Thoughts on DMI’s ‘Make It Happen’ Conference
In June I attended the Design Management Institute’s ‘Make It Happen’ conference in Seattle. Having never attended a DMI event, I was unsure of what to expect – speakers varied from software to industrial design, from academia and outside of the traditional design disciplines.
The mix of disciplines helped set the tone: regardless of what the final design output is, we all go through the same processes and face the same challenges when designing. This thread wove through all the presentations and helped connect the idea of ‘how do we, as designers, make it happen?’ My goal at EightShapes is to grow our visual design practice so I was excited to hear how other managers helped develop their teams and foster an atmosphere of creativity.
Make It Happen: Within Organizations
A key theme was elevating design and “design thinking” within an organization. Speakers sought to answer questions such as, how do you sell the value of design to executives and become a partner at the table? Leaders and executives seem thirsty for innovation; they’ve read case studies on Apple and from firms like IDEO. They want to realize new ways of doing – but how do you help them introduce this process and take it from design thinking to actually producing output?
The position of design in the organization gives you a sense of how it values design. As a designer, your goal shouldn’t be just to get a seat at the executive table, but to elevate the importance and value that the design team can bring. Designers can help facilitate conversations and non-linear thinking in a business setting and help break teams from making decisions solely based on analytics. Jeanne Liedtka remarked that design thinking brings new tools, helps reframe problems and ultimately produces more empathy with the end user. (Though, ultimately, I wasn’t satisfied that any of the speakers successfully defined “design thinking.” See below.)
Make It Happen: With the Right Team
To establish change within your organization you need to ensure you have the right team. Recognize your team’s inherent talents, as well as their limitations. Remember not all designers want to become managers (or excel at it). Look to your team’s strengths to delegate activities. Even perceived negative traits can become positives for your team when re-examined.
Scott Berkun talked about designers needing to think like sales people and persuade others to see value in the work. He cautioned, however, that you should temper the cadence of work that the team can realistically handle. There will always be more demand than you can supply. Ensure you have evangelized the design process for the times you must say no – because the experience may get designed regardless of whether your team does it or not.
Make It Happen: Live your Brand and Users
Look back at your company’s core values and goals – how does your design translate those to the end user? Consider that the user’s experience doesn’t begin or end with whatever piece you designed. Take the time to experience the user’s entire journey to develop empathy and inform your designs. Samantha Starmer team’s research showed users often researched products at REI.com yet went to a physical store to complete the transaction. Instead of just thinking about the experience of REI’s site, they now considered how their online experience needed to coexist and complement the offline buying experience.
Defining Design Thinking
Successful businesses differentiate themselves and avoid the commoditization of their products. Executives understand the need to innovate but may be uncomfortable with not know knowing how to define and categorize ideas and outputs. The concept of ‘design thinking’ remains unclear to many business stakeholders and frankly, many designers also struggle to define it. As designers we need to promote asking tough questions, removing preconceived notions, and refining ideas. We can help leaders feel the the human element of their business, supporting their connecting with the physical world as they make critical business decisions.
Make It Happen didn’t define ‘design thinking’ or establish processes around it. The more the speakers and attendees talked about design thinking the more it seemed that the real challenge is to get design involved throughout the business. The key to involvement is to show value early on to executives. A design team needs to facilitate conversations, challenge assumptions and solidify their usefulness in the early stages of a project.
I went into the conference not knowing what to expect afterwards. After the conference I felt invigorated and inspired–by the great work of others, to ask more questions, and to further grow EightShapes visual design practice.