Why Companies Hate Design

Last Updated Oct 14, 2010 1:32 PM EDT

Oh, come on Sean. Companies don't hate design. Just look at all those wonderfully shaped shampoo bottles lining supermarket shelves!

But I am convinced that many companies do hate design. They don't understand how to do it well. They can't quantify the value of it. Their customers aren't articulate about what designs they like. And even when these firms hire great designers, the advice of these pros is quickly ditched when an operations exec with a poster of "Dogs Playing Poker" in the living room objects to the cost of producing a curve over a straight edge.

I don't agree much with HBR.org blogger Umair Haque, but on this point he's 100% on the money.

"Most companies see design as a superficial afterthought on which a few pennies are spent if there are a few bucks left in the budget -- as, to use the beancounter's macho argot, 'tactical.'"
Just look at the Gap's lame attempt at a new logo, which has now been pulled after public protest. The fact that a logo caused such a kerfuffle should put executives on notice that people do care about how things look, handle, perform, smell and feel. They will pay extra to companies that do it well.

Does your company take design as seriously as it should? Haque makes the economic case about why design matters, then challenges you to take his quiz:

  1. Do designers have a seat in the boardroom -- or just in the basement?
  2. How often does your CEO ever talk to a designer?
  3. Are designers empowered to overrule beancounters -- or vice versa?
  4. Is the input of designers considered to be peripheral to "real" business decisions -- or does it play a vital role in shaping them?
  5. Is design treated as a function or a competence?
  6. Are designers seen just as mechanics of mere stuff -- or as vital contributors to the art of igniting new industries, markets, and categories, sparking more enduring demand, building trust, providing empathy, and seeding tomorrow's big ideas?
  7. How much weight does senior management give to right-brained ideas, like delight, amazement, intuition, and joy? Just a little, a lot -- or, as for most companies, almost none?
If you don't have time to answer all seven, concentrate on No 4. If you can answer yes, then your company does realize the value of design, does listen and understand what customers tell them about user experience, does invest in it as a core competence.

How much effort does your company put into design?

(Photo by Flickr user lachlan hardy, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.