Down the hall, perhaps in the common space pitching her latest groundbreaking idea to a largely disinterested colleague, you will find one employee among the ranks with vast untapped potential. Let’s call her Amy.
Amy is the kind of person who sees the big picture, but also understands the roles of various parts and how they relate to make it work. She is a creative problem solver whose job entails constant innovation. She knows the importance of your company’s brand, not just through logo standards, but through quality experiences, because she sees your company through the eyes of its customers. She is responsible for presenting the company to the outside world, and her work—when done well—can substantially increase new customer leads and engagement. Her contribution is extremely valuable.
But Amy is a designer. If she is fortunate, she’ll have a boss that understands her real strengths and is able to cultivate them, but otherwise she risks being seen as as a glorified art student whose vocation is reduced to making things “look better,” because she knows her way around professional design programs. Her value will likely be recognized in terms of creativity and technical know how, but not necessarily good judgement and problem solving. For this reason, she will be treated as the last step in every project—the worker bee who gets it done. What a missed opportunity.
Companies must learn to recognize the difference in an architect and a construction worker. Both can create buildings, but their roles could not be more different. Designers serve both roles, so seeing the difference can be more difficult.
To help companies better utilize their design talent, let me start by clearing up some confusion.
First, design is not art. Art is interpretive, demands reflection, and tends to break with established traditions. Design uses a principled approach and has a clear purpose—an explicit function intended to generate action on the part of the audience. Real artist rarely make great designers, and vice versa. One is structured and disciplined, while the other is exactly the opposite.
Second, design is not simply the arranging of given items into an appealing composition. Design is the way a thing feels, how an audience interacts with it, what it tells them to do, and the overall message it communicates.
Thus, great design starts from the very beginning of a project, both shaping and responding to functions and challenges. Bring your design talent into discussions early on, and let their innovative nature and laser-like focus on user experience become an asset to your team throughout the whole process.
It is also worth encouraging designers to develop a greater confidence in their own gifts. If Amy begins to accept the limited view projected upon her by colleagues, she may never realize that the same strengths she uses to walk a new customer through a slick and compelling brochure or website is the same set of strengths demanded of top executives. She has to bring order, clarity and direction to her project, all in a way that aligns the company’s interests to that of its stakeholders and customers.
If Amy can design a website, she may also try her hand at designing systems, organizations, campaigns and initiatives. This is not to say that every designer can do these things well, but only to argue that if your company isn’t recognizing the potential in your design talent, you may be wasting away one of your greatest assets.