The inside story from a “Designer MBA” – Tips on using business education to communicate the value of design

The inside story from a “Designer MBA” – Tips on using business education to communicate the  value of design -By Robin Tooms

Whether or not you pursue an MBA depends on what kind of designer you want to be, or in what areas you want to grow your design skills. Personally, I am not a self-indulgent designer who has to satisfy my own design whims before I can even think about solving a clients’ problem. For me, the joy of being a graphic designer is the ability to problem-solve and create useful materials that improve my clients’ business (or dare I say the world) in some meaningful way.

Even as our professional roles continue to change with technology and the business climate, the decision to explore how other professions influence us is a smart move. Look at the information and experience designer – roles virtually non-existent when I started my graphic design career, but now exposure to those disciplines through reading and seminars, have taught me to incorporate some of that thinking into my own projects. Once you’ve looked at other design roles, branching out to related disciplines, such as branding and marketing, is the next logical step. In fact, on some days, we are asked to pull from many resources for our clients: part usability expert, part graphic designer, part branding specialist, and part marketer. I would argue that to be competitive today, even a “traditional” graphic designer needs to embody not only a strong sense of design, but basic marketing and branding principles as well. And if this designer is a manager, freelancer or entrepreneur, as many of us are, then basic business skills too.

First, let’s talk about the different options

I experienced both an Executive MBA (EMBA) program at Rice University and the first AIGA “Business Perspectives for Design Leaders” seminar at Harvard Business School. Both programs offered their own advantages in regards to the curriculum and the classmates, and are viable options for growth depending on your commitment level.

An EMBA program differs from a standard MBA program in that classes are typically held year-round, for two full days, every other week, allowing the participants to continue with their careers while in the program. Some schools also offer night schedules to keep work interruptions minimal. Regardless of the format, attending an EMBA program while employed is exactly like holding two full-time jobs, and yet many students seem to bear the grueling schedules and graduate from these programs every year. Two main advantages of this format are the active discussions with other experienced professionals from various industries and the ability to start applying your new knowledge to your work life immediately.

The AIGA program at Harvard was an immersive week-long experience at the famed business school – learning in their classrooms and living on-campus in the executive dorms. As Dorothy Leonard, Harvard professor and our host for the program, would say, the program takes an anthropological approach to learning. You must learn the same way business leaders do in order to think like a business leader.

If you are considering extending your design education with an advanced business degree, then the AIGA program at Harvard is an excellent opportunity to experience the some of the curriculum and format of a MBA degree before making the full commitment. You may find that your week at Harvard will be just what you need to kick-start a new business perspective, or it may leave you with a hunger for more. Regardless of your path, both a MBA and the AIGA Harvard program are transformational experiences that will change your perspective on the business world and more importantly, the way you think.

Broadening your perspective

Graphic design is a specialty that requires continuous education to further our horizons, expand our skills, and improve our creativity. Most designers I know, though, would rather look through a design annual or go to a museum for inspiration to solve a design challenge, instead of picking up a business book. I do believe that visual inspiration is important, but my point is that sometimes the answer to solving our clients’ challenges lies in the ability to understand their business first, and thus, their communication problem better.

An MBA is often called a “generalist” degree because the curriculum covers all the basic areas of business: finance and accounting, economics, strategy, operations, business law and policies, ethics, marketing, communications, and leadership. At Rice, some of the classes were structured with “crossover” projects so that you could see first-hand how some of these areas work together. Of course, you can shape your degree to focus on a particular tract, such as focusing more on marketing versus finance, through various class options. So while it’s useful to know about techniques such as the Monte Carlo simulation for risk analysis, I knew that no company would hire me as a designer to do that, so I was assured that finance would not be my choice for major. But, increasingly I find myself in situations where needing to know more about market research or branding is important. Fortunately, the basic marketing, marketing research and branding courses were just what I needed to expand my base of knowledge in these areas.

In general, designers also tend to be an insular group. We usually get together and talk about design, swap war stories about clients or try to get a pulse on the latest activities from “famous design firm A or B”. While I cherish meaningful debates with my colleagues about the design issues that affect us every day, these conversations focused on our own design world and views instead of the rest of the business world. One great aspect of my MBA classmates versus my undergrad classmates was the diversity in backgrounds. I was the only degreed designer in my graduating class. The class breakdown included many entrepreneurs, engineers, accountants, scientists, marketers and so on. It’s true that you get lively discussions when those in the room have different experiences to draw on. I know some of that collective experience has rubbed-off onto me as well, and now my perspective on many issues has forever changed because of that experience.

Educating design leaders

My first day at the Harvard Business School campus was a little overwhelming – partly from the excitement of actually being on the Harvard grounds, and partly from the all-nighter I had just pulled to finish my projects before the week-long absence from work. They warned us that we wouldn’t have time for work while we were there, and with the full schedule they planned for us they were right. The days were filled with classroom lectures, interspersed with time for us to gather in our small, assigned discussion groups. The evenings were filled with dinner speakers, and yes, homework preparation for the next day. We did have time for some sightseeing and socializing, and during those times the conversations were rich and energized.

Attending this program mid-way through my MBA candidacy gave me the opportunity to compare teachings and reflect upon how a business education could benefit a designer. One of my early goals was to learn how to become a better businessperson, manager and leader. These aspects of any business are important – we all need to know the financial drivers behind our business, how to manage and mentor staff, and how to plan and market our own firms. These skills are simply not taught, at least in a formalized way, in an undergraduate design program. How to incorporate at least some “design management” into a graphic design BFA is a growing issue that our design educators will need to address.

Another goal was to learn how I could better incorporate design into my clients’ business strategies, and find the value points of design from the clients’ standpoint. In the AIGA Harvard program, the professors repeatedly stressed the differences between the “design world” and the “business world”. The realization of a communication gap between these two worlds is nothing new, but the structure of the program did cement the need to see that we must enter their world and communicate with businesses using their language if we want them to fully understand the value we bring.

Educating business leaders

It may be many years until design values are included in business education as part of the strategic skill set. In the meantime, some inclusion on how to work with external agencies or how to evaluate and test creative ideas and visuals against a marketing plan would be a great start in the right direction. The design process requires client collaboration, so it is essential that our business counterparts understand how their involvement in that process can help to produce the most “on-target” communications to meet their business goals.

In marketing and branding, a MBA curriculum focuses mainly on consumer products, not business-to-business, corporate or service brands. It’s not surprising that consumer product goods (CPG) are a cornerstone of the curriculum, especially when considering the proliferation of product brands in the marketplace. From speaking with some of my classmates post-graduation, they have a greater appreciation of marketing roles and the amount of work involved in creating marketing plans. They also understand that product branding is important and that well-positioned brands can command a premium. So while the marketing and branding classes focused more on products, we can use that base knowledge to relate the concepts of product branding to service and corporate branding. Think about how you could apply the concept of brand image to a company’s reputation through a visual tone and image. Or think about how you could apply the concept of market segmentation for targeted collateral to the influencers and buyers of a business service. As designers, we can effectively educate our clients about design communication concepts when we relate design concepts to those taught in business education.

Why do clients hire a designer?

The first step in communicating any message is to first understand the needs of the audience. This statement also relates when communicating the value of design. Yes, while we all realize that our clients are not the target audience for the actual projects we design for them, they are our audience for the design process itself, and in many cases, active participants in that process. So think first about why your clients hire you, and use that information to help shape your approach to communicating value.

Of course clients have real tactical needs such as budgets and timetables that have to be met, but these types of needs are expected in any professional relationship. Delivering a project on time is of course valuable, but is not a “value-add” component of the design process. And believe it or not, a client is not really hiring you to create a brochure or a web site – they are hiring you to help them create the benefits that brochure or web site brings to their business.

I answer the question of client need this way: “Clients are looking for innovative ideas that communicate the benefits of their business or marketing strategy and resonate with their target audience for a particular business goal.” This is great news for designers because our education and experience has taught us how to think innovatively and to communicate messages visually. When this all works well, our designs will resonate with the audience and our client will reap the benefits. Innovate. Communicate. Resonate.
What are the benefits of good design?

There is not a lot of hard return-on-investment (ROI) data on design, because well, it’s difficult to quantitatively measure the impact of design unless you’re talking about a specific consumer product or package. A large percentage of designers create corporate design, and the health of a corporation’s financials year-over-year depends on many factors. For example, a rise stock price could never be completely attributed to your great annual report design that year.
The good news is that there are many indirect benefits to good design. For example, that easy-to-read employee publication or easy-to-navigate intranet can help to improve employee satisfaction by helping employees access information easier. Employee satisfaction can be measured through feedback surveys, and time-off and productivity analysis. And just by talking to the employees, your client can gauge just how much your well-designed piece of communication impacted those results. Determining the percentage of that impact is not an exact science, but taking the time to formally follow-up on results is a start. Do this follow-up on every project, and over time, you will be reinforcing the benefits of good design to your clients. The goal is that eventually your client will see the link every time between the benefits they seek and the design vehicle that will get them there. Provide the right benefits and your client will be able to justify to their management the expenditure for good design. If you don’t focus on the benefits of your design, then your client (or prospect) will likely hire the lowest bidder if they perceive that all other factors are equal.
How does design fit into a business’s strategic plan?

Since we are now communicating the benefits of good design, we are on our way to linking design to the business strategy. Think of the strategic plan this way: Corporate strategy drives the operations which in turn drives the marketing and communications strategy needed to support those goals. Where does design fit in? Design is the physical manifestation, the implementation, of the marketing strategy. Design is an outward expression, an audience-facing component. Design is what the employees, investors, clients and the industry see as a representation of that strategic message. When you consider all of the audiences that a business interacts with regularly, you can see how there are so many opportunities for design to influence perceptions. As the chain that links the business message to the audience, design is in fact an important component to the overall strategic plan. Sadly, a poorly designed piece that doesn’t communicate well does an injustice to all of the planning and manpower behind your clients’ strategy.
It is our role to explain to our clients the links between design and business. Good design will in fact help them execute their strategic plan well. The concept of “executing well” is widely understood in the business-world. We frequently hear of great plans that fail because of poor execution. Help your clients to execute well and they will incorporate design into their business strategy.
How can designers communicate the link between design and business?

Our design education and background have taught us the “lingo” of the professional designer, and we can use terms like “white-space,” “color harmony” and “dot-gain” with a high degree of credibility. These terms, and others like them, allow us to communicate clearly with our colleagues and our vendors, but what about our clients? Should we expect our clients to enter our world and learn our language, or should we use their language to explain the validity of our design solution to them?
While I am not advocating that we all pepper our design presentations with a few mentions of “ROI” for effect, I am proposing that each of us take the time to understand the needs, mindset and motivations of our clients, and to communicate our understanding back to them in a meaningful way. We are professional communicators, so put that training to work. If we want our clients to understand the links between design and business, then we will need to become more adept with the terms and concepts they use.
Read The Wall Street Journal, pick up a business book, go to a business seminar, or go back to school – the point is to go outside the realm of your educational background. Learn about switching costs, value propositions, economic value-add, economies of scale, and so on. You’ll be surprised to discover how understanding concepts like these will strengthen you problem-solving and help you to design better solutions for your clients’ needs.

One Response to “The inside story from a “Designer MBA” – Tips on using business education to communicate the value of design”
  1. Financial says:

    Then, one might apply for a graduate degree in business (MBA) once you have developed work experience. Financial

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