Can “design thinking” raise the value of graphic design?

The September 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review “The Evolution of Design Thinking” is dedicated to the rise of design thinking as a bona fide management theory. While these are principles long ensconced within Silicon Valley companies, it is only more recently receiving widespread attention from more traditionally managed companies dedicated to innovation in either services or product development.

Often typified by “quick prototyping” and embracing a “rapid failure” ethos as essential components of an iterative development process, design thinking seems to run counter to the reasoning that underlies much of traditional strategic planning. It has, however, found favour within strategy development and organizational change management circles globally. This means that design theorists, specialists and broad-based design practitioners are enjoying an unprecedented level of influence within organizations and are increasingly being sought after by some of the world’s largest corporations.

CAN DESIGN THINKING RAISE THE VALUE OF GRAPHIC DESIGN? 

In my own history as a graphic designer, I have found that our profession gets the most respect from the business establishment, in cases where our work is elevated to the executive suite, due to its relative impact on the corporate strategy of the organization, such as in the case of a corporate branding initiative.

In many other instances, the challenge facing graphic designers in promoting the value of their work can be found in the fact that the impact of graphic design on corporate performance is hard to measure. Moreover, graphic design finds its way into almost every other distinct design discipline. What impact does a well-designed website, brochure or banner have on the sale of automobiles? After the advertising campaign idea is approved, what value does one ascribe to the thousands of design decisions that have to be made in shaping the visual of a campaign? How effective is a well-designed fast food restaurant menu board in boosting the value of sales per customer? This says nothing of the focus placed on data visualization and information design exemplified by the ubiquitous infographics that simplify complex quantifiable data through visual metaphors.

Furthermore, the impact of graphic design on improving organizational trust and reputation goes largely unnoticed, when it is often a key factor in influencing customer behaviours and perception. Graphic design is one of the main means through which organizations increase relevance by improving accessibility, by reducing information complexity, by streamlining and simplifying content and information flow wherever possible.

Other than for some web-based metrics, these value and effectiveness measures reside largely in the realm of the subjective. Most of us are familiar with the adage that “What can’t be measured, can’t be managed”. Its equivalent, as relates to graphic design, is this: “If it can’t be measured, it will not be valued”, even if we instinctively know that it is often what cannot be precisely measured that is worth doing most.

Ambiguity is not widely tolerated in the vast majority of organizations, and yet fortunes are being spent with great regularity on marketing campaigns where the business outcomes are less than certain. The author of one of the article in this issue of HBR writes:  “Design doesn’t conform easily to estimates. It’s difficult if not impossible to understand how much value will be delivered through a better experience or to calculate the return on a investment in creativity.” It’s probably never been more accurate than in reference to graphic design. There is simply no reliable metric to determine the impact of graphic design on corporate valuation or market performance. And yet, it’s essential. Can we do better than to suggest that the absence of design or the application of “bad” design would negatively impact both?

Graphic designers, just like web, environmental and product designers are “experience” creators. Yet they face difficult realities: a) a high substitutability notion prevails among client organizations, implying that one designer is a good as another, so the cheapest bidder will do the trick; b) organizations issuing RFPs (often via a procurement department) themselves may ascribe a low value to design services and creative outcomes in general, and; c) they likely also lack appreciation (we’ll settle for “understanding”) for the process involved in developing creative solutions that will meet the program’s most important strategic objectives while also complying with a frequently onerous approval process.

Paradoxically, many organizations will readily acknowledge brilliant examples of how a market leader’s image and offering is elevated through the sheer power of great design, but such enthusiasm is usually short lived and design quickly relegated to a low-level corporate priority, failing to register even a mention on nearly 100% of all strategic planning initiatives.

“Design Thinking” for graphic designers has to start with individual practitioners developing an ability to support the strategic value of their work and to demonstrate how it helps organizations of all types meet their market objectives and lead to the desired business outcomes. It is incumbent on design professionals to use the opportunity that this focus on Design Thinking presents, to engage with clients and demonstrate the value not only of our creative outcomes, but also of the process that produces those outcomes, in meaningful ways and in a language that is relevant to them. When we do this, graphic design will again be viewed as a strategic pillar in a company’s corporate and marcom strategy.