every job I've had as a designer has put me in a situation where I'm communicating ideas with a business counterpart. And almost every time my business counterpart speaks with an undertone that implies my rational for business decisions be disregarded as mis-informed. Even worse, sometimes its much more than an undertone, its blatant disregard. 
    I know my design thinking and strategies are sound, but I also know there is always more to learn. Getting an MBA as a designer puts me in a position to weigh in on both worlds in a way that most can't. 
    If I as a designer choose to be fearful of MBAs who possess design thinking skills then I've also chosen a self-inflicted paralysis. That would make me feel like I have to constantly defend every little decision I make. It puts you in a position of re-action rather than action. And in an ever-competative world of business, those who are perceived as incapable of pro-active thinking are then relegated to remedial tasks. Instead, I'm choosing to be part of the pro-active conversation and give people more reasons to believe what I'm saying.
    It's hard to put the responsibility of business education on design schools. However, I think schools can be better about framing design within the context of real-world business. 

  • Michael Musgrove

    There is an incentive in the better B-schools to not think so modularly, and many admissions committees actually prefer candidates that don't strictly come from a quantitative-based educational or cultural background. I myself have an English degree and an MBA with a concentration in marketing strategy. I love design, art, music, creation and what many certainly would consider "non-business." endeavors.

    I had many people in my class that had worked in museums, non-profits, the music industry, and other areas that don't fit the mold as well. Of course, we had a group of engineers and chemists etc... as well, but admissions try to achieve a balance.

    In B-school we learned to (at least try) integrate across and up and down the board. Financial has to play nice with marketing, who consults operations and R&D, etc...We were given quite a few books, such as Dan Pink's 'A Whole New Mind' to absorb.  

    I think it comes down to the exposure being all we can ask for. You can't teach entrepreneurship in a classroom really any better than most design. Either you have it, or you don't.

  • Eduardo Pucu

    Interesting discussion. I'm following a dissemination of design thinking courses, with a very short period of time (like 2-week crash courses). The student feel like he learned the process, after spending few weeks doing one fun project. After it, he consider himself ready to apply whatever he has learned on his job. Unfortunately, this leads to incremental innovation, because you skip important steps of the process, most commonly, research.

    Although I'm a designer who is working and applying Design Thinking on business strategies, I have a feeling that companies are using design to save time only, using it to get ideas for incremental atributes to their products/services. I believe that this 'fast and furious' way of doing projects, provided by business people with training in Design Thinking, will not truly lead a company to meaningful innovations. That needs research and a in deep process, where a multidisciplinary team, time and resources are reacquired. 

  • Nathan Shedroff

    Eduardo, I feel similarly. I'm certainly not one of those designers that fears non-designers suddenly "becoming designer." But, one course in design thinking does not a designer thinker make. At best, it will only orient business peers to better understand true innovation and participate in the development process but it's seldom enough for them to lead this process. Still, it's better than being afraid of it--especially the ambiguity (which many non-design businesspeople are).

    We find that the only way to really understand design thinking and design process is to do it: "MAKE" is the new "THINK!" This takes time. Those one and two week "bootcamps" are high-energy and likely better than no time at all, but they aren't long enough to actually conduct decent customer/design research nor to develop a project. The best way to learn design is "in situ"--on a project, and this takes longer than one or two weeks.

    When we developed our executive program, this was the biggest complaint we heard from others (the second was that after the program was over and attendees went back to their jobs, there was no one to ask continued questions of when things didn't implement as easily as they had been led to believe).

    It's better to stretch-out the content over a few months, even if you only engage a few days each month. The time in-between is critical for developing ideas, integrating competing factors and thinking in systems. We chose this format but, obviously, there are many possibilities:

    In addition, to be proficient, you cant only do it once. We have our students go through this process at least 5 times before they graduate. That doesn't make them experts but it advances them well beyond those who've only ever had one experience with design thinking.

  • 1T52WEry

    Brian, great viewpoint! While it is indeed good that there is a lot of attention to "design thinking", in my experience the ensuing discussion is typically about who is best fitted to do so.

    In the end, the best solution may be as you suggest: both [design & business] recognize and value the power of a successful collaboration, to drive business innovation by design.

    In this way, both are still perceived and respected as experts in their trained discipline. No doubt, by having a broadened perspective, understanding and empathy of one another (through hybrid training programs) together they can deliver increased value. However, this can only be effectively achieved by those individuals who naturally gravitate towards integrated thinking, using both sides of the brain. We must remember not all designers want to be busness strategist!

    Now, if we could only get away from the term design "thinking", which to me immediately places design into an esoteric methodology, and move onto a term that encompasses delivering value through a holistic approach to solving problems ;)

  • Nathan Shedroff

    Don't forget sustainability and systems thinking. Regardless of what you think about climate change, sheer competition for resources is making sustainable strategies the critical third leg for business to stand on (in addition to design thinking and customer-based qualitative research). In the past, we could be successful in any one of these areas without knowing a thing about the other two. Now, not so much. People who don't know how to integrate strategy across all three, and implement, are going to be at a distinct disadvantage.

  • Skeptical Designer

    Unfortunately, the designers are often viewed as "dumb but creative" hippies.
    When actually joining the conversation, I (and people like me) tend to get pushed away by marketeers and strategists that believe blindly in the few courses and programs they have gone through, without ever having really done any true design themselves.

    Being a designer doesn't exclude having a business sense, but not being a designer often makes people blind to the fingerspitzengefühl, the sensitivity to Zeitgeist, the esthetic antennae and continuous self-doubt necessary for great design to actually work in the real world.

    No "truth-spouting" marketing guru can replace the designer's ill-gained insights.

    Yes, as a designer I have no background in economics or applied psychology, but what I have to offer (informed by these) is often more useful than a badly executed rehashed (and probably derivative) marketing concept saved only by woolly marketing newspeak.

  • Nathan Shedroff

    SD: You're very right. Just because the VP of Marketing can spout endless statistics from "market research," doesn't mean his or her opinion on which direction to take with product or service development is the right one (often, it's not because 90% of all market research is worthless). But, as you point-out, the onus is on the designer to learn the language of business in order to be heard and to clearly articulate why their opinions matter about the direction to take (hint: it's not about "inspiration").

    It doesn't take a two-year degree to learn to be confident about business. In fact, I think it's a plus to have a viewpoint that isn't drowned in the neo-classical, Chicago-school, traditional "the business of business is business" mentality. We just need to know how to argue against it--and in favor of strategic, meaningful, and profitable innovation.

    But, innovation is scary to most businesspeople. That's why they shut the process down when it looks like it's getting messy. This is why the people skills (effective and communication, generative leadership, etc.) are so critical and, again, these aren't skills designers typically acquire.

    Still, there are some great resources out there. You won't learn people skills effectively from a book (you actually need to, um, learn them with people), but there are some great resources to start with on the other topics. We keep a list of them here: (scroll down to "Books" and everything after that).

  • Brian Gillespie

     Thanks for the response, Skeptical Designer! Unfortunately, I think you are right. Not every design endeavor will be blessed with a team of mutually respectful, synchronized, cross-disciplinary practitioners.
    Also, thank you for my favorite new word of the year so far... fingerspitzengefühl! I trust you are using it to describe our superior ability to respond to an escalated situation!
    For others who have yet to look it up...(from Wikipedia)
    Fingerspitzengefühl [ˈfɪŋɐˌʃpɪtsənɡəˌfyːl] is a German term, literally meaning "finger tips feeling" and meaning intuitive flair or instinct, which has been appropriated by the English language as a loanword.
    In German, it describes a great situational awareness, and the ability
    to respond most appropriately and tactfully. It can be applied well to
    diplomats, bearers of bad news, or to describe a superior ability to
    respond to an escalated situation.

  • Buckminster Fuller

    "Of course, our failures are a consequence of many factors, but possibly one of the most important is the fact that society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking."

  • Nathan Shedroff

    "At the end of the day, designers create products and services to be used, if not create real and lasting differences in people’s lives."

    At the end of the day, all businesspeople do this (designers an non-designers alike), just from another perspective. It's time to recognize that business isn't just numbers and "design" isn't just drawings. And, that's exactly what's happening in the best programs.

    However, design schools are out in front of business schools who are more apt to tack on design thinking courses to an otherwise stale curriculum (often as isolated electives) than to apply the very process they profess and redesign and rethink all of their courses. Too many MBA programs still teach 20th Century accounting, economics, finance, operations, leadership, etc.Most don't make sustainability, systems thinking, and new business themes a priority, let alone redevelop these standards into an integrative experience.

    The same institutional malaise that hampers innovation in the for-profit and non-profit sectors, has slowed the redesign of degrees in academia. I can only think of around 4 schools in the US, and maybe 6 more worldwide, that have done the work to push through truly new programs that blend design thinking and new business and only two that adds systems thinking and sustainability in the mix.

    I feel fortunate to be at one of those schools and have the opportunity to better prepare students for the future but I worry for my students who graduate and don't fit the hiring mold (despite all these companies who say they want their exact skills mix) and the many, many more who graduate from traditional programs without all the tools they'll need.