This is an excerpt from from my new book, Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers, out now from HOW Books.
Culture is everything people in a design business do that supports the process of making work happen. Culture can create joy for designers, while improvements in process can facilitate profit. A common misperception is that culture emerges organically based on the decisions of a business owner or CEO. But a design studio’s culture is not created solely by those at the top. For a design-led business, culture is generated from ongoing contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees.
In researching my recent book on how design businesses can be more successful, I began to see important building blocks that were present in the most successful studios. These building blocks are divided into two groups: hard building blocks and soft building blocks. Hard building blocks are realized through a budget, meaning that you can allocate money and time for them as part of business overhead. The soft building blocks can be created through the decisions employees make over the course of their daily work, life and play (with less material investment by the owners).
A healthy studio culture draws equally from both types of building blocks. They provide emotional and material stability to employees in the face of ongoing work challenges, and often clients, family and the general public perceive them as ingredients of the company’s brand. These building blocks are equally present within design firms and in-house design teams—though for the latter, the composition of some building blocks may be heavily influenced by the company's overall behavior and needs.
Let’s take a deep dive into these building blocks, with important questions to ask yourself (and your team) in order to create a strong studio culture.
This is an exclusive excerpt from my new book, Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers, which was recently released by HOW.
As I read through his resume, the designer stared at me expectantly. He had a wealth of great design projects under his belt. He had been seeking out personal projects to build out his portfolio. He had internships with sterling businesses and design studios. But there was one thing that leapt out at me from the list of core skills he’d listed at the top of his resume: strategy.
Not brand strategy, content strategy, interactive strategy, media strategy, or the MBA-land of business strategy. Just plain ‘ol strategy.
This has been happening more and more frequently, for a few reasons. In the process of providing strong service to our clients, we increase the likelihood of becoming a strategic partner. We finally have a seat at the table when the client is talking strategy—and we can offer a range of strategic services that verge outside what may be considered a designer’s core area of expertise. This is a good thing. With the ongoing expansion of design’s role in business, today’s designers are helping to solve problems that transcend mere decoration and instead impact the core functions of a client’s business.
But in our haste to be strategic partners, I’ve discovered that many designers don’t fully grasp how strategic services fit into their client offerings. And when I ask designers out of sheer curiosity how they’re functioning as strategists—what experiences they directly bring to bear on being strategists rather than having a strategic orientation—they can’t easily answer the question.
If you’re going to run a design-led business, it’s inevitable that you will need to talk strategy with your clients. So let’s explore the types of strategies you might create as a design businessperson, as well as how they may support the efforts of your clients. It’s my hope that this information will open up some new paths for you to explore in your career as a designer.
The SCAD graduate students split up into teams and gathered around their copies of the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT), considering their homework assignment for their next class period. Their task: To pilot the first activity they would use with local high school students as their first introduction to working together in a group. In two days, they’d have to do a dry run with their classmates. As they looked over the toolkit’s action map, they began to where they should they begin? By having a “Knowledge Fest” or a “Skill Share?” By helping their group identify a goal right away, or by having fun and getting to know each other?
The CAT has been out for almost two months, and from the emails and conversations we’ve received since releasing the CAT, situations such as the above are happening more and more. The toolkit is being deployed far more broadly than expected, such as in our new Chinese language edition. People are finding new uses for it, from local education to entrepreneurship in global organizations. And we’ve embarked on our first educational pilot, working with SCAD’s Design for Sustainability program.
How did this happen? And in what ways can you use the CAT that you may not have considered?
This past September, I spoke at AIGA Seattle's Into the Woods, a multidisciplinary retreat whose theme was "Survive and Thrive." Five speakers were asked to speak on that theme through the particular lens of their practice, on topics as varied as sustainability (Scott Boylston) to inspiration (Jeanette Abbink) to creativity (Howard Lichter) to business (Seth Johnson and Karen Kurycki). The topic I was asked to speak on was design and education.
Andy Warhol knew it all along: “Good business is the best art.” And lately, a number of business thinkers and leaders have begun to embrace the arts, not as an escapist notion, a parallel world after office hours, or a creative asset, but as an integral part of the human enterprise that ought to be woven into the fabric of every business—from the management team to operations to customer service.
John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and author of the book Redesigning Leadership, predicts that artists will emerge as the new business leaders and cites RISD graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, as prominent examples. The author William Deresiewicz heralds reading as the most important task of any leader. John Coleman makes a compelling case for the role of poetry in business. Intel named pop musician will.i.am as director of creative innovation. And the World Economic Forum has been inviting arts and cultural leaders to its events for several years and this year added the ‘Role of the Arts’ to its Network of Global Agenda Councils.
Indeed, the “art” of business becomes ever more important as the “science” gets ever more ubiquitous. Against the backdrop of our hyper-connected economies and as Big Data and sophisticated analytical tools allow us to maximize process efficiencies and standardize best innovation practices worldwide, intuition and creativity remain as the only differentiating factors that enable truly game-changing innovations. Like any “soft asset,” they cannot be exploited, only explored. And like artists, innovators must develop a mindset and cultivate creative habits in order to see the world afresh and create something new.
When more than 800 leaders from business, academia, civil society, and government convene at the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai next week, the Global Agenda Council on Values, of which I am a member, hopes to serve as the glue between the more than 80 Councils that are addressing the most pressing issue of our time. By engendering a cross-Council dialogue, the Council on Values can act as a bridge between the public and private sector, between different industries, faiths, cultures, and generations - and different sets of values.
In light of the financial crisis, growing social divides in many countries, and deepening mistrust in business, a multi-stakeholder dialogue on values is more important than ever. In our hyper-connected world, the consequences of our actions are more transparent and dramatically amplified, and the gap between values and behavior is increasingly open to public scrutiny and subject to systemic effects. Consumers and citizens demand more transparent, collaborative and inclusive models of value creation that produce well-being, happiness, and meaning as much as profits. However, it appears that even well-articulated and broadly supported moral principles are difficult to translate into day-to-day decision-making and into the behaviours observed by suppliers, dealers, customers, and employees, with their varying and often conflicting value systems.
Happiness and well-being have entered the business mainstream as new indicators of economic progress. Bhutan pioneered the Gross National Happiness Index, the UN issued a Happiness Resolution, and the Harvard Business Review recently devoted a special report to the topic. A growing number of companies are looking into creating Big Data-enabled products/services that measure and enhance happiness/well-being, and a growing number of companies are beginning to leverage the potential of Quantified-Self-apps to improve workplace wellness (and productivity).
“Choose your enemies carefully, 'cause they will define you Make them interesting 'cause in some ways they will mind you They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends Gonna last with you longer than your friends. -- U2, “Cedars of Lebanon”
We know that opposition is an integral part of the creative process. But sometimes opposition itself can be a creative act. Beyond common tactics (listed on this Community Toolbox site as “deflect, delay, deny, discount, deceive, divide, dulcify, discredit, destroy, deal”), it can manifest itself as craftsmanship and art--whether it be street art by Shepard Fairey or satire like these recent Mitt Romney campaign spoofs Venn diagrams.
As Make Shift’s editor, Steve Daniels, observes in the current issue, the nature of resistance is changing. Case studies ranging from Occupy Wall Street to neighborhood activism in Port-au-Prince illustrate that a combination of social technology and street-level ingenuity is producing new tools, techniques, practices, and skills for vocalizing opposition. And these in turn drive boycotts, counter-movements, and insurgencies, as well as opposition at a more mundane level, in day-to-day interactions.
With regard to business, numerous acts of creative opposition abound, from product hacks (e.g., hackers of IKEA products and Microsoft’s Kinect) to Beck’s decision to release his new album only as “sheet music” to be recorded by his fans. The entire maker and crowdfunding movements, as well as “innovation communes” such as The Glint, the Rainbow Mansion, and the Memento Factories can be seen as fundamental acts of creative resistance to business as usual.
All of these trends made me think about creative opposition within companies--about employee activities that are counter to the top-down policies without crossing the line into the unproductive and illegal. From passive disengagement, noncompliance, and disobedience to passive aggression, covert sabotage, and overt conflict, which tactics are appropriate, legitimate, and effective? How much resistance from its fringes can an organization endure before it is threatened at its core--and stops being an organization altogether? And most important, why would fostering creative opposition even be beneficial to companies?
Innovation was the overarching theme of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions (AMNC) 2012 in Tianjin this week. As a representative of a design and innovation firm and as a member of the WEF Global Agenda Council on Values, I was delighted to see that many panels and conversations approached innovation from a holistic perspective. That meant not contextualizing it solely as technological disruption or process optimization, but as a deeply humanistic endeavour that connects consumer and producer, along with other stakeholders (increasingly in hybrid roles), in a creative act. Innovation, after all, is a human enterprise.
Blog The Editor's Notebook
Not so long ago, in the mid-2000s, many conversations in offices, schools, and even parties centered around the exciting concept of radical openness made possible by then-new social media. But now, as the 2010s are in full swing and social media are established, dominant platforms, how can we--as designers, strategists, organizations, consumers, and individuals--best harness the widespread acceptance of radical openness? The recent TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, offered a fascinating and widely varied lineup of speakers who, collectively, helped to answer this question. Or at least will help propel the discussion forward, long after the conference ended on June 29.