Institute of Design Strategy Conference 2007:
A review from Chicago

By Nico Macdonald

Dale Fahnstrom, IIT Institute of Design. Photo: Jordan Fischer

"Apple and Steve jobs are a great example of not so much user-centered design but CEO-centered design," quipped Patrick Whitney, Director of the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago. Soft-spoken Whitney was setting up the program for the Institute's annual Strategy Conference he chairs, which took place this past May, and which has become the key English-speaking forum for discussing and investigating the new relationships emerging between design and business. "This conference seems to get bigger and better every year," claimed Doblin figurehead (and Institute affiliate) Larry Keeley in his summing up of the first day. And not without merit as, a poll of the 300-strong audience revealed, one quarter of that audience had attended the previous year.

Beginning in 2004 as a collaboration with ACM SIGCHI (the Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction), the Strategy Conference was christened HITS: Humans, Interaction, Technology, Strategy. SIGCHI's involvement waned and the name was changed. Now it brings together designers, design strategists, researchers and teachers with business strategists and leaders for a two-day conference. Admittedly most of the latter are there to speak, and two fifths of this year's audience were professional designers, but it is a remarkable achievement to attract the likes of SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, Steelcase chief Jim Hackett, and Bumshik Hong, a senior executive from South Korean-based SK Telecom.

Formally the Strategy Conference is an 'international executive forum addressing how businesses can use design to explore emerging opportunities, solve complex problems, and achieve lasting strategic advantage.' In person, Whitney captures its goal more succinctly and engagingly. It is about 'Where to play and How to win.'

To address these questions speakers were drawn from the C-levels of corporations; product development; academia; design, design strategy and forecasting; not-for-profits, charities and foundations, and beyond, with this year's left field selection being Chris Anderson, Wired Editor-in-Chief and author of The Long Tail—one of the most cited books of the past year.

The quality of the program was high compared to most design and business conferences, reflecting Whitney's ability to draw good speakers, including a number of alums who have been propelled into high places by his program, from where they return to report back.

Jim Hackett, CEO and President, Steelcase. Photo: Jordan Fischer

Beginning with the C-level executives we learned from Steelcase CEO and President Jim Hackett that design thinking was the most important thing he could learn about. Design thinking had lead him to introduce a 'plan to implement' phase into Steelcase's process: Think / Point of view / Plan to implement / Implement. Noting that organizations like to get on to the latter phase he observed, "Tiger Woods spends more time practicing than playing." Bumshik Hong, Vice President for Innovation and New Business Development at SK Telecom, reported that its product development model is "evolving towards human-centered innovation" and moving to creating new markets over expanding existing ones. "We want to talk about convergence of needs," he said. As proof of strategy, Hong reported that his division had created more new business in the last quarter than the rest of the company had over the last two years.

Hasso Plattner, co-founder, SAP. Photo: Jordan Fischer

Presenting with hand-sketched slides—mimicking marker pen OHPs of old—Hasso Plattner talked about SAP's use of design methods to model every business function, process and screen as well as modeling interaction points with humans and other systems. "We need people to explain new ideas in the form of models so it is captured and people can contribute," he said. Vindicating his new philosophy, he reported that SAP had recently presented to a local company, who said "For the first time we believe SAP understands what we need." Matthew Holloway, Vice President of SAP's Design Services Team, elaborated on the value of models. "The artifact is key," he said. "It is better to have a conversation about a 'thing,' as you move the conversation from my idea versus your idea to me and you talking about 'this thing'."

Roger Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Photo: Jordan Fischer

"Designing in Hostile Territory" was the title of the talk by Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Martin characterizes the fundamental tension between business and design as being about reliability vs. validity. He presented five recommendations for each side. Those to designers included: take design unfriendliness as a design challenge; speak the language of reliability ("you think they are disagreeing with you, but in fact they don't understand a word you have said," he quipped); and bite off as small a piece as possible to generate proof. (The recommendation to business that mapped to the latter was to bite off as big a piece as possible, to give innovation a chance.) In the discussion, he proposed an intriguing twist on the product development arc: things arrive as a mystery, then become a heuristic (for instance, perspective), then an algorithm, and then they get coded. The latter don't eliminate the need for judgment, nor should we allow them to avert our eyes from mysteries, "such as how we can have an industrial society without destroying it?"

Reflecting on the day's talks, Larry Keeley, a veteran of and 'thought leader' at the innovation strategy firm Doblin, commented that we are seeing business leaders who don't know what to do. Embracing the audience, he claimed that we will be meaningful to people "who are in that kind of pain."

Day 2 brought us David Lawrence, senior manager for Bicycle Product Development and Marketing at Shimano America, reflecting on the company's challenge of driving change from a position of success, and asking "How to design a bike for someone else, such as your Mom?" Institute of Design alumnus Denis Weil, VP for Innovation and Concept Development at McDonald's, discussed how service design becomes system design, such that organizationally "the offer is actually a system." He observed the value of design thinking for visualizing, particularly for an experience such as a restaurant, and noted the value of participatory design in helping "co-produce our experience with our customers." He reported that the best thing that happened to design at McDonald's was when they had integrated with the operations development group. As this group was well endowed with resources and tools, he noted that "they were able to 'prototype the backend,' and I said, 'What if we could prototype the front end?'"

Chris Anderson, Wired Editor-in-Chief and author of The Long Tail. Photo: Jordan Fischer

At this point, the focus of the program again diverged. Chris Anderson recounted his now-famous 'Long Tail' thesis, and concluded that in such an abundance model of production and distribution, "we no longer need to predict demand, but just measure it." Twentieth century management was built around scarcity, he argued, but now, as the cost of experimentation and failure is so low, we need to push innovation out to the margins. William Kramer, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, focused on customers in the developing world (the 'Bottom of the Pyramid' or BoP as he refers to them). He noted the lack of quantitative data about them, the trap represented by the informal economy (and the resulting need to make poor people richer), and the importance of 'operationalizing' innovation in these new kinds of markets. Connie Duckworth, president and Chairman of Arzu Inc., a not-for-profit organization providing sustainable income to Afghan women by sourcing and selling the rugs they weave, talked about the value of design to their project, and endorsed advice given by the Institute of Design that they should emphasize the quality of the design and inputs.

Focusing back on design, Josephine Green, Philips Design's senior director of Trends and Strategy, discussed her concerns about the problem of "selling more stuff at a time when we should be re-thinking stuff," and the need for new ways of measuring happiness and quality of life. Picking up on one of Anderson's themes, she claimed there was a move from mass consumption to mass creativity, and from market to social innovation. We are moving from a manufacturing- through experience-driven economy, to a people and network-driven economy, she believes, and suggests "social entrepreneurs may be the new actors in the future."

Christopher Meyer, CEO of the Monitor Network, presented four thoughts as his closing remarks for the second day—though it is not clear they were all derived from the talks. Business really likes design now, he claimed, noting that the demands of design had moved to human-centered innovation (illustrated in Hong's talk). On systems thinking he was more salutary: "I am not sure the design community is the leader in that particularly." Simulations are great storytellers, he observed, referring back to Weil's presentation, as they generate more reliability in people's minds. For his final thought, he developed on Martin's insight, noting that heuristics aren't marketable, but algorithms are. On the future, he believes that nanotech and molecular science will follow the information technology 'curve' such that "design is going to be in a period of ascendancy"—but designers shouldn't be complacent.

Lunch. Photo: Christine Gloriosa


The Strategy Conference was well received by attendees, perhaps explaining why so many returned this year. It was also a well-designed event. Not hard, and perhaps expected of a design conference, but a facet honored more in its neglect by most such events.

Eric Chan, president of New York-based Ecco Design Inc, has attended a number of the series, and values the conference's embrace of the 'fourth front in conceptual theory,' connecting via academic research and commercial reality to social soul searching. He notes that while talks may sometimes be similar, "the conversation is different every time."

A manager from a major financial services company remarked that the conference was "not a dog and pony show, but a sharing of problem solving in ways that are actionable," and noted the value of ideas such as getting executives to observe customers using their product, and the importance of understanding other people's languages. A local delegate from the City of Chicago reflected on the learnings for organizations that don't face competition, such as the City administration, and their desire to use better research techniques, such as ethnography and user research. From Harley-Davidson, a marketer valued learnings about service design that might be applied with their older customers.

Austin Henderson, director of Research Strategy, Advanced Concepts and Technology at Pitney Bowes, discussed the importance of developing socio-technical systems that people can modify themselves. John Zapolski, a principal of the Management Innovation Group, valued Hackett's remarks on preparing for implementation, and the need for simulation in an era in which it is, again, so easy to produce things. A design leader from a major biotech company valued the emphasis on planning over execution, as "we are execution focused."

Anderson's talk received many plaudits, partly because it represented new thinking for the design world. For Chen it alone justified attending the conference; Alfred Lui, an Institute of Design student, wondered about the implications of Anderson's thesis for interaction design. Zapolski drew from it the idea that instead of producing things for mass preference, we might give access to a wide range of products from which people can select.

A working discussion over lunch. Photo: Jordan Fischer

Many Institute of Design students noted the value the conference. "90% of conference is not new, but that is good as it endorses our teaching," remarked one. Jeff Mau, who managed part of Sprint's User Experience Design group before studying at the Institute, noted in general "it was great to see real-world examples of our approach to design." In particular, he valued Plattner's "new approach to creating software at a high level that addresses his long-term business challenge while respecting the way software engineers approach their work." Another noted the value of Green's insights on social innovation, Meyer's remarks on the ability of designers to see far away opportunities, and the focus on design with lower case 'd' over design as aesthetics. One student appreciated hearing real case studies of big companies following design principles, and stories of design thinking getting close to decision makers.

A more skeptical note was sounded by Michael Anton Dila, a Toronto-based design strategist at the Torch Partnership, who noted the lack of historical context for the discussions. Brad Nemer, Asia Pacific 3G portfolio manager at Motorola observed that, for all the instruction of the conference, "success can come from less intentional effort," citing Apple Inc.'s accidental success creating the desktop publishing market. Elaborating on this point, and returning to a conference theme, he noted that "open eyes on how customers are using your product—whether or not it matches the intended positioning—can spot otherwise overlooked business opportunities."

The Institute of Design Strategy Conference is one of the best design-related conferences in the English-speaking domain. It avoids the vague good intentions, timeless debates, un-mediated presentations of work, and ethical hand wringing into which most other design conferences organizations fall.

Larry Keeley, President, Doblin Inc. Photo: Jordan Fischer

However, it is not as reflective and well-contextualized as it might be, and needs more emphasis on synthesizing ideas than was delivered by Keeley, Meyer or Whitney—brilliant and more than capable as they are. There are a number of questions that the conference didn't attempt to answer, at least on this outing: Which skill sets or approaches, if any, were working or being applied in the areas which design is now claiming (an issue to which Meyer alluded)? If the case for design is so strong, why isn't it being adopted more by corporations, organizations and governments? And to the extent it is being adopted, are other motives driving this adoption, and might their impact derail delivery? The conference also lacks a theoretical underpinning. This was most evident in Anderson's and Green's talks, which substituted empiricism for economic theory. On the social theory side, Green was guilty of a magpie-like presentation of disparate but vogue ideas—which she failed explain or make a case for—let alone synthesize.

Green was also a prominent proponent of the sustainability and user-led innovation theses, which have risen without significant debate to dominate design thinking and practice. And here lies the weakest element of the conference format: the lack of debate. Essentially, the event is about presentation, not discussion, and the time for audience response was minimal. (Though in Green's case she ran way beyond her allotted time, demonstrating her consideration for the audience's responses to the theses presented.) And Green's presentation alone begged a host of responses: Are happiness and GDP causally connected or simply correlated? What right do people in developed countries have to tell the poor that wealth isn't all it is cracked up to be? How designerly are the solutions proposed by sustainability advocates? Why do designers no longer aspire to increase people's standard of living?

But those debates are barely being had anywhere; so we would be churlish to unload our inflated expectations on the Strategy Conference. Rather, we should be asking why other design schools, organizations and publications in the English-speaking world fail to match the thought and effort shown by Whitney and his colleagues—or even to appreciate their deficiency.

Further Information
Speakers' biographies, (some) presentations, and (some) videos of presentations. The ID Strategy Conference 2007 blog was edited by John Maeda and Becky Bermont of the MIT Media Lab.

Nico Macdonald is a London-based writer on design, technology and business. He is author of What is Web Design? (RotoVision, 2003). He is currently programming a conference on service design and the new roles of design in business, and recently founded the Innovation Reading Circle and Innovation Forum. Further writing can be found at