In which I’ll tell a few stories (Part 1) and then outline five challenges you’ll face at the table and how to handle them (Part 2).
Guys, we made it. Design is totally here. At the table. Doing table-y things. We have design founders, Chief Experience Officers, Chief Design Officers, Vice Presidents of Design, Heads of Design, Designers in Residence, Venture Capital Design Partners, and probably some really innovative new titles I haven’t even heard of yet. A general understanding has emerged about why design needs to be part of the mission, vision, and strategy of an organization. At the very least, the success of design-led companies like Apple and Airbnb along with the emergence of design-thinking classes in MBA programs across the nation has made design pretty dang mainstream (if still a bit opaque).
Personally, I believe with all my heart in the power of design and the role of design leadership, and for the past four years I’ve walked through the fire trying to figure out what the hell that really means. Last year I took those experiences and made them into a talk I gave at both Prototypes, Process & Play (Chicago) and Future of Web Design (New York) and which I am now making into a two-part series that mostly, but not entirely, follows the format of what I said on stage. I’ve made some editorial changes to make it a better read, and have added insight I’ve gained since I last gave the talk in November of 2015.
My story begins in 2012 when I was the Creative Director of a start-up that was acquired by Airbnb (o hai design-driven company!). At the 11th hour I did a Very Crazy Thing and, instead of moving to San Francisco, joined a tiny start-up in New York instead. At this point, Airbnb was already a unicorn rocketship blasting into the stratosphere, which was totally exciting, but I wanted a chance to experience the process of building design into a company from the beginning. Well, almost the beginning. This distinction — beginning vs. almost beginning — is actually incredibly important and it’s something we’ll touch on later. But for now, let’s get back to this scrappy little start-up with a flat organizational chart and an ethos of titles-don’t-matter.
I had been around for about a month when the CEO asked me what I wanted my title to be, to which I replied quite naturally (duh), “Chief Design Officer”.
This was met with an awkward silence followed up with, “I was thinking more along the lines of Creative Director.”
So we sat down to discuss why it was important for design to sit alongside business and engineering as a foundational pillar of the company. For me, what a lot of it comes down to is that product is the intersection of business, engineering, and design. To create products and services that are useful, usable, and desirable (The Triangle of Doom), design has to be the third leg of the stool. It didn’t matter if I was the CDO, I just wanted to work for a company that believed design had a role to play at the top level. Eventually the founders came around to the idea and surprise! I was given the title of CDO.
Victory! It was all happening! I was working for a company that believed in design being at the table, and even better, I was the designer at the table! And then I paused for a second and realized…
… I had no idea what that really meant in practice.
For years the goal had been to get design to the table, but the table is really just the beginning. No one besides you knows what design will look like at your organization — what role it will play, what falls under its purview, how it behaves, and what it encompasses. For whatever reason your company does believe design will help build products and services with a competitive advantage but that’s where it gets murky because they don’t know specifically how design adds value. And that’s really the fundamental question — how does design add value? This is what you need to show your organization.
And so here I am, at the table, unable to tell the story of value or to demonstrate to the company what I know design is capable of. So I started to talk to people who have faced the same challenge and I started to do some research. Thankfully, there is a lot going on in the space right now including John Maeda’s wonderful ‘Design in Tech’ report which is pretty much the go to report around design activity in the technology and startup sector (2016’s report is now out).
As I was reading through the deck I came across the slide above addressing design’s strategic value. On this slide is a mention of Harley Earl with the label “first VP of Design in corporate America”. And I’m thinking, “Holy shit — this guy must know a thing or two about being at the table!”
And he does. But who the hell is Harley Earl?
Even if you don’t know Harley Earl by name (I didn’t), I’m pretty sure you’ve encountered his work. Whether you agree with his aesthetic or not he was responsible for, among other things, the infamous Cadillac tail fins. This guy put design at the top level of a major corporation in the first half of the 20th century and had a profound impact on American culture. How the ‘eff did he do that?
Well, I’m going to tell you how the ‘eff he did it, because we’ll need some of Earl’s guidance once we start looking at the challenges designers face when they get to the table.
Harley Earl’s story begins in LA shortly after he dropped out of Stanford (the burgeoning car scene was just too alluring) to work in his father’s shop designing custom auto bodies for the Hollywood elite. Earl was in the middle of it all, and as he matured in his craft he started innovating new design techniques, pioneering methods we still use today like free-form sketching and the use of modeling clay for physical prototypes.
Meanwhile, out in Detroit the big three car companies — Ford, GM, and Chrysler — were battling it out for market share. GM had a pretty good hold on the luxury car market at the beginning of the century, but by the 1920’s began losing customers to Packard. Alfred Sloan, CEO of GM, analyzed the situation decided a new model was needed to bridge the gap between a top-of-the-line Buick and an entry-level Cadillac — precisely the price point at which customers were defecting to Packard. The analysis by itself wasn’t anything revolutionary, but Sloan took it a few steps further. His key insight came from the realization that cars were all, by this point, mechanically identical and that a faster, more powerful car wasn’t going to be enough of a differentiator. Instead, he turned to aesthetics to give GM a competitive edge.
Sloan was pretty specific with his vision — this new model had to be ‘dashing and youthful’. So GM looked around for body designers and guess who they found? Yup. Harley Earl. They brought Earl in on a contract basis and he started to design what would eventually become the LaSalle. Launched in 1927 to huge market success, the LaSalle proved Sloan’s thesis that style and appearance were a differentiators and could drive the market.
The LaSalle was so successful that Sloan created an entire division for Earl — the Art and Color division — and hired him full-time.
For Harley Earl this was an opportunity of a lifetime. But young Harley, eager to bring design to every nook and cranny of GM, had no idea he was walking into a shark tank of engineers resistant to change. He thought designers were going to be embedded throughout the organization bringing design practices to every facet of the company. Fully cognizant of the tense environment, Sloan suggested Earl and his team work with him directly for the first few years to benefit from his support and patronage. At least until the rest of the company came around.
And when I say shark tank, I mean shark tank. Engineering drove everything up to this point. Take a look at this quote from a VP at the company:
“Even comfort, initially, was a secondary matter, and appearance, economy, etc. got scant, if any attention… Engineering was the all absorbing activity and the engineer was usually the dominant personality… Even advertising and the sales effort voiced largely the engineer’s convictions as to desirable motor car features and characteristics.”
Which makes me laugh because we’ve seen this elsewhere:
And here comes Earl into this world driven by engineering, attempting to establish design as a stakeholder in the company, as a partner in creating success, and he’s not exactly welcome. And while design is having increased success getting a seat at the table these days, support is not always unanimous. Similar to Earl’s experience at GM, design is often met with skepticism, criticism, and irrelevance.
In Earl’s early years, executives, engineers, and sales thought his ideas to be “flamboyant and unfounded”. Earl struggled to legitimize his design approach and even as the head of the newly formed Art and Color division he was referred to as one of the “pretty picture boys” and his design studio as being the “beauty parlor”.
And I’m reading this — about the struggles Earl faced and I’m starting to panic — battles with engineers, not being taken seriously, excluded from strategy and decision making and I’m thinking…
Holy shit. Is there any hope?!!
That’s what I’m here to tell you. There is hope — there’s actually quite a lot of hope — but there are real challenges that we face once we get to the table. Our digital infrastructure has become standardized. High-speed internet, open source, APIs, frameworks, and the cloud have dramatically lowered the cost of software development and essentially commoditized technology. Better experiences are no longer made by faster CPUs or more RAM, they are made through intentional, thoughtful, and customer-centered design practices.
This is fundamentally how design adds value, and this is what you need to prove once you get to the table. And Harley Earl and I are going to show you how in Part 2 by looking at five challenges you’ll face and how to go about handling them.