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Thinking design:A pencil, a ruler, and a cup of coffee (Part 1)

by David Burney

First, a confession. I’m a designer. Nature, nurture, education, and training. Design is my profession, and it has been for nearly 30 years.

Today, everyone seems to be talking about design. Countless books, magazines, and conferences promote “design” and “design thinking” as key components that businesses and entire economic regions can use to drive innovation, create value, and deliver a competitive advantage. Significant research has been published claiming proof of the value of design. Other universities and business schools are following the lead of Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, creating new design programs and curriculums aimed at the intersection of design and business. Business management guru Tom Peters says, “design is it.” Mainstream business magazines have devoted entire sections to innovation and design that detail global advances in strategy and creativity in organizations worldwide. Clearly, design is quickly gaining respect in the business world.

It wasn’t always so. Just a few years after graduating from design school, I found myself working in a small, struggling ad firm. One day when our account person was delivering an invoice to one of our small clients, she was challenged with, “What’s this line item for design? And why am I paying for that?” My friend answered, “Well, that’s for designing the ad. We have to pay the designer.” The client answered, “Give me a pencil, a ruler, and a cup of coffee, and I’m a designer.”

The phrase stuck with me. And I found over the next two decades many, many examples of business leaders expressing–if not so simply and powerfully–the same attitude. Thus my lifelong quest to answer the question: “What’s the dang deal? Why can’t business leaders see the value of design? And perhaps more importantly, why can’t designers articulate that value better?” Even now, in the face of significant research offering proof. And the recent success of design-driven companies like Target. Apple, IKEA, Google. Procter & Gamble.

Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, claims that designers and business leaders think in different languages. Business leaders speak the language of reliability. They want to know, “Will this idea work?” They seek known answers before they choose and implement. They look to exploit “known” opportunities.

Design thinkers speak the language of viability. “What’s the real problem we’re trying to solve?” They look to explore new opportunities.

Dialogue between the participants can be frustrating when both sides are questioning the meaningfulness of the interaction.

Neither, of course, is inherently wrong. But, in the future, any company that intends to compete must find more harmonious ways to utilize both sides of their brain.


What I’m reading: Hop On Pop (every night; 10 times a night; for several weeks–my 5-year-old daughter, Anniebette, loves it)
Last movie I saw: Dr. Zhivago (on cable)– and they say I’m no longer a romantic. Laura…
What I’m listening to: I’m listening to a lot of stuff… what I’m humming is “Nothing but the Wheel” off Peter Wolf’s “Sleepless” album and “Big River” by, who else, Johnny Cash.

David Burney is Vice President of Brand Communications + Design, responsible for building the Red Hat brand globally. David has been involved in developing Red Hat’s corporate identity for more than eight years. Prior to joining Red Hat, he founded and led his own design and communications company. He has also served on the national AIGA board and was chairman of the AIGA President’s Council. David has a degree in Visual Design Communications from North Carolina State University.

10 responses to “Thinking design:A pencil, a ruler, and a cup of coffee (Part 1)”

  1. University Update says:

    Thinking design:A pencil, a ruler, and a cup of coffee

  2. hayes says:

    well done.

  3. J Batey says:

    I believe individuals who think a pencil, ruler and cup of coffee make a designer would be well advised to read Donald Norman: “The Design of Everyday Things”

  4. BillM says:

    “Business leaders speak the language of reliablity.” – but only if they don’t know how to spell *reliability*

    Great article – without elegance in design, anything reduces down to a hack. :)

  5. Johannes Rexx says:

    This book “The Design of Everyday Things” was previously published under the title “The Psychology of Everyday Things” written by the same author. Sneaky huh?

  6. Chuck McGuire says:

    It’s true, all you “need” is a flat light colored rock and some charcoal from the fire and you are a “designer”. I could design a perfectly utilitarian house, and for that matter, build it too, but I am not a designer. No one will publish coffee table books about any house that I am likely to design. No school of architecture will be named after me. A great designer somehow invokes passion in the viewer, whether they design jewelry or locomotives. And that is why Porsche and Ferrari continue to exist, along with Boyd Coddington and his like.

  7. Goldstein says:

    Yes, Design is a real big factor for the success of Red Hat, and Linux. Apple showed how to achieve success with design. Maybe Red Hat should also start thinking about the advertising space the system offers ;-> – see the figures of Google… I mean there could be an option to turn on advertising in the system, to support open source.

  8. Stewart Eyres says:

    I still come across plenty of “designs” that don’t meet the function required though – and the other side of the challenge is to ensure that in an environment where design is valued function is not neglected – for down that route lies a backlash against design. (I’m not a designer but given a pencil and a ruler I can do design – I’d just rather someone else did.)

  9. Greg says:

    A term that sends a shudder through me every time I hear it is the term ‘Designer’. Not when it’s used in its normal noun form but when it’s used as an adjective, as in: ‘Designer jeans’. No doubt it also started out as a noun – referring to some famous but unnamed designer. In its debased form, it summarises a low brow commercial exploitation of a calling with much higher aspirations. I suspect (forgive me if this is too patronising or simplistic) that Stewart is railing against products which have been dusted with the sloppy, shallow version of ‘designer’ – something flashy, black & curvy, covered in a plethora of competing fonts detailing, for all to see, all the meaningless specs and protocols imaginable but not a hint of real design. As a trained product designer (now working as a software ergonomist), I would contend that good design is good design and a product, graphic, fashion will stand or fall on its implicit suitability for a task and aesthetic attraction. Sometimes one can forgive (a little) a functional shortcoming of a beautiful object or make do with a functional, utilitarian but ugly object. But, the notion that anyone can be a designer is a delusion. People who say that are revealing more about their misunderstanding of design than they are about either their own polymathic skills ;o) or their insight into an apparently easy discipline.

    My challenge to anyone who thinks they could easily be a designer is:
    Design an elegant yet robust modern stacking conference hall chair (max 10 to 15 in a stack), that is economical to buy in bulk and is easy to repair (modular parts).

    Good luck!

  10. Technology says:

    [...] Design Thinking, part 1 and part 2 [...]