Helen Walters | Essays

Design and Business Education: The System Is Not Good Enough

Diagram from Atkin Boat Plans

“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind — computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.”

So wrote Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind back in 2005. Now, some might quibble that in an era where engineers are trading themselves like over-hyped stocks, it's clearly not the case that one group will necessarily replace the other. But the concept of the rising importance of the creative class has certainly become more widely accepted in the six years since that book (subtitle: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future) was published.

What hasn’t become so clear is how exactly the new meaning makers will ever arrive on the scene. Worse, it’s not clear that the obvious crucibles from which our creators and empathizers might emerge, the world’s universities, are at all capable of producing those with the different kind of mind necessary to lead in the complex new reality.

In the past few years, there have been interesting attempts from within both business and design schools to elevate the potential of design and creative thinking as drivers of differentiated value. There’s the d.school at Stanford, which offers design-driven classes to students of any department at the university. Then there’s the MBA in Design Strategy at the California College of Arts, or the M.Des/MBA joint program offered by the Institute of Design and the Stuart School of Business at IIT. Alternatively, the likes of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Yale School of Management have implemented design-related courses as part of their traditional MBA education. Similar initiatives are being implemented in various universities around the world.

Yet there are still relatively few graduates from these programs, and their impact and efficacy remain inconclusive. As my colleague Larry Keeley, cofounder of Doblin and longtime teacher at both IIT’s Institute of Design and Kellogg School of Management remarks, two years of graduate school can only do so much. “Humans have an absorptive capacity limit that’s finite,” he says. “We can’t expect people to master everything that has to do with business and design at the same time.”

Last year, Sara Beckman, a longtime professor at the Haas School of Business, part of the University of Berkeley, was tapped to give a new course, Problem Finding, Problem Solving, to all 240 first-year graduate business school students. It was her (and her dean's) attempt to introduce a design-based process to those more used to drawing their conclusions from data-heavy spreadsheets. Their aim was to prompt the students to start thinking about problems in a wider context, as well as to teach them techniques to generate and evaluate potential solutions.

The class was a disaster, with Beckman getting the worst student scores in her 25 years of teaching at Berkeley. Her conclusions for why she received such a drubbing are illuminating when thinking about the challenges of trying to create the thinkers needed in our new world.

For one thing, at a very basic level, business school isn’t designed for design. The “I speak, you listen” podium format and the theatrical tiered-seating of traditional academia is the diametric opposite of the design school process of all-hands-on-desk, of creating multiple prototypes and collaborating actively. How can students possibly work together effectively if talking to each other results in cricked necks and beyond-awkward group dynamics?

And yet, this practical problem neatly mimics a tension present in the larger corporate world. Business isn’t designed for design, either. How many corporate meeting rooms are free for teams to cover in scrawled thoughts and half-baked ideas? And how many of them are part of a wider system in which rooms are booked in half hour increments, and please take your coffee cups with you when you’re done? There’s a reason that design-based innovation firms (like my firm, Doblin) have dedicated case team spaces in which team members can simmer in specific problems for weeks at a time, and it’s not because design is an undisciplined mess. There's method to the apparent madness: It’s from this rich stew of scrawled half-ideas and whiteboard daubings that unexpected insights emerge. And there’s a reason this happens less often in a corporate context: logistics managers have got better things to do than indulge what they have no reason to see as anything but unstructured lunacy.

As Beckman realized after she’d read the scathing comments from her graduate business students, not only were they not used to the process of drawing ideas on whiteboards or acting on hunches, they were actively hostile to it. “I’d hear comments like, ‘the company I worked for would never use Post-it notes’,” she says.

Here’s the thing: The tactics Beckman was teaching are the most superficial aspects of a design-related education, the ones it is even vaguely possible to fit into the space of a semester-long course in business school. If students struggle with even these straightforward tools of creativity, it seems a stretch to imagine they might also learn respect for design’s ability to add value outside of its own department. Yet Beckman also notes that some of the students approached her after the course was over to say that the techniques they'd learned had stuck in their heads and were, in fact, influencing their thinking. It took longer than a semester, but they were indeed beginning to think differently about solving problems.

Other business school programs report some success of creating design evangelists among their students. At the recent Design Challenge held at Rotman, eleven student teams from the business school entered the competition. Yet the mostly unspoken suspicion of the apparent frivolity of design-related strategic techniques is a deeply held stigma: business and design leaders need to address this directly if they want to engage the new minds — and modes of thinking — that will be key to their companies' ongoing success.

Design school leaders, in turn, need to educate graduates who can speak the language of business with at least some fluency. I spoke to a number of design school heads for the purposes of this piece and a presentation I gave at the Rotman competition. One of them waxed lyrically about his school’s deep commitment to the real-world demands of business, describing a project in which a student had stitched the principles of supply and demand into a quilt. No disrespect to quilt makers, but I don’t know that this represents the vanguard of change that Pink and others had in mind.

At times it seems worse than well-meaning cluelessness. Some design schools seem to promote suspicion of the business world as an unspoken matter of course. Headlines of the past few years hardly contradict distrust of the corporate status quo, yet producing students who are for the most part unaware of how the world (or the balance sheet) works seems enormously irresponsible. Another design school chief I spoke to was acid-tongued in his disdain for both the corporate world at large and the recent rise of “design thinking” as a practice within business and business schools. Instead, he dreamily outlined a world in which designers reject the faceless corporate machine, and instead act as lone entrepreneurs in pursuit of their own destiny.

Running a solo design shop is a noble pursuit. But entrepreneurs have to exist in the world as it stands, too, and that involves learning about its current means and structures. After all, you can only reject what you understand. If designers want to make a genuine impact on the world, they’d do well to learn how to navigate big companies and figure out how to articulate their value to the people who run them.

We currently roil in an awkward interregnum as the existing system teeters even as anything that might replace it remains untested at scale. The need to produce Pink’s creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and the meaning makers who will be able to manage uncertainty and implement large-scale change is more urgent than ever. The current tactic of passive/aggressive rejection by both sides of the business/design divide smacks of onlookers nudging each other and pointing at the band playing as the Titanic sank. Instead, we need both sides to stop their familiar, favored activities, put down their defenses, work together effectively and start plugging holes. Better still, we need them all to figure out how to build a whole new boat.

Posted in: Business, Education

Comments [20]

Thank you for this article.
Three remarks :
- i do feel that the programms of schools of engineers and design are totally complementary. The common projects are easy to manage with a real added value.
- i have not found the keys to play with the schools of business, as if there were a systematic posture of students in business to lead the groups even before the definition of any common work.
- just wrote on my blog "The strength of engineering schools lies in that engineers have never excluded the possibility of becoming top executives. Why, then, should designers not strive for the same? All the more as they are dealing on a daily basis with crucial issues centered on humankind, usage and progress. All of those necessarily require skills to become a “manager” whose profitability will reach far beyond the mere financial sphere, an “ecological executive”, so to speak." I do feel there is a great future for designers

christian Guellerin

Having just completed a graduate degree in Design Management at an arts school, I think this article is very interesting. The fact is that this thinking works for some people and not others. But if there is acceptance of a different way to solve problems that is the point. I really agree with Daniel Pink's assessment that we need different types of thinking. Although there's talk of design thinking being dead...

- On the one hand, I think that some programmes fail in that they either don't teach enough of either design or business in hybrid programmes. In my programme, the business side of the coin was woefully inadequate.

The glimmer of hope is that as more programmes have some success those graduates can help to change the perceptions in the real world.

design schools should be the ones jumping on the integration of business because if they know how to explain how to make more money using design, the business people will listen.


royann dean

The subject of this post, and the dynamics of the surrounding circumstances, are one of the reasons that I have become a proponent of Design Thinking as a means of bridging the design and business worlds, especially in terms of the ongoing "stigma" that accompanies design from the perspective of business managers.

But my immersion in design thinking has also illuminated how stark the gap is between the data-driven business education, and the more holistic problem-solving (rapidly evolving into problem definition) stance of the designer.

There remains a huge gap in cross-disciplinary education. I believe that students of each discipline would benefit greatly from the opportunity to experience the other's approaches in the academic environment.
Tom Berno


Excellent comment--I have my own thoughts on the idea of "design thinking is dead..."


Tom Berno

Another big obstacle is accreditation. NASAD, which is more a force of conservation than a leader in innovation with respect to design education, police the level of studio courses in any design degree. Studio for NASAD is the teaching of professional design skills, not an innovative learning environment, let alone research method, for learning other things about people-product-interaction-ecosystems. State accreditation often polices the percentage of liberal arts courses in a degree program. A studio is normally considered a non-liberal-arts course, again because accrediting bodies have not yet understood that a studio experience can be a process for understanding basic and exploratory things, not just an instrumental space for learning applied and commercializable things. NASAD recently acknowledged that design schools might offer business degrees, but, in a neat piece of cross-branding, only recognizes AACSB accredited business degrees. AACSB accreditation has such a heavy content requirement (because business is algorithmic thinking - no-one who runs AACSB has heard of Roger Martin, let alone Donald Schon) that there is little room for design courses.

At this point, you might think like Seth Godin that accreditation is the problem not the solution - though a free market approach to private for-profit higher education in the US could make you want to rethink that.

Is it then that thinking about design and business, about business design literacy as a new core knowledge-/skill-set (or set of values / ways of valuing) for the 21st Century, is actually rethinking the nature of the whole of higher education?

Excellent article, buying a copy of Pink's book immediately.

I see it as "growing pains" in education, lines being erased or redirected as professional practices and structures evolve. I'm optimistic because I met many business students during my undergrad who expressed envy (or at the very least, respect) when I told them my major was graphic design. I also met many who politely said "ahh, ok... cooool...", but regardless there's clearly some degree of mutual understanding that neither is entirely useful without the other. And from my (admittedly little) experience, the most successful projects are ones where role divisions are *slightly* eroded and a shared empathetic vocabulary exists to keep each "side" in check.
Ryan K. Davidson

I think one reason for the limited success of these initiatives so far is that they are too short. Taking one course at a design school will not make a business student fluent in the language of design, and the same goes for designers at a business school.
At School of Design and Crafts at Gothenburg University in Sweden there is a two-year Master programme mixing students with design and business backgrounds. Having graduated from it myself I have experienced the quite confusing and turbulent two years of intense teamwork that it took to become skilled enough in both business and design to be able to make use of it.

More about the programme: http://hdk.gu.se/en/programmes-courses/design/business-design
Sigrid Hellberg

I am a student of Business Design at Welingkar Institute of Management, Mumbai,India
As a program, we teach business and design (process, interaction etc). I feel that my ideation and solution providing capability has improved with affinity diagrams and mindmaps.
The lack of such a well-curated program is deplorable, but it the way forward.
Lack of inclusion of the average employee, business models that dont cater to quarterly results are the challenges that we cater to as students.

Blog : www.businessdsigners.blogspot.com
Twitter : @welbd

The point made in this article has resonated with me quite strongly! I am an MBA grad in finance and strategy; and believe it or not, right around my undergrad, I had dabbled in graphic design and animation.
Art, animation, comic books fascinates me as much as businesses and factories. My family has been into textiles for generations as entrepreneurs and now I am looking to break into design and innovation firms in U.S. or India.

...small point, but the Titanic was a great ship. It wasn't that it was built poorly, it was sailed without good vision. Maybe that's what is needed more than a better boat... better leadership.

Excellent observations.
Tim Ross

Helen, you're right about both sides of the education system not yet being where it needs to be. I see real progress on both sides (though mostly from the design side). These are truly cultural clashes with the dominant, business culture timidly exploring design thinking and process in the name of innovation but clearly outside its comfort zone (as Sara's experiences at Haas illustrate). Still, many are trying (look to Darden and PhillyU's audacious restructuring for more examples in the USA).

What's more sorely missing, however, are the jobs for these and other graduates truly wanting to remake the USA, West, and World on business, social, and political levels. US corporations are even more timid than the business schools (which isn't surprising given where they got their education). Most simply don't have the courage to commit what few resources they think they have to an area that is high risk/high reward but scares the Hell out of them process-wise. This doesn't even mention the risk of shareholder lawsuits and investor/market blow-back for not following conventional wisdom and business practice (which, of course, is how they got to the undifferentiated, unremarkable, uninnovative position they find themselves in the first place).

This year we will be annually graduating 60 top innovation leaders ready to take on challenges across the business, public, and government sectors but we don't feel we yet have partners in these sectors willing to let them help. Our program (and others) are generating a new wave of leaders truly capable of (and energized) to help organizations of all types better compete but we have found few interested in actually doing more than talk. If you know organizations who are ready to think differently, act responsibly, and zag while everyone else zigs, send them our way. Please.
Nathan Shedroff

I use Daniel Pink's book in my undergraduate marketing course called "Innovation Strategies". I find this book is a good framework to discuss relevant business topics and to bridge between the liberal arts side of their education and their business education. Most, not all, of my business students really "get it" - but it is very complex to teach this type of unique topic and I need to change it every time to adjust and refine the curriculum and pedegogy.
Theresa M. Conley

One comment from Sigrid, above, said something close to my thoughts. When I looked through Pink's book, it just seemed so superficial, considering my own training and education in the creative process.

The issue for business is one of vision. For example, Apple compared to Microsoft. Sure you can make money without design, with the sole use of efficiency, logic and traditional business methods (Bill Gates approach). But the opposite is also true. I don't know the whole history of Apple, but in its corporate infancy, someone said: "Our computer is going to look cool!"

Matt Harris

Great topic of discussion and article.

I lost nearly 3 years of valuable creative design experience, when as a new design graduate, I started an agency with two (more experienced) other designers when I was 21....and moreover, far away from home and family networks.

The experience of running the business, meant that though I missed out on valuable time nurturing my design crafting skills, I was forced to deal with real world issues and real MONEY - our money. For nearly 3 years I stumbled through finding clients, pitching, negotiating, discovering how their businesses ran (and how I needed to serve them best)...and ultimately it even meant learning how to aggressively ensure we got paid.

Having this baptism of fire in the business world meant that when I finally moved on from our little agency and took work back in the city (to really learn my craft) I took with me all of the essential skills and empathy for real business I had learned previously. It has served me well in my career ever since. Nothing like 'doing' to help one get to understanding.


A few thoughts on the creative process:

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the creative process is not linear. Solving a creative problem involves trying multiple scenarios and letting go of preconceived notions. In addition, one can arrive at ideas and solutions in very unexpected ways and times. (in the middle of the night, while taking a walk in the mountains). One may have a vision and idea that is completely "out of left field, " but should be developed anyway. Perhaps you will come up with one solution, but a better one will develop 6 months later. This kind of thinking and problem solving does not translate well to a business process asking for definitive answers to a specific problem, with a predictable outcome.
Diane Bossart

I loved this article. It is everything I thought about while doing my undergrad in Design. I constantly thought why are we so secluded and not learning from business or any other department that could benefit us in the long run. Having started out as a business major I saw first hand the differences in approach and thinking and since then have tried to find a happy medium in both. I don't think these.classes should be limited to graduate level but small instances incorporated im undergraduate classes. Example in the article the few students who changed their way of thinking down the road. Like design this is all a process.

I read this article with great pleasure and agree with most of it.

In my opinion the main problem is that most initiatives of business schools to teach design skills and design schools to teach business skills are insufficient. Like often discussed within academic circles this is due to the traditions of the functional silo education. Often, we can observe that business schools merely hire a designer to talk about design in one or two classes, or vice versa one or two business courses are taught in design schools. Even worse sometimes the designer talks about business or the business professor lectures about design. This is not enough to make a change in the corporate world.

However, there are programs out there which take a deeper approach to teaching design and the value of design to students. One example is the International Design Business Management (IDBM) Program in Helsinki, Finland. Since, 1995 the IDBM Program teaches expertise in global design business management through multidisciplinary research and learning. What makes it so different is the wider context of the program. The approach can be called 3 by 3 by 3. The IDBM program has a faculty from three different schools of Aalto University (Engineering, Design and Business). This means that experts in their field teaching their disciplines tools, approaches and perspectives. IDBM has also an equal amount of students with a BA degree in design, business, and technology (12 students from each school). This is essential to be able to learn from each other in various projects. IDBM creates teams with students from each discipline to work on an industry project with a company partner. By doing so, the program creates also an awareness of design within companies. And finally, IDBM teaches at all three premises of the university. Each premise allows the students to explorer the different culture of the discipline.

This is just one example of many. I agree with the author that just teaching one course of “the other” discipline is not enough. We have to teach a deeper understanding of the different disciplines knowledge and tools of various disciplines to make a change. In my opinion we need to teach the strengths of each discipline to the student. Not one discipline is better, or more important than the other.

I invite you all to check out our website: www.idbm.fi. Please do not hesitate to contact me should you need any further information daniel.graffataalto.fi.

Greetings from Helsinki,

Daniel Graff

I am planning on applying soon to schools for exactly these types of programs and am finding HUGE hurdles in finding many US Schools that offer a cohesive and encompassing approach to design + strategy + business. I want to creatively approach social issues and problems through the lens of design with an understanding/foothold in business. I am applying to all of the schools mentioned in the article, except maybe not d.school since Standford Design Program is not accepting any applications*still* it seems.

There are alot of new programs popping up, but I wonder how many of them are removed from the real sources of the problems we are looking to solve and are stuck in the studio?

I don't want to be an architect - but I want to work with architects. I want to work as a designer with everyone - to creatively approach all types of issues. Where do I get an education to position me for that? To get me out of the architecture firm and into the rest of the world?

I am looking for real world learning that asks designers to stretch their boundaries and thinking beyond the hypothetical of studio.

fingers crossed that Fall 2012 will have me somewhere...
Pamela Steiner

I think its key for students entering these programs, whether its a traditional design school teaching business or vice versa to identify which skills they need to continue to develop through experience in their careers.

I am attending the California Collge of Arts DMBA program in the fall, and was accepted into the dual masters degree which would have landed me an MFA in design as well. I couldn't attend both programs as an international student (costs) and decided that I had to develop the the critical and applied design skills that I was loosing by dropping the MFA in other areas.

So I sought out a career path to compliment my enrollment in the DMBA, I am now working with a renowned art director to hone my applied design skills so that I am able to beautifully execute my ethical and business savvy ideas as a DMBA grad.

Its up to students not to expect everything from an education but to look at the entire course of their career as an opportunity for learning and to identity areas where they can fill in the gaps, and to seek members and support from the design community to do so.

Amanda Fetterly

Helen, thanks for the great article.

As a current MBA student at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, I wanted to draw attention to a new student organization that was created last year to explore the intersection of Design and Business - the Ross D+B Club. Emerging from the vision of a few creative thinkers in 2009, the group has quickly grown to include nearly 15% of all business students. In 2010 alone, we co-created a wildly popular MBA course with IDEO around the design process for e-Service innovations, hosted a sold-out series of Design Labs for business students, and traveled to engage with design luminaries in Chicago, Toronto, and San Francisco.

With such tremendous energy, Ross is quickly becoming a nexus for design-inspired thinking in the world of MBA programs. And we are excited to continue to push boundaries over the coming years. To see more, check us out: www.designplusbusiness.com or @Ross_DnB
Brian Moss

Jobs | June 14