Yasushi Kusume is Innovation and Creative Manager at IKEA and formerly headed up branding and design for companies like Electrolux and Philips. We asked him what constitutes a great designer, and where the concept of ‘design thinking’ fits.

The profession of Design is still relatively young. It originated from the creation of a product’s appearance, and the touchpoints where that product was exposed to customers. For many years this was seen as its primary focus. As a result, designers have traditionally been involved in only a small part of the business. They have been confined to the final stages of creation, and they gained little experience of the business itself.

Design Council research has demonstrated that design is unlocking innovation in businesses and places. Its role improving economic and social outcomes is much better understood and in recent years businesses have started to gain a broader appreciation of the benefits of design. The current trend for business consultants to buy up Design agencies, such as Accenture who acquired Fjord, provides clear evidence of how business is increasingly recognising and utilising design skills and competencies.

The rise of ‘design thinking’.

At the same time the term ‘design thinking’, promoted by global product design firms like IDEO, has risen to prominence. I can’t deny that the term has helped to increase the recognition of design within businesses, but I also think it has led to an unfortunate misunderstanding of the skills and talents needed to be a professional designer. The promotion of ‘design thinking’ has been used by big global firms to increase their business. In the wider design world though, I would go so far as to say that the over-promotion of ‘design thinking’ has led to a deterioration of the quality of design on offer.

The problem with ‘design thinking’.

In Japan, DIY shops are called ‘Sunday carpenter shops’ because they’re seen as places for people who only do carpentry on Sunday. In a word: amateurs. Or, to put it another way, people who believe that because a shop sells all the necessary tools for carpentry, buying those tools will make them an expert carpenter. 

“We are witnessing a flood of ‘Sunday designers.’ Many people now believe that design is all about the process steps.”

Yasushi Kusume, Innovation and Creative Manager, IKEA

This is also, I believe, what has happened to design. We are witnessing a flood of ‘Sunday designers’, and the situation is only going to get worse. Several universities and educational institutions have introduced short courses to help students master ‘design thinking’, sometimes as short as just a few days. Many people now believe that design is all about the process steps. They think anyone can do it as long as they know how to follow those steps.

In today’s business world, knowledgeable, skilled and talented designers are valued less than the actual process steps defined by ‘design thinking’.  The perception is that those steps are more important than the competencies involved. In ‘The Design Thinking Movement is Absurd’ Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “In the end, design thinking isn't about design. It’s not about the liberal arts. It’s not about innovation in any meaningful sense. It’s certainly not about “social innovation” if that means significant social change. It’s about commercialisation.”

What makes a great designer?

So, in that case, what does make a great designer? How do we go about producing the talented individuals who can contribute to business strategy? It is a problem for both business and education. The engineering company JCB have set up an interesting partnership with schools and higher education, which demonstrates the extent to which commercial organisations can work with education. 

“What’s needed is not a process with a catchy name. What’s needed is a skilled leader of design working with a team of first-rate designers.”

If designers are to extend their contribution beyond appearance, then businesses need to nurture designers with new competencies. Competencies that enable them to contribute to every stage of the business process. What is required are experts in business as well as design.

Such a designer needs to build their understanding of targeted audiences, business strategies and processes, as well as other disciplines, skills, and professions. They need to scan, analyse, and translate intangible insights into concrete concepts they can communicate fully and effectively. Design must focus on people and put them at the centre of design thinking.

All that is easy to say. But it’s not so easy to implement. This is because, while the design process follows some basic process steps, each individual design is unique. So there can be no one model of design activity. It isn’t possible to take a cookie-cutter approach. The best design requires skilled, knowledgeable designers who can create and lead the most suitable plan while staying focused on people.

To be able to do that, a good designer should be exposed to, and part of,  a multi-disciplinary professional network. Designers must develop their knowledge of many different fields; from science, technology and society to the economy, the environment and politics. They don’t have to become experts in those fields, but they should be more than just aware of them. They need to know enough to know where to look for genuine expert advice and collaboration. They should become a company’s gateway to a network of outside experts.

Yasushi Kasume, IKEA Illustration

This has important implications for both educators and designers themselves. I believe that designers should be seen in the same way as doctors. That is, to be seen to be continuously learning, expanding their knowledge and skills. And they need to keep learning. Only when they have clearly established their expertise in a wide range of fields, can demonstrate that they have and will continue to do so, will business leaders and stakeholders come to trust them. And embrace their contribution.

My closing message is to business leaders and stakeholders.

If you want to leverage design from a position of ‘strategic involvement’ to one of ‘strategic partner’, then hire a highly competent design leader and let her or him organise all design competences by reporting directly to the CEO. In short, enable the design leader to organise a design department that will deliver the maximum value to all areas of your business.

What’s needed is not a process with a catchy name, or a creative environment running workshops with Post-Its and air hockey tables. What’s needed is a skilled leader of design working with a team of first-rate designers, all of whom fully embrace the principle of people-focused design. With such a team at your disposal, you will maximise the value design brings to your business and to the growth of your brand.

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