Design: a management discipline? Yes, on the condition that we free ourselves from Design Management

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There are many ways to judge the quality of a design degree. For a long time, it was measured on the quality of the end of studies projects and on the exhibition of these projects to testify to the creative spirit of the students at the end of their course. The end of studies project – like the journeyman’s “masterpiece” in the past – was enough to measure the performance of the training received. It was a testimony to their technical and creative expertise, and it was up to the young apprentice, now an adult, to take responsibility for his or her own life. This is obviously no longer enough; the demand for quality now calls for other credentials, in particular the need to prepare and guarantee as far as possible the young designer’s professional integration. The number of students entering the workforce is an essential variable for measuring the efficiency of the courses and skills taught in a higher education institution for design and creation. Many institutions have already incorporated this fact, and some even make it a criterion that takes precedence over all others. It is no longer a question of training creative students but creative professionals who are capable of finding their place in the professional world and developing their careers at their own pace.

However, a design school with a 5-year program cannot just monitor the employment rate immediately after graduation. The question that is being asked today is to measure the career development of Alumni who graduated 5 or 10 years ago. Beyond the technical skills, have our students acquired the knowledge, the skills in communication, in management, in strategy, the codes and the foresight to climb the ranks as their responsibilities evolve? Design has become strategic for all companies that think about their future; but are our designers ready and able to occupy strategic functions and take on top-management roles? The inherent value of design is at stake here.

The fact is that we still have a long way to go, because too few designers, even the most famous ones, are headhunted to fill the positions. Companies rarely consider them for management positions, nor do designers put themselves forward. It would not be a problem for L’Oréal to appoint, for example, an engineer as Marketing Director of the company, but it is unlikely to consider appointing a designer.
They will tell you that they’re not interested. Is this not simply because they have never thought about it and no one told them during their training or career that it was possible? Every day, designers think about tomorrow’s society, but none of them consider becoming a member of parliament, a minister or a mayor, to bear witness to their representation of the world, whereas this is where the designer would be the most useful. In the European parliaments, there are plenty of architects but very few designers, as if their vision of the world was limited to tables, chairs, and beautiful lamps… “I am a Marketing Director, I am an MP, I am a Minister…because I am a designer” is the kind of statement that should embody design. Designers should understand it. Unfortunately, nepotism and professional corporatism often reduce their role to their ability to create, rarely to foresee, lead, organize, bring together, give meaning to teamwork… all the qualities of a Manager. Yet design has become a management discipline.

The fallacy of design management

We must deplore what “researchers” have done with “design management”, a vain and simplistic attempt to make design a management discipline. Design management books are generally of a remarkable intellectual and scientific indigence, the kind you can read in an hour and learn nothing from. They simply answer the question of whether or not design adds value. No need to do months of research, the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. How to compare the economic performance of a pressure cooker designed by an engineer with one designed by a designer. The answer is intuitive, it can be explained, but is it scientific? Should we lose ourselves in scientifically distinguishing the gender of angels? The problem is that this justification, even if proven, will be so unconvincing that it will immediately encourage the very thing we want to dispel, namely doubt. All the theorists of “Design Management” have only served to perpetuate the doubt about the relevance of design. It is time to spell it out. The desire to reduce design to a management and value-added discipline is a conceit of researchers in need of recognition.

Strategic Design

Design deserves to be held in higher esteem. Its significance is based on the recognition of its strategic relevance. Representing tomorrow’s way of life allows companies and society in general to think tactically about their new products, their new services, but above all to strategically guide all their innovations and even their future transformations. The function of design is to represent tomorrow, to give it reality and objectivity. It is this objectivity that must be given meaning. Most companies will have to incorporate the emergence of the markets’ “ecological awareness”; they will not be able to produce or sell as they did in the past, many of them will have to move from products to services to mitigate the effects of the – formerly virtuous – overconsumption of market renewal and sometimes of programmed obsolescence. Design will play a driving role in these transformations, as a conciliator between technology, which is by nature devoid of meaning and morals, and marketing, the foundation of which is consumption that must be reduced or adapted. Corporate social responsibility is not a moral requirement, as some would have us believe, it is an economic necessity in the face of new market imperatives. Design is at the heart of this metamorphosis. What is at stake is the transformation of companies, their profitability and their sustainability.

The evolution of economic, sociological and technological contexts is radically altering environments, and at an increasingly rapid pace. The company has no choice but to organize itself around its ability to constantly change, which is probably why hierarchical structures, which were notoriously hard to get moving, will have to be levelled out to adapt more quickly. We need agile structures and staff who are not afraid of change, which they are by nature. Yesterday is reassuring, tomorrow throws us into the unknown. Design is by nature the catalyst of this visionary and effective management style, it provides a glimpse of tomorrow and makes it enjoyable for all categories of personnel while at the same time uniting them around a common future. The designer is this director, leader and project manager, who is capable of bringing on board engineers, marketers, financiers and other professionals from outside the company – sociologists, philosophers, scientists – and getting them to think deeply about the question: “What world do we want to live in tomorrow?”.

Beyond this speculation, designers have the entrepreneurial responsibility to determine the forms of this new world and to build it.

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