Conferences, papers, books, and think pieces take on the topic with exhausting regularity: There’s the Design Management Institute’s The Value of Design, Design Council annual survey about value of design in the UK; frog’s 2017 paper “The Business Value of Design” the Design in Tech report; and the forthcoming McKinsey initiative that quantifies the financial value of design to businesses.
It makes one wonder why design needs to be constantly justified. Why is design still introduced with caveats like this one from the 2017 Design in Tech report: “Design isn’t just about beauty; it’s about market relevance and meaningful results.” Have designers not sufficiently convinced the world of their work’s strategic value after all?
Yale lecturer Jessica Helfand, who is co-organizing The Design of Business | The Business of Design conference with Bierut, points to an often overlooked nuance in Watson’s famous maxim. “Watson was terrific—prescient, even—and the essay is canonical, not because it presaged design’s value in commerce but because at its core he made such a humane argument,” she explains. “[Good design is good business] points equally, if not more, to the idea of character, period. As in, having one. Behaving with integrity. Standing up to bullshit. In an age in which veracity is itself under constant attack, why can’t design reassert its power and purpose as a conveyor of truth, of clarity of purpose, of honest intent?…Wouldn’t it be something to return to the ‘goodness’ embedded in Watson’s title by reconsidering design as the humanist discipline it always was?”
Bierut says arguing for the business value of design today needs to involve “ethics, purposefulness, and the idea that design can make the world a better place”—something often overlooked, as evidenced by the recent breaches in the tech sector. “What is needed now is not a more convincing case about the value of design,” he explains, “[What’s needed is] more deep thinking about for whom that value is meant to benefit.”