Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Art or Science?

Venn Diagram showing the intersection of design, business, and technologyDesigners are forever moaning about the perceived value of what they do. When big decisions are being made, MBAs sit at the head of the table while designers are lucky to get a spot at the “kiddie table.” The problem lies with the widespread perception of design as “artsy” – a tertiary tactical skill, not a reliable method for making strategic decisions or solving challenging problems.

Scientists need empirical evidence. Business people focus on the bottom line. Lacking the data to definitively demonstrate the effectiveness of their work, designers are often miscast by the other two as providing “window dressing” – valued for creativity, but not integral to success.

Getting over that hurdle is difficult. Isolating cause/effect relationships in design can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and businesses are skeptical of fields with anecdotal, not quantitative proof. However, isolating the effects of any of the myriad decisions a business executive makes in an average year is equally troublesome. Life – like most forms of measurement – tends to be messier than we would care to admit.

Facts vs. Feelings
Despite evidence to the contrary, people trust facts. They prefer to know things. Two plus two equals four. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. How much does that cost? When will that be finished? Guessing wrong on a school exam adversely affects your grade. Guessing wrong in business can cost you your job.

However, some things stubbornly resist measurement – like the future, art, or emotions. When did my wife fall in love with me? Was it when we met walking dogs through a neighborhood park? Was it when she drove past my house with her sister and confided, “That’s the man I’m going to marry”? Was it our first kiss? Prove it.

We make decisions every day with uncertain prospects for being right, for getting a good “return on investment.” We make decisions based on history and patterns of behavior, regularly using intuition and instinct as guides. And when pressed to explain our choices, we might say it was a “gut decision” or “it just felt right.”

But trusting and acting on “feelings” is usually considered too dangerous in a business setting. Risk aversion, the fear of being wrong, sends us in search of numbers. This evidence, intended to bolster confidence in our decision making, often has the unfortunate tendency to simply confirm existing beliefs or theories.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative
Acknowledging the need for justification, the Design Management Institute commissioned a study: What is the real value of design? In the report, one chart demonstrates that a carefully chosen index of “design-centric” companies yielded returns 228% greater than the same investment in the S&P 500 over the past ten years. That seems conclusive! Except that data can be arranged to support almost any position.

Numbers can be powerful and persuasive, but they can also be used to bolster weak arguments. Both quantitative and qualitative research reveal important insights – quantitative research tells us how many; qualitative research tells us why – but they work best used together. The DMI report reveals this truth (and its bias) in the research study’s subhead: An exploration into why companies that lead with design outperform the market.

The ability to trust that our answers are correct – that they are worthy investments – depends on what questions are being asked, who is asking, who is answering, and why they are being asked in the first place.

The value of synthesis
Qualitative or quantitative, we can always collect more data – even if we don’t know what to do with it. Just because consumers liked your offerings yesterday doesn’t guarantee they will behave the same way tomorrow. All data looks in the rear-view mirror.

An influx of information won’t inevitably lead to breakthrough products or services. The ability to interpret and humanize data – to connect the dots into a meaningful narrative – is the most valuable skill a designer has to offer. Good designers have the ability to solve problems that haven’t been solved before, to see patterns where others see chaos, and to distill the essential from the extraneous.

Computer algorithms are able to predict what you will like given enough online behavior to analyze. The ability to empathize with an audience while synthesizing known information and experiences makes designers the closest thing that exists to a human algorithm.

Investing in results
Successful outcomes are nearly always a group effort. Divvying up credit for individual performance is about as easy as quantifying how much flavor the carrots, potatoes, or onions contributed to a bowl of beef stew – not that it will stop people from trying.

Executives seeking return on investment don’t trust design. Don’t feel bad, they don’t trust untested ideas or new technology either. Just as the team with the best record doesn’t always win the championship, the best design (or idea, or technology) doesn’t always win. Executives trust successful outcomes.

Design is a worthwhile investment when it is welcomed at the head table as a valuable skill. Treated as an afterthought, its dubious value is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is design an art? A science? A business? At its best, it’s a little of each.

Related content:
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics – The Ultimate TED Talk

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