Design Leadership Is More than Simplicity. It Is About Design Discipline.

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El·e·gant, an adjective and define or characterized by or exhibiting refined, tasteful beauty of manner, form, or style. Marc Jacob? Chanel? Jil Sander? Hermes? All are unquestionably elegant by design in the fashion world. How about smartphones or interfaces? Can they be elegant? 

Or what about customer experiences? Can you describe a banking or customer service experience as elegant? Most people don’t.

Is elegant a word reserved solely for tangible products? The design world likes to use words such as “elegant”, “simple” and “user friendly”; many designers understand how to subtract in creating simple and elegant design solutions. Human factors usually subtract more than add. Good designers often take away complexity in objects or interfaces. Design is more than just making things simple. They appear simple but not necessarily simple. Design is the most complicated process but least understood.

Design should be strategic. Being strategic also means being human. 9 out of 10 designers barely understand what that means. Most are trained as design craftsman. There are very few design visionaries and I only know a handful of them. They are also very few design managers. And that’s the reason why designers never made it to the boardroom and they complain they don’t have a voice. Because they are not strategic. Design becomes a competitive advantage for corporations when it is used strategically. At a meta level, design connects the dots between mere survival and humanism supported by the underlying economics to make it feasible to produce and sell.

I have been hiring and mentoring designers (including some of the very best talents) for decades and can tell you which typology they belong to in 5 minutes. It is very easy to find designers, it is not too difficult to find good designers, but it is very hard to find a design visionary. Because they are not trained in design schools. They need to be cultivated.

But there is so much business can learn from design. If the best design can be elegant, then can a business strategy be “elegant”? Or can a particular management style be described as “elegant”? Anything elegant is often simple; not everything simple is elegant. Things that are simple are often user friendly, not everything simple is user friendly. Sometimes complexity is needed. Simplicity has different meanings. Good businesses need to be simple and easy to understand, and that’s the investment criteria for Warren Buffet. Businesses are getting too complex these days and same for design. Long gone are the days where a few talented young folks sketch out ideas in a room. That’s a mindset that stops designers from growing up to a highly complicated world.

Design process is never simple; it is often very messy as everyone has an opinion. Don’t try to make it simple. But the result shouldn’t be complicated. Design needs strong leadership and is no different from other disciplines. Design never works in a highly politically environment and, as a result, you get design by committee – which is a recipe for disaster. Design management is to take the politics out and allow the essence to remain. And the process is true to the mission – design to delight and make profits – not one but both.

Design needs strong leadership. Design never works if it is not managed. Best designers perform well in a professionally managed environment. Not the most desirable for many, but it is necessary. Apple design team is professionally managed and same for Mercedes and Burberry or BMW. There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence. Strong design leaders are never popular, because they need to cut out the non-sense that designers hide behind. To force people to unlearn old theories of design.

Designers want to remain small, fully independent and less disciplined and that’s why most design firms cannot scale beyond certain size and fail after a few years. They want to ignore the commercial complexities and stay pure. I appreciate that too but companies cannot afford it. Unless it is your own business and you don’t care about making profits.

Design for elegance is better than design for simplicity. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Elegance is the “far side” of simplicity that is emotionally engaging, profoundly intelligent, and artfully crafted to be two things at once: simple and powerful. In today’s super connected world, the proliferation of digital devices and experiences require designers to create new ways of harmonizing software and hardware with elegant connectivity – connecting humans in an elegant way. Industrial designers, human interface designers and mechanical engineers need to explore new theories for them to make physical products real and meaningful and elegant. Why elegance? Is it not an elusive target? Industrial designers should stop thinking about functional ease and simplicity,  that is an over-simplifying way of thinking design. Sometimes people love things that are not so easy. Think about your personal relationships, you don’t go for the easiest one, you go for where your heart is. Design is the same. How do you put love in an industrially produced object? That’s our job.

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