Design as a Business

Blogger: Chad Narburgh, Associate Design Architect | Atlanta, GA, USA
October 24, 2012

I feel that at the heart of any truly innovative company you will find that design is at its core. It does not matter if you are the project director, manager, architect, designer, administrative lead, engineer or even the person that delivers the mail, everyone is focused on design and design matters. However design as a business is one challenging proposition. 

In fact, “design as a business” could almost be considered an oxymoron.  Design thinking is not exactly a linear process. You cannot expect to commodify, compartmentalize or mold design into a product that you kick out when you need it. Take the following quote from Steven Holl as an example:

To exert resistance is to be able to challenge the situation with a concept: that is the point of confrontation. You don’t just resist the projects outright – I am always receptive, because I believe that if you are really creative you can find a way to make architecture out of almost any circumstances. My resistance comes always half through, when the client might not accept the concept as it is emerging, or when the client puts time pressure on the project. For me, finding the concept can either take one day or six months. That’s how I lose my clients. When I am asked how long it will take to come up with the basic concept, I always say, “Well anything from one day to six months”. But I’ll tell you one thing: you know when you have it and you know when you don’t. And you can’t start if you don’t have the idea. This is another form of resistance – if I don’t have the idea, I won’t make the presentation. Architecture takes time, and you can’t just expect to have a scheme in ten days. I can try, but if I don’t find the solution, I cannot pretend I do.

This understanding that design cannot be ground out does not sit well with managers trying to streamline something that by nature is not a linear process. “Design as a business” places managers on the opposite side of designers, partially due to the fact that managers are typecast as profit-driven pragmatists while designers are stereotypically seen as time-hungry idealists. I noticed that the stereotypes tend to come out when a project reaches critical mass, by either going over budget or not meeting the client’s design expectations.

To take a quote from Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, in his book Change By Design, “Nobody wants to run a business based on feeling, intuition and inspiration, but an overreliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as dangerous.” Essentially what Tim is suggesting is that true design thinking must be a part of the daily curriculum. You cannot reach a truly thoughtful design by being the “devil’s advocate” all the time. Designers must understand the (unfortunate) parameters to a business model and conversely managers have to feel comfortable in dealing with a non-linear process to yield something truly unique.

To this end, managers need to be able to think quickly on their feet but also lead with the designers as a team so that all parties can accept the agreed business model put forth and work together to support it. Without this symbiosis, confrontation will ensue and design as a business will not work.

Image—Flickr CC: andymangold

Reader Comments (5)

Well said Chad. 


It is a challenging dynamic that is tough on everyone for various reasons all of which is difficult to explain succinctly to anyone.


Poignant and timely.

The key is to have mutual respect for each other.

I could not agree more... its a everyday challenge.

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