Thursday, April 9, 2020

Unlocking the Role of Designers in the Digital Revolution

The world’s leading businesses are discovering the transformative power of design as a vital element of corporate strategy, from what type of goods and services they provide to how they interact with customers, recruit and develop talent, and structure their organizations.


Brainstorm Design 2019, which took place from March 5 to 7,  is the latest addition to Fortune’s influential Brainstorm Conference Series dedicated to exploring the increasingly crucial nexus between business and design.


Now in its second year, the event brings together Fortune 500’s most influential executives and the world’s most talented designers from diverse fields such as industrial and product design, architecture and urban planning, user experience, AI/ML, mobility and transportation, fashion, financial services, and more.


During this lively and informative event at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia in Singapore, we spoke to four pioneering designers who are each transforming how products are made:


  • Mark Wee (MW), the executive director of Design Singapore, recently named one of Singapore’s “20 under 45” architects by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. He currently heads his design consultancy, ANNEX A, which specializes in service design and architecture.
  • Justin Maguire (JM) is EVP of product design and user experience at Salesforce. He leads the design strategy and direction for Salesforce and all of its products.
  • Jeanne Liedka (JL) is an American strategist and professor of Business Administration at the Darden School of the University of Virginia. She is best known for her work on strategic thinking, design thinking, and organic growth.
  • Amit Gadi (AG) is a San Francisco-based designer who was behind some of the most innovative and lasting technological devices created over the last decade. He is the creative lead and founder of NewDealDesign and was awarded the 2013 National Design Award for his commitment to crafting delightful and workable solutions for real people.


  1. What is design?


MW: Design is an intentional act, usually creative, within constraints to solve a problem really well. The idea of creative solutions can take place across all sorts of things, from product reimagination to rethinking business models. The idea of design is expansive. It’s also about design as an attitude. This can equip the company with cultures to glimpse visions of the future.


JM: Design is an activity or a set of activities or processes aimed at solving a problem. You don’t just create. Unlike art, we are doing in the service of a problem. It’s also collaborative as opposed to solitary like art.

JL: Design is a structured way to envision new features.


  1.  How important is the role of design in your organization?


JM: It’s very important. As one proof point, we [Salesforce] elevate design in our organization. As a direct report to the head of the product, it shows a level of commitment to the design of Salesforce. We see this as an office of innovation in service of the customer. We handle this as a pre-sale process as well as a post-sale process.


JK: We are starting to see organizations with big product functions. Design thinking is now moving to the early, front-end phase of product development.


AG: I’m smiling because a lot of people give business leaders the wrong impression about design. Design is not rational, and it’s not always data-driven. What’s often missing is a whole giant field of brand marketing. This can relate to storytelling and narratives.


Large companies that aren’t succeeding usually have a skewed point of view about this. They are often utilitarian in deriving problems and solutions. They focus on problem-solving design. But in reality, it is maybe half of the picture. The other half is storytelling. This is why we are attracted to BMWs, expensive watches, Levi jeans. It’s because of storytelling, not because of exceeding performance. You cannot design without the story.


  1. Do you (or how do you) incorporate design into everyday processes?


MW: In our 2020 masterplan, we define five trusts. Our second trust encourages design to embed more between design and government. On the 1st of April, we [Design Singapore] will move to be a part of the Economic Development Board (EDB). Design, for the most part, is to shape more desirable products and places; desirable to customers, staff, and investors. Now, we need to help companies understand the value of design when there’s greater competition than ever. Customers have almost limitless choices, and only the best products stand out. Design will help shape this desirability.


JM: We do this by creating a draw. Since we are a platform, it’s important to encourage internal ecosystem partners, as well as customers who build on top of our solutions. We want to encourage best practices. We want to make it easy to do the right thing and make it hard to do the wrong thing.


JL: Every manager in the organization should learn design thinking. It’s like total quality management, where everyone in an organization should consider quality. Now, everyone should think about innovation. Design thinking is a teachable way to get there.


AG: Clients come to us with data and technology. We work with them to find the right story that fits their business goals. We also incubate ideas in war rooms. It’s a room with all influences and ideas. We also work together with clients, and one of the goals is to intentionally create a crazy, contrarian idea. Here, we use opposition to create tension. That tension that we get between different stories is important to get the best ideas.


  1. In light of the focus of big data and other related artificial intelligence domains, is there an enhanced role for designers? Is it very different from what you have done traditionally?


MW: The role of designers will become much bigger, and they will have to learn new skills. There will be a need for designers to work alongside data scientists and technologists. This has to be done collaboratively. However, this could be quite different from how some designers think now, especially the ones who think that they are creative geniuses. To collaborate, designers need meaningful conversations with business management. If today’s designers can acquire these skills, they will grow. The capability and capacity to differentiate and innovate could shape a new culture.


JM: Some time ago, several members wrote a letter to our CEO, talking about the role of ethics in artificial intelligence. That resulted in serious conversations. Our CEO listened and opened up a dialogue and asked should we change our core values. The outcome of that process is that we now have an office of ethical use. One of our design team members went to that team.


JL: Designers, particularly those that are good at business and people, will have an ever-more increasing role. Some designers may think it’s about novelty, but business innovation is never about novelty. It’s always about creating value. Designers sometimes just like to create cool stuff. There’s no future for that in most businesses. Designers need to create value and they need to work with business environments which can understand that well.


AG: It is a difficult question. I don’t think artificial intelligence or data mining technologies are good enough to come up with great ideas for humans now. In a few years, maybe, but not today. For the foreseeable future, business leaders with imagination and experience will drive innovation. Artificial intelligence is still quite dumb. It is premature. That could change.



  1. Where and how should designers stay relevant given the Industry 4.0 transformation?

MW: They can start with curiosity and hunger. They should constantly educate themselves in subjects outside of their own domain. There are so many learning resources on the web for self-education, and there’s formal education as well. If they are doing a second degree, do something different. Design Singapore works with schools to promote trans-disciplinary learning, with complex design challenges that require designers alongside engineers or social scientists. That’s very much the real world.


JL: Designers should be empathetic toward business people they work with. That’s one of the things that’s amusing about designers–they use empathy for everybody except business people. But business people think in a certain way. If designers learn to understand that, they can think in new ways. But many designers aren’t interested in that. A lot of designers aren’t user-centered. They design to make bigger statements rather than to meet the needs of people. Maybe not all designs need to be user-centered, but the most effective designs are often human-centered. The needs and motivations of everyone in the process is a powerful way to get things done.


AG: Due to this, design is one of the most secure jobs in the future. There are good designers, and there are bad designers. The good ones know that technology is a tool.


  1. But is design a single genius (e.g., Steve Jobs) or a groupthink activity?


MW: The idea of a genius mindset has been propagated by education. Historically, across different realms–startups, fashion design–geniuses came up with genius ideas. People then aspire to become these personalities. But the world is becoming more complex. People need to work with teams to succeed. But it is true that designers have a lot of natural tools. They visualize things and can make sense of things quickly. They tend to think quickly about the ideal state of the future. These are powerful tools.


JL: It can be both. There’s no doubt that there are geniuses. If you are one, you should definitely exploit it. But if you are not, there’s a lot that you can use to improve your skills. Someone can be an amazing soccer player. You can give them lessons, but they will still never be Messi. But we can be way better. We should never discourage people.


AG: Even in the story of the iPod and iPhone, it was never one single idea. It was never just one single person. Apple had a group of 20 to 30 people who had very good connections and very good dynamics with one another. They came up with big ideas. I push back against notions of extreme geniuses. Even phenomenal geniuses need good people.


  1. Where is it going next in 2020/2025? Can we automate design?


MW: The role of design is changing, and the impact it can make is growing. There are so many more possibilities than we have seen. Hopefully, we can encourage people who are not designers by trade to start to think about it. If we can do that, it would be so inspiring. A lot of jobs that are in demand today were never even understood or imaginable when we were in school. Technologies that disrupt usually end up creating new jobs.


JM: We have a leader who built our living design system. Eight months ago, he was given a new mission to democratize the process–to make it easy to do the right thing, and hard to do the wrong thing. Even if we are given a kit of Lego pieces, we can still make bad designs. With machine learning, users experience the product, then refine and improve it as they go. We are actively exploring this.


JL: It will continue to be more visible and prominent, especially on human-centered design. This will become a fundamental skill. There’s a lot more about talk than action right now. As a business skill, it is not very well-developed, although it’s certainly not a new-new thing like data science and big data.


Photos credit: Brainstorm Design 2019

Writers credit:

Dan Shen is a cheeky-smiled entrepreneur who thinks he can change the world with his Social Learning Gamified App (soqqle). He enjoys spreading positive energy and loves to speak about Blockchain, Big Data, and Educational Games. Outside his serious image, he enjoys playing with his three cats and can cook the best cajun salmon in the world. Follow @dansoqqle to see it yourself.


Sabrina Wang (@princessadiary) is an avid technopreneur with a fashion, technology and media background; currently driving PINC and FESO Asia. Entrepreneurial by nature, since 15 she dabbled in various businesses ranging from web/game hosting, web/mobile design and development, her fashion line, etc. Her natural acute business sense led to her to developing strategic marketing plans that result in massive impacts.


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