(Business) Design: Fad or Fact?

Richard Buchanan

Currently a Professor at Case Western University’s Weatherhead School of Management, Richard Buchanan is one of the world’s leading design theorists. Former head of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, Buchanan joined Weatherhead’s faculty in 2008. He is also co-editor of Design Issues, a premier design journal published by MIT Press.

Buchanan defines design simply, as “the effort of people to make the products that serve us in our everyday lives.” On the other hand, design thinking is a term he approaches with caution. “It’s a very ambiguous term that’s gotten out of hand.” He says, “For some people it’s a cognitive process, for others it’s a set of skills and habits, for some it’s a business slogan. And I’m afraid it’s deteriorated into that in many ways, particularly at a company like IDEO. They have a formula that they regard as “design thinking’.”

A case on IDEO is scheduled to be taught to the RC class this Wednesday.

Buchanan rejects the idea of reducing design to a simple formula. “Designers see things in different ways than people in other fields, and their way of seeing allows them to think of new possibilities for making.”

According to Buchanan, teaching core ideas and methods of design practice to MBA students would address the weaknesses in MBA education. One weakness is an overemphasis on analytics. “With the analytic also should come a synthetic capability, an ability to make, to make new things.”

Another weakness he sees is the “misunderstanding of the purpose of organizations.” This purpose is not profit. Rather, it is “to make goods and services.” Profit is just “one of the measures and a sustaining material influence.”

“In a funny way,” Buchanan says, “business schools are all about design, and always have been about design, because [they’re] always interested in how [to] make and improve organizations.” However, he is cautious about what the last twenty years have meant for business schools. Referencing The Lords of Strategy by Walter Kiechel, Buchanan shows concern for the way “the profit motives of certain consultancies have gradually warped MBA education and, perhaps, our understanding of organizations.”

Buchanan believes the benefit of incorporating design thinking into business is two-fold. First, managers need to understand the goods and services provided by their company. Without this understanding, managers “cannot make adequate decisions about the nature of the company and the direction of the strategy.” This understanding includes knowledge of developing new products and of their value to people.

More importantly though, by bringing core ideas and methods of design practice into organizations, “the manager becomes a creative and innovative force, and their actually making a product themselves, the product is the organization. […] To understand good practices of design, to understand what design […] can bring, it opens up better possibilities for organizations.”

“There are all sorts of products,” Buchanan says, “whether it’s an internal memo, a report, a strategy, a law: all these things are made by human beings at a very high level of sophistication.” Design is a way to bring appropriate innovation into management thinking.

Buchanan mentions Procter & Gamble and Apple as two companies that effectively incorporate design into their organizations. “Many of the companies that struggle with this are fundamentally engineering companies.” He says, “Engineers make parts of products, I don’t think they’re so successful when they try to make the whole product, more than just the technological reasoning […], but also the human relationship aspect, the engagement, even the quality of voice that makes the product persuasive.”

There is a need, Buchanan stresses, for a new approach, “a different way of thinking about the creative sides of management. And frankly, I think that’s very deepened in management literature. I think [Peter] Drucker, if he had known the word ‘design’, would have used it.”

He defines innovation as an aspect of design. More specifically, innovation is the process of developing discoveries and inventions. “We’ll move on to some other term soon, but the problem does not go away. We need to think of new ideas and new ways of being. We will not flourish, we may not even survive, if we don’t continually think of new and better ways of doing things.”

Small to mid-sized companies are often the most successful at implementing these principles. For example, smaller manufacturing companies in the Midwest have had success with customized mass production. “Manufacturing is now combining not just with the physical production, but also with the design. It’s a whole different alignment.”

While he admires how design firms, such as IDEO and Continuum, try to bring talent and thought to the problems of our world, Buchanan worries that “some design consultancies have gotten a little bit overconfident.” For instance, he says the work of firms often focuses solely on solving problems with an “artifact,” i.e. a tangible product. This is often to the exclusion of “the way the artifact is embedded in the lives and practices of people.” Associated services, ideas communicated, and the organization all need to be included in the solution.

While head of CMU’s School of Design, Buchanan began studying interaction design. He says, “Interaction is all about designing for the relations of people.” This includes the relation of people to each other and to products. However, Buchanan eventually realized that students did not have enough understanding of “the relation of design to the organization that they worked for.”

At that point, he realized the importance of applying design principles in how humans create organizations and environments. This led him to Weatherhead, whose core tenant is managing by designing. Since joining their faculty, he has been pleasantly surprised by the receptiveness of the MBA students.

For the student wishing to learn more, Buchanan suggests beginning with the growing body of literature addressing the subject: The Designful Company by Marty Neumeier, Leading Public Sector Innovation by Christian Bason, Managing as Designing by Richard Boland and Fred Collopy, and Innovation and Entrepreneurship by Peter Drucker. Other resources include Design Issues, the journal edited by Mr. Buchanan.

One comment

  • The designer has been missing from most American companies, especially those that make low end everyday consumer products. It has deteriorated to such an extent that big box stores can now pick and choose from the offerings of factories in China, the offerings being copies or slightly modified (for the worse) copies of designs by European designers.
    My company is one of the few that is actually run by a designer and has put the emphasis back on design. What we have found is that the big box stores want to make such a huge profit that there is no room for the designer.

Comments are closed.