Think Business and Design are Incompatible? Think Again


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How do you define “design”? You might find your definition is outdated.

Growing up, we’re taught that business and the arts are two mutually exclusive fields; that companies have corporate-minded leaders running the show and creative designers look after the brand, website design, logo and other marketing materials… But what if I told you the two positions could be one?

Our increasingly interconnected world has many obvious effects on businesses: social media, technological innovation and multilingualism are now musts if you want to stay ahead of the curve. However, there’s a less obvious consequence that you may not have considered: as our collective attention span gets shorter, it’s more and more important that a product or service is creative, unique, pulls us in and keeps us there.

But not just with advertising. What you’re selling needs to be innovative in and of itself. Its design must be seamless and design should be present in every step of the business development, from ideas to execution.

Javier Cañada, professor of Interaction Design at IE School of Human Sciences and Technology, says this is because “in beauty there is craft and in craft there is the perception of quality.” But design hasn’t always been linked with quality. From the ‘60s to today, the field has undergone major changes led largely in part by corporate executives.

Evolution of perception

The definition of design has evolved in waves. Up until the ‘60s, the profession of “designer” was synonymous with “engineers,” those who designed, say, a car or a kitchen appliance.

One of the first business leaders to understand the crucial link between design and business was IBM’s CEO Thomas J. Watson, who said in the ‘60s that “good design is good business.” IBM became one of the leading technology companies in the world under Watson’s leadership. He designed exhibits, engaged in storytelling, and explained what computers can do in layman’s terms. He used design to help the company reach a broader audience and therefore become a global force. But Watson, like many others, understood design as how things are built.

Other examples, Cañada notes, include the appliance company Brown, which invested in design and as a result, positioned itself as the leading appliance company. Or Porsche, he tells us, whose first model was designed in a design school. Such “design” schools were common, especially in Germany, although today we might call them engineering schools.

With the cultural movement of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, that perception started to change. The field of design moved toward self-expression and the arts. It became less about functionality and more about aesthetics.

However, moving into the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the rise of computers was taking the world by storm, there was at first a return to functionality, which came at the expense of beauty. The world of technology, which would come to penetrate nearly every other field, was being revolutionized and the most important thing was that it worked.

That is, until one Steve Jobs came on the scene. According to Cañada, Apple changed everything, broadening the field of design and making it more all-encompassing. Design became crucial in any product or service, especially after the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

Loyal customers are not only drawn to the functionality, but—knowingly or unknowingly—to the interface, the font, the material of the phone, the advertisements…

Evolve or die

With this change, spearheaded by Apple, companies are rethinking their strategy and hiring professionals with backgrounds in both business and design. Universities are responding to this demand with innovative programs and courses.

The course Javier teaches is part of the Master in Visual and Digital Media at IE School of Human Sciences and Technology, which is among the first master programs with a distinctly business + design approach. The program bridges the gap between creative practice and business management by preparing students to conceive, develop, execute, manage, and evaluate all kinds of creative visual media projects from start to finish. In other words, it’s a way for creative young professionals to channel their talent and turn it into successful businesses.

This new need for design-focused companies makes room for a generation of professionals well-equipped to create products and services that are innovative and memorable. Perhaps it’s time to rethink your definition of “design.”

Javier Cañada is a professor within the Master in Visual and Digital Media at IE School of Human Sciences and Technology. Grounded in the science of human behavior, powered by communication, and enabled by data and technology, graduates from this school are able to excel at jobs that require disruptive thinking and innovation.

The Master in Visual and Digital Media prepares students to deal with complex situations through a mix of conceptual, creative, and managerial skills. Learn more here or register here to receive a brochure and more information.

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