Managing design / designing management

01 – Classic or romantic?

A “rule of thumb” states that $1 invested in design saves $10 in development1 and yields $100 in return on investment from customers2. Therefore, anyone who frequents LinkedIn should start trying to understand what this esoteric practice really is. Spoiler alert, it’s not just about ‘lil sketches.

1$ <> 10$ <<>> 100$

Rule of thumb

Classic

Design as problem-solving, problem-solving, is classic (forgive me Pirsig for my crazy life). In this sense, we talk about design as a process that allows us to understand a problem thoroughly, gathering information from data and complementing it with the emotional component from users.

A well-established and documented process is followed: mapping the qualitative and quantitative problems, generating a good volume of solutions, prototyping one or more solutions, and testing what seems to perform best. It’s like when a good mechanic fixes an engine. The manual says that to make an engine run, you need gasoline, air to mix with it and make it explosive, a spark to ignite it, and compression to trigger the rotation of the pistons. You go through each one, in the precise order, to understand what isn’t working. You make some adjustments and test if the engine runs. For example, if you suspect that the gasoline isn’t reaching, you can spray some directly into the carburetor by hand a few drops and try to start it. At this point, quick tests tell me where the problem is (what is broken) and the solution becomes clear (a new component) and I can implement it (replacement).

Engine of a classic car
Photo by RKTKN on Unsplash

It takes a lot of care to follow these processes well, and there is a visible beauty when this happens. A job well done is priceless. It’s musical. It’s quick. It’s quality.

Processes are very convenient to reduce problems that are complex by nature and try to make the future repeatable and predictable. It’s also very simplifying, indeed in this sense, design has a very low barrier to entry. This is very pleasing to managers. Everyone can be a bit of a designer (design thinking, anyone?) and solve problems.

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

H. Simon “The science of the artificial”, 1968

Romantic

But the future by its nature is not predictable, and it won’t become predictable. And this inevitable unpredictability has this nasty (or beautiful) vice of manifesting itself even within the process itself. In every phase (understanding, designing, implementing, validating), there is always the need for an activity of synthesis, of choice, of election of what is worth pursuing and what to leave behind. Furthermore, the word revenge has the same etymology.

This part is inevitably a design act and is “creative” – even though this term is often misunderstood. Some people just need a glance to read and connect distant elements together and repackage them into a simple and useful message. Like that mechanic who has “the touch”: he looks at the engine, completely skips the checklist described above, to do two tests with his blackened fingers, and declares, “it will definitely be this, but don’t worry, I know how to fix it.”

In this sense, design is romantic, and romantic design as a discipline is not accessible to everyone. It’s elitist, in practice: you have to have faced thousands of checklists that help you see the problem, on thousands of different engines, to be able to feel it. The 1-2-3-4 process becomes completely internalized in the hand to open the mind, like Shaolin monks who spend half their days for years in repetitive gestures to open the centers of chi.

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Statua di Amore e Psiche del Canova.
Amore e Psiche, Canova. Photo by Sara Darcaj on Unsplash

Romantic is also the fact that, regardless of the devotion and training that remain necessary, to reach beyond a certain level, you have to be born with it. As with any discipline, there is “the hand” of the mechanic, the “foot” of the superstar, and the “mind” of the designer. The one that made us know the “masters” of design, who with their magic pencil revolutionized the meaning of everyday objects: like Thonet or the iPhone. This is how we can all distinguish the wizard from the charlatan: the design-fluff is not understood, much to the chagrin of Crozza’s Fuffas. If the value to the end user is not clear, it is very likely that we are witnessing a regression of artistic self-expression. Maybe interesting, but it has no place in this discussion.

It’s not understandable? It’s design.

M.Crozza, Fuffas

Quality is also that of romantic design, albeit different from that of classic design. In this sense, designers like it a lot, as they feel invested during this act with the ability to create, normally reserved for the divine.

Which do I prefer? If you’ve read Pirsig and his “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“, maybe you already understand where I’m going with this.

Why should you care? Because if you want to work as a designer, you need to understand how a manager thinks, and if you want to be a good manager.

(Ecclesiastes 4, 9:12)

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Read the original post in italian at this link.

Forrester research↩︎ data