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Picture 12While the main stage presentations at AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp last weekend didn’t really focus on the topic of change in the design world, much of the side chatter I was hearing involved the changing ways that designers are working—or being forced to work. With a student-to-professional ratio of roughly 1:1 at the conference (rare for a design event with a professional focus), there were plenty of attendees who were looking at their own future with shaky knees, wondering where the opportunity will be in this profession that seemed so wide open less than a couple years ago.

Of course, the design jobs will return (perhaps a bit slower than some would prefer), but what exactly will the job description be when they do? Designers—and especially communication designers—have found ourselves tagged on to the end of the business process despite our best efforts to infiltrate our clients at a deeper level. The fact remains that the vast majority of what we do still involves putting a pretty package around a product, service, system, or experience that was fundamentally complete before we designers arrived on the scene.

So, I was pleased this morning as I bagged up school lunches for my two teenagers (talk about a design project…) to hear the topic of design coming from the radio speakers. Tim Brown, CEO of global design firm IDEO and author of the new book Change By Design: Tim Brown’s Book on How Design Thinking Inspires Innovation, was being interviewed by NPR’s Renee Montagne. I was doubly pleased that the focus of the conversation was around the potential for design to impact our dysfunctional healthcare system, a topic about which I am passionate.

I’ve embedded this short interview below along with a recent TED video in which Tim Brown expands on his ideas for design and design thinking to make change.

“I think the design of participatory systems in which many more forms of value beyond simply cash are both created and measured is going to be the major theme not only for design but also for our economy as we go forward.”

This is a profound statement that, if true, will dramatically change the expectations placed upon those students I encountered at Design Camp as they invent the next generation of our profession. Tim Brown’s prophecy is daunting for those of us in the middle of our careers, but as always, with change comes opportunity. Personally, I’m in complete agreement with Brown on this issue and I welcome his loud, strong voice to the chorus of change.

NPR Morning Edition Interview with Tim Brown

Tim Brown TED Talk

Over the last couple decades design education programs have been bombarded with wave upon wave of industry changes that they, in turn, must respond to and integrate into their curriculum. In the late eighties, for instance, it was the advent of the computer as a design tool, then a decade later the internet emerged as a prominent new medium. Now there are a whole new set of skills that are expected of designers entering the field, including interactivity, motion graphics, and design thinking. For me, design thinking really reflects the evolution of communication design from the craft-driven discipline of the 20th century to the strategic-oriented consultation that most of us provide to our clients today (whether they ask for it or not). Ultimately, design thinking is at the core of the entrepreneurial activity that I focus on with Merge.

So how do design educators address this important emerging area without simply “tacking it on” to an already crammed curriculum?


BusinessWeek Podcast featuring Nathan Shedroff

One of the programs solving this complex puzzle is California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Nathan Shedroff is the president of CCA, which launched the MBA in Design Strategy Program in 2007, and in this BusinessWeek podcast he discusses the new role designers are expected to play.

itm10years_logo2Sappi Ideas That Matter deadline approaches
Thanks to Joe Isaak for reminding me that applications are due for the Ideas That Matter program. Now in its tenth year, this program awards grants of $5,000-50,000 to help designers develop ideas that benefit the world around us. Recent recipients have included Marcia Lausen of StudioLab, University of Illinois Chicago and Design for Democracy, and John Bielenberg of Project M. The deadline for submissions is July 17, 2009.


Thanks to Susan Bernstein for turning me on to the great work of Hilary Cottam and her London firm, Participle. Hilary Cottam seems to have a really clear vision of how design thinking and methodology can be used—by designers and others—to solve a variety of social problems. Here’s a link to an excellent FastCompany profile.

What I love about this story is that, in addition to having a remarkably fresh notion of how a design business can operate, Hilary also believes that designers must work in collaboration with other smart people to solve complex problems. In her setting, those other smart people include anthropologists, economists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, social scientists, among others. In the experience Lisa and I had growing HealthSimple, we relied heavily on a similar network of experts. It was the strength of this network and our willingness to collaborate that allowed us to navigate some really challenging situations.

Here’s a link to Hilary Cottam’s website. Merge will be all about seeking out people like Hilary who are challenging the conventions of design business.


Designers—especially communication designers—love to talk about “getting a seat at the table,” which has become a favorite buzz phrase at design/business conferences in recent years. After decades of being tacked on to the end of the business process, designers believe that by being involved in business at a deeper level—when strategy is being developed, not just when it’s being implemented—they could have a strong positive influence.

I am a designer and I agree completely with this premise. We are creative thinkers with a set of skills that are desperately lacking within large corporations and institutions. I disagree, however, that designers should be striving only for a seat at the table. In order for designers to truly make change, I believe more of us must sit at the head of the table, not just at the crowded edges. By sitting at the head of the table, designers will lead, we will set the agenda, and we will build organizations in which design methodology and creative problem solving are a vital part of the DNA, not just a clever afterthought.pullquote1

So why are examples of designers leading businesses (other than design firms) so rare? This is a complex question with many possible answers.

My wife Lisa and I had been operating Schwartz Powell Design, a successful small design firm in Minneapolis, for more than 15 years when we created a second business called HealthSimple® to bring a smarter, more intuitive, and better designed approach to the daily experience of living with diabetes. Our journey along the winding road of entrepreneurship was fraught with crushing frustrations, unexpected thrills, torturous delays, and just enough success to keep us going. Ultimately, HealthSimple was acquired in 2007 by McNeil Nutritionals, a division of Johnson & Johnson.

As I reflect on our experience with HealthSimple, I begin to understand why so few designers find themselves leading non-design businesses. The entrepreneurial process is enormously challenging and risky, and most designers—despite our abundance of vision and creativity—simply do not have the information, skills, network, and resources to successfully go from a promising idea to a viable business.

To me the topic of designers and entrepreneurship is a fascinating one that is layered with big dramatic themes and subtle nuances. So, I’ve created Merge as a space to explore the topic further; to collect information, resources, ideas, and bits of inspiration; and to examine design businesses that are having success by doing things differently—all with the hope that  the entrepreneurial road will be a little brighter for more designers to travel.

To be clear, I am NOT an expert in this area and I won’t be playing the role of a guru doling out morsels of wisdom. Instead, think of me as the curator, facilitator, and occasional referee.

Currently the content of Merge is sparse, but it’s growing every day, and with the help of YOU—my friends and colleagues in the business—adding comments and sending me stories, links and contacts, I hope Merge will grow quickly to become a rich and practical resource for design business leaders.

Please join the conversation and tell your friends about Merge!

—Doug Powell

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