4 Ways Designers Can Gain Respect As Thinkers

I had the pleasure of meeting William Drenttel while attending the AIGA Business Perspectives for Creative Leaders at Yale a few years back. I remember his energy. I remember his enthusiasm. Drenttel was the co-founder of the influential design blogDesign Observer, and principal of the design consultancy Winterhouse which he ran with his partner Jessica Helfand. While we we’re being shuttled around the campus, he sat next to me on the bus. He was someone I admired and I nervously tried to keep up my end of the conversation. I remember rambling on about design process and the challenges of communication in higher ed. He joked about the ups and downs of working with his alma mater Princeton. But the thing I remember most about our conversation was how he spoke about the importance of designers moving from craftsperson to strategic thinkers.

“Designers talk about creating a body of work, but they seldom talk about acquiring a body of knowledge,” wrote William Drenttel, “They take pride in being makers, but seldom identify themselves as thinkers. They claim to be emissaries of communication — to give form to ideas. And while we would like to believe this is true, it seems to us that all too often, we, as designers, are called upon merely to make things look good — rather than contributing to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves.”

More than a pair of hands
Designers have long decried the lack of respect they receive in business circles. Much of this comes from perceptions about what designers actually do. Often regarded as decorators, designers have historically been underutilized. But it’s becoming clear; designer’s ability to problem solve and innovate are skills that businesses need. As marketing guru Philip Kotler once said, “Design is a potent strategy tool that companies can use to gain a substantial competitive advantage. Yet most companies neglect design as a strategy tool. What they don’t realize is that design can enhance products, environments, communications and corporate identity.”

So how do designers get their business partners to think of them as strategic thinkers as opposed to a pair of hands? Much of it has to do with four basic rules; speak the language of the organization, stay focused on the business, consistently communicate design value, and work transparently.

1. Use a Shared Vocabulary 
Language can be a unifier or a divider. Some professions use language as a way of asserting control. By using jargon or overly technical language, designers and businesspeople shut down the dialogue, leaving both parties to interpret what the other means. This is not to say that designers should adopt business speak. Taking on the language of business can be a slippery slope. Designers (or anyone for that matter) who throw out the latest business platitude or buzzword run the risk of sounding superficial or sophomoric. A better approach is to speak plainly, precisely, and in terms everyone understands.

2. Focus on the Business
We all speak the language we know best. Business people focus on business problems and not on how to integrate design into their strategy. Designers need to be prepared to talk about design in the context of a business problem-solving tool.

3. Communicate Design Value
Surveys conducted by Britain’s Design Council proved design increased market shares, developed new markets, increased profit, and made the organization more competitive. With evidence like this, designers should have an easy time selling design as a strategic business tool. But far too few designers know of this data and prefer to focus on design awards. As long as designers don’t promote their work based on business success factors, clients will continue to marginalize them.

4. Work Transparently
Because many design departments are not directly connected to company leadership, they tend to work under the wire, rarely getting much face time with the primary players. This exacerbates the problem of designers working in insulated environments. Collaboration from other parts of the organization should be the goal. On top of this, many designers work in idiosyncratic ways that make it difficult for others to participate in the design process. By adopting a transparent process that can be shared with stakeholders, designers take a step in allowing others to collaborate in the process.


To learn how to make your design process more strategic, check out 
The Strategic Designer: Tools and techniques for managing the design process. Published By HOW Design. Available at Amazon

Great design and great client relationships; Two things that all designers want. The Strategic Designer is based on research conducted with over 100 designers, educators and researchers from across the nation. The book provides a framework for collaboration, context and accountability in design problem solving. The book offers accepted professional practices and acts as a graphic design process body of knowledge, guiding the reader through each step of the graphic design process. Designers will learn how to build strong client relationships, increase project success rates, boost efficiency and enhance their creativity.

© 2009–2015 The Strategic Designer