Organizational Culture, Don Norman, and Design

I was talking with a friend of mine recently–let’s call him Bob–who is a partner in a design firm. Bob was telling me about a time that he was pitching a project to a big company in partnership with a management consulting firm. During the pitch, a partner from the consulting firm looked at the client and asked Bob, “Hey Bob. Tell the client how you think they will screw this project up.”

I’d love to know how Bob answered, but we didn’t get that far into the conversation. Instead, we started talking about the impact of social context and organizational culture on every design project. If you’ve been in this business for any length of time, you know that the big challenges faced on any given design project are rarely technical challenges. The challenges we face most and that are the most daunting are the organizational challenges.

“Tell the client how you think they will screw this project up.” This is an aggressive and confident pitch to make to a client. First, it says to the client that you are so confident in your position that you are willing to be an asshole to them–in their own interest of course. It weeds out clients who can’t or won’t work with strong, opinionated partners. But more to the point, it also turns the conversation towards interesting territory: it’s a declaration that the success of the project is not the responsibility solely of the design firm. The client needs to do a good job too if the project is to succeed. And finally, in placing a burden of project success on the client’s shoulder, it moves project success beyond the realm of design. By assigning responsibility for success of a design project to participants who are by definition not doing the design, it says that in order for design to succeed, non-design factors must be included among the critical success factors of the project. It’s a brilliant ploy.

I was thinking about this today as I read Don Norman’s “Why Design Education Must Change” on Core77. I agree with Norman’s central point: that designers these days face challenges that go beyond traditional challenges of craft:

Where once industrial designers focused primarily upon form and function, materials and manufacturing, today’s issues are far more complex and challenging. New skills are required, especially for such areas as interaction, experience, and service design. …. The new areas are more like applied social and behavioral sciences and require understanding of human cognition and emotion…

Judging by the comments on Norman’s piece, designers don’t see much to disagree with in the piece. I happen to agree with him as well and yet find the article problematic. I wish he had spent a little less time asserting and more time offering evidence. The evidence is certainly plentiful in my practice–the story above is just one anecdote in a long line. I’d love to hear stories from others.

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