I recently read a column by Jason Gross called “The Designer Will Make It Pretty” that made me pause. An excerpt (boldface mine):
I hear a phrase quite often that many designers would compare to nails on a chalkboard. The people I work with who do not handle the design side of our platform will often tell clients, “The designer will make it look pretty.” [...] When content is raw, unformatted or confusing to the user, it gets sent to the design department so that it can come out the other end “pretty.”
… [Designers] consider what we do to be far more important than decorating sloppy content and returning it in a timely fashion. Many of us would argue that our real job is to make content accessible, flexible, easy to use and easy to work with. The real value in design comes from what you can’t see or what you don’t appreciate; it comes from all of the trouble that you don’t have because we fixed it ahead of time. Thank goodness we know better: if we just made things pretty, all of our work would be in vain.
This rang strikingly true.
To me, designers are not necessarily artists in the traditional sense of the word (and vice versa). To be an artist is to evoke emotion through the aesthetic; to be a designer is to support and reinforce purpose through form.
In other words, designers marry form and function to bring out the essence of the thing that they are designing. Design creates utility through re-imagination, transforming creativity into reality. One omnipresent example of such a designer: Steve Jobs.
“Even though Steve did not draw any of the lines, his ideas and inspiration made the design what it is. [...] To be honest, we didn’t know what it meant for a computer to be ‘friendly’ until Steve told us.”
-Walter Isaacson, “How Steve Jobs’ Love of Simplicity Fueled a Design Revolution,” Smithsonian magazine
My principle for design has always been this: If the design is good, you won’t notice it. The design should be invisible in that people immediately notice the content, not how the content looks. Good design should elevate and clarify to the point where messages come through in a way that people understand or use it quickly and instinctively.
This is as true for organizational design as it is for visual design.
When organizations are well designed, things work. There are systems and structures in place that are aligned to a common purpose, allowing the organization to run smoothly. When organizations are poorly designed, they visibly break down–creativity drops, employee morale languishes, and performance declines–and that is where people notice that there are structural issues within the organization itself.
Many of these symptoms of organizational breakdowns seem to occur when organizations get complacent. They become stagnant, failing to realize that design is as fluid as the people who encounter it. Yesterday’s fix-all isn’t always today’s solution.
Design is vital to creative and effective problem-solving—after all, design isn’t just about intent, but also execution, which necessarily captures process. Therefore design is the critical link between creativity and actionable innovation. As researchers from Maastricht University stated far more eloquently than I could,
“Creativity and design can thus be linked to innovation as the first contributes to the expansion of available ideas and the second to increased chance of successfully commercialising these ideas.”
-Hugo Hollanders and Adriana van Cruysen, “4. Design, Creativity and Innovation: a scoreboard approach.” [PDF]
Innovation has been a buzzword for years now, with companies repeating the “innovate or die” mantra to their teams and expecting it to magically occur. But according to a survey, 79% of CFOs cited that the biggest barriers to their companies being more innovative were a lack of new ideas, too much bureaucracy, or being bogged down in daily tasks—all indicative of poor organizational design.
Businesses redesign their products and services to adapt with times; it follows, then, that their organizational structures and systems must similarly adapt seamlessly to maximize potential.
Especially as design has emerged as a key differentiator among businesses today, organizations must re-examine its role in the business context: it’s about being well-coordinated, functional, and an enabler, not just superficially so.
About Joy Thomas
Joy is a strategist for Motiv and spearheads business development and marketing efforts in addition to supporting client engagements.