Illustration by Tala Safié

Late last year, management consultancy company McKinsey & Company published a widely read report extolling the business value of design. Now digital product design platform InVision has followed suit with a design and business report of its own. McKinsey’s tracks the design practices of 300 publicly listed companies (in the fields of physical goods, digital products, and services) over a period of five years; InVision’s takes a broader view, covering 24 industries and 2,200 companies in 77 countries. Both came to similar conclusions: businesses that invest in design are likely to increase revenue and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their competitors—but only if design is really integrated into the core of the work, from top to bottom.

That means businesses need to kickstart a cycle of prototyping and testing, and recognize its design team (if it has one; if not, get one) and the expertise they bring, rather than silo designers and their work into a secondary budget or department. This all sounds great, but if design thinking is adopting across all departments, doesn’t it have the potential to remove designers from engaging actively in the design process? Or worse yet, to water down the value designers bring and turn it into management speak? It’s difficult to argue that scalability is bad for business, but is it good for design?

Both companies have a vested interest in making the case for placing design at the core of any business; they each offer consultancy or UX  services. (One wonders if they would have put out a report if their findings determined the opposite to be true.) They each conclude that the impact of design ought to be measured with the same rigor a company devotes to its P&L, and that design practices should be integrated into the day-to-day workflow of the company and and as part of cross-functional teams. They both report that by encouraging other departments to adopt the prototyping and testing phases that are core to design work into their own processes; and by having design teams work with developers, product managers, and data analysts, the whole business is likely to benefit.

It’s difficult to argue that scalability is bad for business, but is it good for design?

InVision found that the leading companies, or “Visionaries” (depicted in the report as a group of fully kitted-out astronauts), are especially adept at integrating design into strategy. Whereas companies at the other end of the spectrum, the “Producers,” think of design in purely visual terms, as what “makes it look good.”

While McKinsey reported that companies scoring the highest in relation to their index, (which measures revenue and top returns to shareholders, as well as approach to analytical leadership, cross-functional talent, continuous iteration, and user experience), were those who “stood out from the crowd:” those who adopted design thinking, from the executive level down, built cross-functional teams, engaged in user research, and integrated third-party products or services into their product or service (say, if Netflix introduced a button that let you order pizza without pausing your millionth viewing of Friends).

What both studies are essentially saying is: design is important, design thinking is useful, and companies that successfully bring this into their overall business practice will become leaders in their field.

McKinsey characterized the optimum in-house designer as a T-shaped hybrid designer, “who works across functions while retaining their depth of design savvy.” In this set-up, they suggest that designers are “the employee most able to have a tangible impact though their work,” rather than being relegated “as line items on marketing or engineering budgets.”

While a more informed understanding of design beyond “make it look cool/er” can only be a good thing, (a graphic designer friend of mine was once asked to “make it more bland”), as design teams become more embedded in and across a business, there’s likely to be a variety of processes of dilution. At the core of this, in the suggestion that all teams adopt the working processes of a designer, or “design thinking,” the thing that can get lost is the design work itself.

Designers invent and innovate when they are given the time and space to work, to consider their role in relation to industry and society.

In Quartz’s “Why are we still arguing for the business value of design?,”writer Anne Quito questions why the value of design needs to be continually reinforced, “Have designers not sufficiently convinced the world of their work’s strategic value after all?” Why is design still introduced with caveats like this one from the 2017 Design in Tech report: “Design isn’t just about beauty; it’s about market relevance and meaningful results.”

Part of the problem may be that the more we describe the value of design, the more we get into the tricky territory between “the mystery of creativity” and its relationship to market jargon. There’s a gap between the vision of design as “making pamphlets,” the vision of design as an “integral change-making, critical, speculative practice,” and the vision of design as “CEO-driven design thinking.” The space between those things is where both reality and productive design work lies.

In her article, Quito references then-IBM president Thomas J. Watson Jr’s 1973 speech, “Good design is good business,” to explain how IBM became “a locus of innovation and good taste,” working with architects and designers including Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Paul Rand, and Isamu Noguchi. Where IBM succeeded, was in giving designers room to design. As with the Bauhaus and later the Ulm school, Artek, and other examples of mid-century modernism that aligned closely with industry, designers invent and innovate when they are given the time and space to work, to consider their role in relation to industry and society.

The popularity of design thinking has, in some cases, reduced design to management theory.

Although a cultural shift from the singular design genius is in many ways a positive thing, and the idea of a hybrid designer has the potential to sit in a sweet spot between the auteur and design by committee, there’s a danger to design being too closely strung to short term goals. User-testing is important in many instances, but a lot of the historic breakthroughs in design have given people what they don’t know they want or need yet. Measuring design against immediate data, whether quantitative or qualitative, doesn’t always accurately assess its actual value or potential for real long-term transformation. Obviously, it’d be naive to suggest that numbers don’t come into it, but it’d also be short-sighted to suggest that innovation be measured against the racking up of $$$.

Quito also raises the problem of how the popularity of design thinking has in some cases reduced design to the acting out of management theory, “Post-It heavy pow-wows [that] often result in interesting conversations that never materialize in the actual product.” Pentagram partner Natasha Jen considered design thinking as trend in her talk, “Design Thinking is Bullshit,” at the 2017 99U Conference:

“Design thinking is not bullshit. However, the marketing of design thinking is completely bullshit. It’s even getting worse and worse now that we have three-day boot camps that offer certified programs–as if anyone who enrolled in these programs can become a designer and think like a designer and work like a designer. Secondly, I really don’t believe that there is one single methodology that can deal with any kind of situation–not to mention the very complex society that we’re in today.”

Both Quito and Jen recognize the integral flaw in design-as-ideation-meeting, in translating design thinking, but not recognizing its complexity, or how much of it is tied in with making. “The world is messy and beautiful and inspiring. There are many ways and tools to create and think about design,” Jen says in her talk. “Design thinking packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience; by codifying their processes into a prescriptive, step-by-step approach to creative problem-solving–claiming that it can be applied by anyone to any problem.”

Perhaps what we need is a balance between siphoned-off designers, and scattered, diluted design thinking, where designers are given a seat at the table as well as the room to do the work. In a period where expertise is regularly mixed up with doubt and mistrust, and innovation celebrated without much thought for the consequences or long-term impact, truly forward-thinking businesses—and more fundamentally, people—should be putting more consideration to why, how, and what they are designing and putting out into the world, rather than return on investment reports. Luckily, designers are great at that.