Kate Rutter recently had a great email conversation with Nathan Shedroff, experience strategist, author, and the Program Chair and founder of the brand new MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts. Nathan will be speaking on Future Topics in Managing User Experience at our upcoming MX San Francisco conference on April 20-22.
We spoke about the new CCA MBA program, how design and management are intersecting in business and academia, and how integrated learning and a new emphasis on design in business is impacting the field of user experience.
Kate Rutter [KR]: So Nathan, let’s start with the basics…what’s the short and sweet description of the new CCA MBA program in Design Strategy?
Nathan Shedroff [NS]: The Design MBA (for short) is intended to prepare a new generation of business leaders knowledgeable of and comfortable with design-led innovation processes that create truly successful, sustainable, and meaningfully innovative products, services, and experiences. We are equipping change agents from the for-profit and non-profit worlds, whether they have a design background or not, to make change in the future.
[KR]: That’s heady stuff. Can you give me an example of some of these things? For example, what does a design-led innovation process look like?
[NS]: Most attempts at innovation in companies haven’t been terribly successful for a variety of reasons. They may not involve the right people in the organization, have a culture of creating new things from scratch, or they may not value ideas when they are presented. Sometimes, it’s all about courage to do something different. Design processes, specifically, approach the challenge to imagine and devise new solutions, in any context, by looking at customers in meaningful ways, integrating data from a variety of sources, and using it as a starting point instead of an ending point. Design respects different kinds of prototyping and iteration, which is an important part of the process. Expectations in design processes are different from how most organizations expect every idea to be incredible, try to control the process from the top down, or inject corporate assumptions that are often not validated or reflect the market.
Different organizations have different innovation cultures but, no matter the approach taken, it is organic and dynamic and most forms of management tend to kill the process rather than nurture it. This is why organizations often have to rely on acquisitions or consultants from the outside to innovate or find the need to comfortably insulate their designers in a different area, under different management and expectations, just like they often do with R&D. This isn’t always the best approach, however, since it tends to isolate as much as insulate.
You don’t have to be a designer to learn to innovate like one, but it helps if you’ve been through the process a few times to understand what to expect and how the process needs to be supported.
[KR]: Why are programs like this developing? What’s the compelling need that they fill?
[NS]: The business world is starting to wake-up to the powerful influence design-led strategy can have within an organization. In the past, design has been seen mostly as an appearance value to add at the end. Even today, you see articles every day in the business press talking about companies needing to pay attention to design to make their products “cooler.” This fundamentally misses the value design can bring to innovative offerings—especially the kind from organizations like Nike, Target, Method, and Apple, which are the examples often touted in these very same articles.
At the same time, the design world needs to wake up to the fact that the influence they seek in their organizations and client’s organizations can only occur if they bother to truly understand the strategic issues at stake, the challenges within their organizations that fall outside the usual “design” function, and the language that the rest of their peers speak about these issues. It’s starting to happen on both sides, but we have a long way to go and graduates from programs like ours will be the first influential ambassadors that can bridge these two worlds.
[KR]: In the past, it was Technology that became a strategic partner in the business, and we saw the rise of the CTO. Then Marketing seemed to be the big thing, and the role of CMO was created. What’s the strategic role or future title for these design ambassadors? What change does this level of influence make in an organization?
[NS]: Well, I think Marketing was the big thing long before IT departments rose to the prominence they have. Most IT departments have a grip on senior management that is not healthy, simply because most senior managers don’t understand enough of the details of IT to disagree, haggle, and know when they’re being snowed. However, EVERYONE is a designer, so everyone thinks that they know enough to override design decisions, budgets, and processes. Organizations, however, are discovering that they aren’t managing the design development process well enough and are listening more and judging a little less.
Designers need to be more than ambassadors, they need to be fully functioning and fully aware members of strategic decision-making teams in a company, though most aren’t yet prepared to do so. Titles will be meaningless except within the culture of a company. In some companies, if someone doesn’t have a Senior VP title, they just aren’t listened to. In others, even though they have a title, if they don’t have authority to start and stop work, they don’t really have any mechanism to create change. One of our aims is to create business leaders who understand design-led innovation, not just designers who can enter these conversations or lead the design function.
[KR]: Before integrated academic programs like this, how and where did people gain these skills? What were the critical gaps in knowledge? What change is at play in the business world to create a need for the approach that you teach?
[NS]: Mostly, these leaders have taken it upon themselves to learn what they didn’t get in school: either the appreciation for Design (that’s with a capital “D”)—if they had a more traditional business degree—or the language, tools, and issues of operations, marketing, finances, etc. if they had a design background. Much of these new understandings have been created on-the-job, through experience but, in some cases, people like me went and got formal MBAs or “traditional” business people went to get MFAs. The problem is that none of these programs integrate the perspectives very well. It’s not enough to take a design course or two in your business degree (or vice versa) just like you won’t come away with a very deep understanding of sustainability by taking a course during your MBA or other degree.
To truly understand these domains—and to gain the experience and comfort necessary to lead through these perspectives, you need all of your courses to integrate and to work with them holistically. This is our approach. All of our courses, including Accounting, Business Models and Stakeholders, Finance, Operations, etc. integrate both a design/innovation and sustainability perspective. They aren’t treated as foreign or related but crucially integrated.
[KR]: I have to ask this…what’s the difference between Design with a big “D” and design with a little “d”?
[NS]: Well, different people define this differently but, to me, Design is about how people approach a challenge and develop a solution and, as such, these processes are extendable into almost any domain: interaction design, organizational design, etc. However, most of the time that the word design is used, it is often referring to a particular type of design or domain: graphic, industrial, web, interaction, fashion, interior, etc. and it invokes all of the baggage associated with that domain in both the speaker and the listener. How many designers have replied to the question “And, what do you do?” with “designer” only for the questioner to assume they design home interiors or clothes?
We also place a big emphasis on making solutions, not just plans. Each semester, there is at least one “studio” course where the emphasis is on putting theory into practice, building prototypes, and engaging customers. For example, our “Marketing” class is taught as a studio. It’s not enough to run through all of the topics in a Marketing textbook, read some case studies, and build a marketing plan to show you learned the material. We want our students to learn by engaging customers with a variety of market and customer research techniques and use what they find to fashion new solutions as well as implementation plans.
[KR]: You’ve been a leader in experience design for over a decade. What’s your long–term view of the impact of the program? What do you want it to look like in ten years?
[NS]: Well, one thing about the Experience Design field is that I didn’t get into it with any view of what it would be like in the future. I just knew it was the right thing for the industry and me and it was grounded in observations and evidence that went back millennia. I have some of the same feeling with this program. Design and business aren’t new, though the way they relate to each other at this point in time are. But, they reflect how they should have always been interacting from the beginning.
If I had to make predictions for this program in ten years, I’d simply say that it would be influencing a lot more people, both students and professionals, in a variety of ways. We will be publishing our experiences and perspectives in several media, we will be interacting with people and organizations in many more ways and media than we are at the beginning, and we will be constantly looking at new ways to help organizations better understand customers, markets, and the world.
[KR]: Design thinking gets a lot of buzz in the business press. What makes design thinking distinct from plain old regular thinking, and how do you go about teaching it?
[NS]: Designers are optimistic people who are trained to be courageous about the future—and making the future happen. They aren’t always aware of the intricacies of operations and the impacts of the solutions they propose, just like entrepreneurs, but they aren’t afraid of confronting a blank piece of paper (or screen or board) and getting to work making something new. Engineers are much the same way, though they’re often more regimented in how they approach a challenge. For the most part, designers aren’t afraid of engaging people about their needs and they don’t shy away from squishy issues like desire and emotions just because they aren’t easily quantified. For sure, these aren’t the only traits necessary for success, but they’re crucial for innovators. In addition, designers aren’t just shooting from the hip with pure intuition. Great designers have processes they rely on to investigate, ideate, prototype, iterate, validate, and communicate that they can employ to validate what their intuition may be leading them to. You don’t find these processes, or such an approach to intuition, in the traditional business world. I think it’s clear looking at how seldom true innovation is unleashed.
[KR]: It seems that a common attribute of similar programs is to blur the boundaries between fields, and to foster the ability to synthesize…to cross-pollinate concepts and ideas across different functional areas. With this trend towards generalization, how do you avoid teaching people to be, for lack of a better phrase, Jack-or-Jane-of-all-trades but master of none?
[NS]: This is a great question. There’s no way we can teach students everything they need to know. We’re specifically looking for passionate individuals who will take what we learn together and apply it to the passions, interests, and experience they already possess. Their learning is life-long so the best we can do is frame some of these perspectives and skills for them, give them some experience, and inspire them to continue the process. We’ve prioritized, in the curriculum, the skills, knowledge, and experiences we think they will need the most, but it’s just a start. Besides, there’s only so much you can learn in school. At some point, you need to learn “on-the-job”—whatever that job may be. So, we’re exposing our students to a variety of skills but with unified perspectives (design-led innovation, meaningful experience, sustainability, and visionary leadership) so that their deep skills will follow these lines. They will be expert innovation leaders and will be able to apply these skills to any domain or challenge.
[KR]: I’m all for a unified perspective. And thanks for giving us your perspective, Nathan. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Don’t miss hearing from Nathan and other experts who are defining the future of business at MX: Managing Experience Through Creative Leadership in San Francisco, April 20-22. MX San Francisco is focused on showing you what it takes to get great experiences out into the world. MX goes beyond typical design management discussions that remain focused on traditional concerns of print and brand, toward a new frontier of innovative products and service-oriented experiences.