How design captured the managerial imagination

At the beginning of this century management and the business sector started to get really interested in a certain idea of design. Namely, design as practiced by artistically trained designers in professional design studios.
In my PhD thesis, I deal with how design and designers are incorporated into organizations, but even before I started my thesis I had noticed how management and people in different business settings had started to talk about design in a very enthusiastic tone.

The power of design

Design had become kind of a fascination in popular business literature. Publications like Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg News had special issues on design and there was a lot of talk about “the power of design” and how design could be “the engine of innovation”. In the late 2000’s several books on this topic made their way into bestseller lists. “Design-driven innovation”, “Change by design” and “The design of business” were some of the titles.

From then on the interest in design from a managerial perspective seems only to have grown. Big corporations and consulting firms have lately started to buy design firms in droves. There seems to be an idea that companies need design competence not only as an external capability that can be bought on the market when needed, but that design has to be an internal capability – the companies themselves need artistic design to survive, to innovate, to grow and to compete. Examples include the huge consulting firm McKinsey buying Swedish design firm Veryday in 2015, and also the American design giant Lunar same year. In 2013 global consulting firm Accenture bought the trendy digital design studio Fjord, and under a number of years IBM has hired a lot of designers and is now one of the top employers of designers in the world. There are many more examples.

”I had noticed how management and people in different business settings had started to talk about design in a very enthusiastic tone. ”

During the past 15 years we have also seen the emergence of the CDO – chief design officer. This is a position that really didn’t exist before the start of the century, but looking at big multinational corporations today like Apple, Samsung, Electrolux, Siemens, Philips, Pepsi and many others, they all have a position as CDO. In the past, design leadership usually reported to the engineering team or the product development team, but nowadays many report directly to the CEO. In the last 15 years design has really captured the managerial imagination.

The thinking of designers affect the whole company

At first the interest in design was really an interest in creating innovative products that could appeal to mass consumers. The idea is that the processes and thinking of artistically trained designers can be used to come up with new successful products. But during the course of the last decades this has transformed into an idea that the thinking of designers is not only interesting for designing products, but also for rethinking intangible things like strategies, management and indeed whole organizations.  So underlying this hype of design within business today is the promise that design can revitalize organizations and management thinking. Metaphorically speaking design has electrified management thinking and has set off an electrical discharge into the life of business and organization. As will become apparent I use the metaphor of electricity quite deliberately.

Now jumping to a seemingly unrelated topic. This image…

      … is from the 18:th century. It is depicting early electrical experimenter Matthias Bose who in the 18:th century drew large audiences with his wacky demonstrations of electricity. One demonstration was called “The electric kiss”, or “Electric Venus”.

The electric kiss

A woman would be placed on top of an insulated block. Bose then turned a spinning globe giving the woman a moderate static charge. A man from the audience was then invited up and asked to give the woman a kiss, resulting in them both having a medium electric shock. This was one of the experiments that early on in the infancy of the electrified society created excitement and enchantment with the new technology – electricity had a magical touch.

I first read about The electric kiss in the book The Life Intense by the French novelist and philosopher Tristan Garcia.

This story also has modern parallels; in Mexico, today you can see street vendors carrying specific equipment selling electric shocks to people, delivering an experience of excitement and intensity.

I first read about The electric kiss in the book The Life Intense by the French novelist and philosopher Tristan Garcia. The book is about what electricity has done to thought and life. A quote from the book goes like this:

“Before it was a humble servant of industrialization, and before it became the handmaiden of electronics and information technology, electricity first presented itself to a curious Europe as an immense hope that left crowds weak in the knees”.

In his book Garcia details the genesis of the experimental phase of electricity when people were drawn to these experiments and fascinated by the development. He argues that electricity was both a physical entity and a metaphysical idea that came at the right time.

Electricity was the image of pure intensity that promised a re-enchantment with the world that modernity and science had made so comprehensible, quantifiable, and rational, and so chopped up into little measurable pieces. Modern thought since Descartes operated on a strict divide between mind and body which made us understand the world as something outside ourselves. We were no longer in the world, but outside of it as an external observer. This made the world knowable and thinkable, but less enchanted, and less livable. Then electricity came along and for a brief moment it promised to be the savior of a stagnated modern spirit. It offered a metaphysical escape from a very stale and bland existence.

Of course electricity as a metaphysical idea did not live up to its promise.

The intensity of the first experiments gave way to the exact science where intensity became something measurable, and an uncontrollable almost magical force of nature was fully domesticated. But still the idea of intensity, Garcia argues, is what justified the livability of life, but electricity could no longer be the metaphysical bearer of that idea.

Here it might be proper to explain a little bit about what Garcia actually means when he talks about intensity, a central concept in his philosophy. As it turns out this is a bit tricky since intensity, for Garcia, is something that defies explanation. Intensity is the quality of the singular, the standard by which we value the moment in which we live. At any given moment, we feel more or less alive, and intensity is the principle that allows us to determine this internal variation (the “more or less”) on the aesthetic basis of pure sentiment, of pure experience of being. When something is intense, it is “being that thing the most and the best that it can”, according to Garcia.

The paradox

He really delves into this obviously philosophically tricky concept but basically his whole argument is that intensity cannot be explained because it is irreducible. This means that intensity loses its own character when it is reduced to an explanation. So the paradox here is that as soon as you start to think about intensity it is not intensity anymore. Most of us can probably relate to being consumed by an aesthetic experience of some kind, and as soon as we start to think about it, analyze it or intellectualize it, it loses some of its quality. Intensity then designates what escapes rationalization and quantification, and as soon as it is systematized, it is lost.

In his book he says that modern subjects today, just like people in the times of Mathias Bose, look for a way out of an existence of rational blandness and long for a state of pure feeling. The only way, Garcia writes, to make a world offered to technique and calculation, livable, is by living intensely. And the way we do it in our modern societies is in a search for newness – new experiences, new products and new ways of living. Newness in the form of acceleration and variation thus becomes the norm in our modern societies. Intensity has become an ethical ideal for us. It is not so important the content of what we are doing but how we do it. If we do it intensely it is okay. This is the zeitgeist of today. But here again the paradox: In order for intensity and the rhythm of newness to be maintained, it has to be constantly increased, and if it is to be increased it has to be measured and if it is measured it is once again quantified and subjected to statistical analysis; and thus lost. Garcia ends up with this very paradoxical and contradictory state of affairs.       

This urge for newness and novelty, ties in with the concepts of innovation, creativity and design that are so familiar in today’s societies. In the book The invention of creativity, German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, describes how this regime of novelty has become an organizing principle of modernity. Suddenly everybody needs to be creative. Indeed, be creative!, has become an often heard imperative echoing through the economy. Just as Garcia, Reckwitz also describes the state of affairs as contradictory and paradoxical. On the one hand the modern capitalist economies have brought about a media revolution and democratized access to esthetic content like film, TV, music. As such modernity is an “esthetization machine”. On the other hand the ideas of industry, rationality, Fordism, instrumental control, science and government are still strong which makes modernity simultaneously a “de-esthetization machine”.

The innovation imperative in the search for novelty thus transcends R&D departments and becomes a general demand throughout the economy. Everybody needs to be creative. This fits with the idea of design thinking. Design thinking is predicated on the notion that the processes and workstyles of designers is not only for designers, but instead that everybody can benefit from thinking like a designer.

”Sandwich artists”

Today we can see the emergence of terms like policy design, legal design, and business design. Lots of professions have incorporated this idea. From the employees perspective there is also the idea that for a job to be considered fulfilling it needs to be creative. Sometimes this has absurd consequences, like when the sandwich fast food chain Subway insist on calling employees “sandwich artists”.

Parallels can be drawn to the previously discussed paradoxes of intensity and aestheticization. When the imperative to be creative runs through every person and every organization, divergence from the norm, becomes the norm. And as creativity and artistic design is combined with modern mechanisms aimed at heightening productivity and rationalization, and are employed in businesses to produce economic gains, it is also measured and assessed under managerial regimes of performance.

Design thinking has also in a lot of cases been translated into a very methodical step by step process. Thinking like a designer is in this way equated with having so and so many post-its on the wall or having a brainstorm session. This strips creativity from the intense, embodied aspects of it and turns it into something instrumental. Similarly the idea of living intensely has become intertwined with what would seem to be it’s opposite: the very methodical way of life of the quantified self-movement.

For example, the marketing of new products such as training gear and accessories is often wrapped in an imagery of pure experience, strong emotion, connectivity with nature and inner peace – very much in tune with the ideal of intensity. At the same time the purpose of the products themselves, such as GPS watches and activity trackers are often to measure and quantify the activities. Instead of offering an escape from the rational and measurable world, as the imagery promises, it merges with it.

Tying back to the idea of design, the questions I want to raise is how design can be saved from being reduced to these very formulaic processes when incorporated into organizations. Is it possible to save design from the inherent paradoxes mapped out by Garcia and Reckwitz? Or will the employment of design into businesses inevitably lead to a diminishing of it?

Ulises Navarro Aguiar, researcher at Gothenburg Research Institute, University of Gothenburg



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