As designers we know that good design is not just a pretty rendering or a cool concept. It's a process—understand the problem, generate concepts, test concepts, repeat. Real design is a holistic, interdisciplinary process of discovery and ideation that can address messy, complicated, poorly defined challenges in ways that not only transform products, but the individuals designing them and the customers as well.
Design education is at a crossroads. In the '90s, business schools around the world discovered "design thinking" and many executives enthusiastically participated in workshops and seminars, returning to their offices a certified "design thinker." This seemed to signal the beginning of the corporate sector understanding the power of design, and with it, the hopes that designers might finally be included in corporate leadership. Unfortunately, that only played out in a few select companies (like Apple) and a watered down version of the design process seems to have been implemented in most companies.
Use of design thinking in lieu of real design is a what I call "D-washing." As with greenwashing, the perception is that an organization is practicing the design process and reaping its rewards, but in actuality, it is only getting a washed out version of both. I'm sure most designers can think of a company or two that are guilty of this practice.
The problem with D-washing is two-fold. First, the organization believes that it designs, when it doesn't. This is a big problem when an organization is counting on design to give a competitive advantage, but it can't deliver. Perhaps design thinking was talked about and thought about, but there was no design talent on the project. If there was a designer, perhaps their talents were used to make pretty pictures. Second, D-washing perpetuates the exclusion of real designers from leadership roles. If an organization recognizes that it needs design leadership, and then fills that spot with an MBA who took a design thinking workshop, the amazing value of design is never realized for the company, and designers remain marginalized, in less demand, and at reduced pay levels.
Unfortunately, today many design professionals are still on the sidelines. However, with education and proper utilization, design can offer a competitive advantage. When we look at the most innovative, successful companies out there, they usually have a strong design culture. Companies like Herman Miller, Bang & Olufsen and Apple epitomize the power of an integrated approach. Organizational structures that enable the design process to bring out the best business models, deepest customer insights, and super exciting products will help companies succeed in ways that go beyond their wildest dreams.
Apple is a great example of a company that has fully integrated design into its culture. Take the PC wars of the '90s. The technology and architecture of a PC compared to a Mac was never much different, but the user experience was night and day. Many thought that Apple would lose, but Jobs persisted with the idea that the real market was "the people"—not the technologists and engineers that loved the idea of typing a string of code to access their hard drive.
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Take the MP3 player: there were lots of offerings on the market, but Apple took the same technology and gave it an amazing new user experience. Another hit. Then came iTunes, a great experience that redefined how we shop for music. All of this innovation is due to a purposeful, meaningful integration of design, business and engineering. Fortunately, this ethos at Apple remains sanctified by an organizational structure that puts design at the top with its business and engineering peers, thus enabling the Apple design team to create visionary experiences for years to come.
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Another example of where the designers are in a leadership position is Airbnb, co-founded by two of my former RISD students, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. Joe and Brian identified an opportunity through personal experience when faced with the need to raise some cash quickly by renting out part of their apartment for an IDSA conference. As designers, the process of understanding the problem and designing an elegant solution came fairly naturally. But they were more than designers; they had learned about business and engineering in a course I taught called Product Design & Development (PDD), a collaboration between RISD and MIT Sloan School of Management. In PDD, they learned not only about business and engineering, but also about how to integrate these fields with design by working on interdisciplinary teams and creating their own products. These fundamental interdisciplinary skills learned at MIT enabled them to remain effective managers as Airbnb scaled from nothing to it's current $10B valuation. We need more integrated designers like Joe and Brian so that good design becomes prevalent, thus improving society and our lives.
Like the PDD course, MIT Integrated Design & Management (IDM) is based on the premise that the best products result from a balanced design approach that integrates design, engineering and business. It's mission is to enable the learning and development of extraordinary, innovative leaders that will bring new levels of creativity, vision and integrity to business and society.
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IDM's core curriculum will be taught in the Integrated Design Lab (ID Lab), a design studio environment that allows deep immersion, empathy and creativity in their projects. Working in interdisciplinary teams and closely with faculty, students will practice the design process on projects ranging from consumer and medical products to remedies for societal issues. We are now accepting applications for an inaugural cohort to engage in a new way of teaching and learning at MIT where I believe we will produce visionary business, design and societal leaders who will accomplish great things by practicing the integrated design process.