Friday, August 17, 2007

Who Controls Design?

Photo courtesy

In every organization there is hierarchy whether employees or managers admit it or not. I know many believe that their particular organization is flat. Everyone has a say and is a contributing member of the team, blah blah blah. But the truth is that when an employee or manager begins to hurt the bottom line, either through bad ideas or bad behavior, someone higher than them will hold them accountable. In some cases maybe even fire them, and rightfully so.

But what about those times when the issues are not so apparent, like in the area of creativity and innovation. It isn't always clear when a creative or innovative idea will actually help or hurt a company, unless it is implemented.

Ah, now there's the rub! How do you know when its time to take control in those situations? It almost goes without saying, that this will at least take knowledge, a keen understanding, and a certain level of maturity. But it also takes humbleness.

Yes, I said it. Humbleness.

I don't define humbleness as an outward piety, somberness, or self-effacement. I define it as a realistic understanding of who we are, what we know, and what we are capable of. This can include being honest about my own level of aversion to risk and how that can influence my decision-making. It also is an understanding of my skill-set and how I would even define risk because of my skill-level.

So, here's the problem: How do you know if a design solution is too risky or not risky enough?

In some companies the people who make that determination usually are not the designers themselves. It is determined by financial managers, IT staff, writers and editors, or even business managers. In better cases it may be creative directors, communication managers, or marketing directors.

The corporate philosophy often guides who gives the okay for design solutions. At Apple, the determination comes straight from the top, with deference given to the designers—not so much the engineers. At Microsoft it is often the opposite. The engineers determine what is possible with design.

In many companies what is possible with design is sometimes determined by business policies, customer and marketing data, and the gut reactions of managers. But the reason this is so is not always good. Some people have the common belief that designers exist to make things pretty, and not to necessarily have an opinion on the communication of messaging and marketing strategy—it is even believed that designers don't even want to do this. "If you allow them, they will create outlandish solutions."

This isn't entirely the fault of the corporate world. It is also the fault of the design profession. Many enter it with the intent on producing pretty stuff for fun. And if this attitude isn't checked at the design school level, it certainly isn't taken into account by those who bypass design training altogether. And the design profession has tolerated this for way too long.

When these types enter into the field they come with no interest in strategy or cohesive messaging. They, and others like them, erode the field. But also, in the rush to save money, some companies are willing to allow those with little experience or training to multi-task as designers. Administrative assistants call themselves designers because their employer buys them Photoshop software.

How is an average exec suppose to parse the differences between good and bad design when the design field is confused itself? Therefore, execs will do what they know to do. Take control of the process whether they know what they are doing or not.

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