Lilly Smith | Interviews

Chain Letters: Arthur Cohen

This interview is part of an ongoing Design Observer series, Chain Letters, in which we ask leading design minds a few burning questions—and so do their peers, for a year-long conversation about the state of the industry.

As we gear up to our two-day fall conference on design + business, we're reaching out to some of our favorite guests on The Design of Business | The Business of Design podcast to discuss their thoughts on design as a management discipline.

Arthur Cohen is CEO and co-founder of LaPlaca Cohen, a strategic planning, marketing and communications firm serving the needs of cultural and creative organizations. He also oversees Culture Track, the largest ongoing study in the US tracking the shifting attitudes and behaviors of cultural audiences. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School, and a lecturer at Stanford University, where he teaches a course entitled “The Changing Cultural Audience”.

Design and innovation have an intimate and irrefutable relationship, but it can be elusive to describe. Do you have an example of the two working in concert in your career?

It’s harder to think of an example where design and innovation don’t co-exist. To innovate is to inherently challenge the existing design solution; to either nudge it or radically re-conceptualize it — or any point of tranformation in between. Any such change is a type of design or re-design, whether the focus is a process or a product.

My job is about encouraging or inspiring people - often aggregated in “audiences” - to engage in cultural or creative experiences. Design and innovation converge in developing compelling new ways to convey these experiences and appeal to an individual’s desire for novelty, entertainment, socializing, enlightenment and more. Innovation comes into play through the necessity to craft communications and stories that are novel and intriguing in order to pique interest; this is impossible without thoughtful and effective design to insure the impact of such communications.
To innovate is to inherently challenge the existing design solution

Over the course of the past decade, design-driven companies have outperformed the S+P 500 by 228%. Businesses started by designers have created billions of dollars of value, are raising impressive rounds of funding, and are collectively demonstrating how design plays a central role across a range of industries. If design is critical to the success of the modern business enterprise, what are the core values and best practices that support that success?

As a non-designer asked to opine in a forum that is primarily written and read by designers, I feel compelled to challenge the implicit bifurcation of this question - i.e., that there are successful, design-driven companies, and then there is everyone else, less-successful because they are less design-savvy. At what point does a company get to describe itself as “design driven,” and what are the metrics behind such a designation?

Instead, I support a world in which design is not elevated and codified into some idealized “other,” but rather integrated into everyday practice that is just good business. In my company, we have people on staff with the title of “Graphic Designer” and “Creative Director.” but their contributions are greatest when they are not siloed or placed within a hierarchy, but rather fully integrated with those of other professionals with other, complementary skills. What they create together is, in my mind, “design” as much as it is “strategy,” “innovation” or a host of other professional competencies. The “core values and best practices that support its success” are no different for design than they are for any of these other attributes: the experience and ability to evaluate context as well as content with candor and perspective; an openness to change that is balanced with a respect for what already exists and why; and the vision, skill and humility to apply individual talent within a collective and collaborative environment.
I support a world in which design is not elevated and codified into some idealized “other,” but rather integrated into everyday practice that is just good business.

Management and design seemed to come from two different worlds: the world of planning and organization versus the world of creativity. Do you see design as a management discipline? How can creative leaders collaborate with executives to catalyze ideas and to mobilize teams?

Following my comments above, it will surprise no one that I don’t accept as a given that management and design come from two different worlds. I know of many designers - including some closely associated with Design Observer — who are excellent managers: thoughtful, organized, focused and nurturing of those that report to them. I also know of many in management roles who are exceptionally creative individuals whose creativity informs and enhances their management skills. These people are not the exceptions. Rather, they have been given - or have claimed - the opportunity to expand from their core skill set to become more “holistic” managers and/or designers.

I strongly believe that whether we are engaging a peer community via the AIGA or Harvard Business Review, we do our peers and colleagues a disservice by perpetuating differences and hierarchies between these two worlds. Design leaders should “collaborate with management executives to catalyze ideas and to mobilize teams” in exactly the same way that management executives should collaborate with design leaders: by focusing on shared goals and objectives; valuing and rewarding collaborative process and its result; and taking every opportunity to push again implicit or explicit hierarchies between and biases about the two.

What is the role of ‘data’ in design?

There are many ways that data and design intersect, but two in particular stand out to me as being particularly important at this moment.

The first is that there is an overabundance of data with which the user/reader/consumer is confronted on a daily basis; many of us feel either overwhelmed attempting to keep up, or simply choose to opt out of trying. Here’s where good design comes in. Data (which I will refer to with the collective aggregate “is” as opposed the technical definition as a plural or “are”) should be approached by the designer entrusted with sharing it not so much as a thing which is to be styled but rather as a language to be translated. For example, in presenting our nationwide report on cultural trends, known as Culture Track, that our company has now fielded seven times over the past 15 or so years, we spent as much time designing and de-mystifying the presentation of the data as we did in collecting and analyzing it. That’s because we made the following assumptions:
  • The primary audience would be non-specialist/non-technical practitioners who would need information that they could readily understand and share with other non-technical peers and colleagues;
  • The way people “record” information at presentations now is by taking a smart-phone photograph of the projected slide or image, so each chart needed to be designed as a picture: clear, simple, and sharable;
  • The data also needed to be available online and interactively, so we created a companion microsite that enabled the user to download various versions of the study and zoom in to specific aspects of their choosing. This was designed to be simple, smart and visually appealing – regardless of one’s level of expertise.
The second and perhaps more commonly encountered intersection of design and data occurs in a less felicitous interaction when designers are asked/told to design in a certain way because “that’s what the data says.” This can be seen, for instance, in web design when a client proclaims: “Our data tells us people like the reply button here,” or “We know that this color works best for our customer.” What they fail to recognize in presenting data as a dictum is that (a) the way they discovered these “facts” is through trial that resulted from a designer’s experimentation, and (b) results such as these are not finite because there are always new design solutions to explore, and the “data” about previous performance is descriptive, not predictive – i.e., people can’t judge what they have not yet experienced. The designer’s role, therefor, is to understand the data, but never be limited or constrained by it. A skilled designer integrates and balances many sources of input in creating their design, among which “data” is important, but not absolute. Experience, insight, exploration and even courage each play a role – along with data – in the process of creating great design.

From Randy J. Hunt: What is the topic you find endlessly fascinating—that you could “nerd out” on—but that your professional colleagues in the cultural world would find surprising or even...repulsive? How has your interest in it influenced how you look at the world or approach your professional practice?

I love cars, and am endlessly fascinated with how the car as a mode of transportation is evolving - and worried that it will become extinct. I think my love of cars has enhanced my ability to look closely and follow changes in design and try to understand how they reflect, capture or anticipate broader societal changes.

Next week Arthur asks Margaret Gould Stewart: What can designers do to fight increasing levels of screen-time addiction, especially among younger generations?

Posted in: Business, Chain Letters

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