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.
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!