Nathan Shedroff created an MBA program marrying design and business to not only prepare people to be leaders of companies, but to lead in a designerly way, a creative way, and a way that honors the qualitative and quantitative in business. Leaders need to balance these two sides in the future in order to be successful.
(electronic music) - Nathan Shedroff is a serial entrepreneur, who researches, speaks, and teaches internationally about meaning, strategic innovation, and science fiction interfaces. He is also a pioneer in experience, interaction, and information design. Shedroff is the chair of the MBA and Design Strategy at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, as well as the author of several books, including Experienced Design 1.1, Design is the Problem, and Design Strategy in Action.
Shedroff worked with Richard Saul Wurman at TheUnderstandingBusiness, and later cofounded Vivid Studios, a pioneering company in interactive media, and one of the first web services firms on the planet. - We're here in New Orleans at the AIGA Conference, and I have the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Nathan Shedroff. Nathan, thank you so much for being here. - Thanks for having me. - So, you're the chair of two Design MBA programs, focused on design strategy, and these are at the California College of the Arts.
This is pretty groundbreaking. So what was going on that made you realize that there was a market for this? - Well, certainly it was groundbreaking at the time, and it still is a little bit, although there's been hints of similar kinds of programs cropping up globally since then. We started the program because we wanted to do a different kind of business. We're centered in San Francisco, which is one of the major innovation hubs in the world, and everyone knows San Francisco's always a little bit different anyway, we do business a little bit differently.
We have different expectations, and coming from a design background, we have the opportunity to look at, chiefly products and services differently, but ultimately, business models and business culture differently. So we know we didn't build this program to create, or help people become leading designers. What we really want and why it's an MBA, is we want to prepare people so that they can lead change and be the leader of the company, but lead in a designerly way, which is to say a creative way, and a way that honors the qualitative, not just the quantitative in business.
So our goal is a little bit different than, let's say, a design management program, which is about managing the design function. We think people, whether they have a design background or not, need to lead the company, or lead the whole organization, but do it in a new way. - So with this program, you're essentially melting the worlds of design and business together, and these are two worlds that don't always communicate so well together. So, how can design and business learn to speak the same language? - Yeah, sometimes in the past they've been adversarial.
Other times in the past they've actually meld really well, if you go look at what happened in the '60s and '70s, what happened with the Eames for instance, and their relationships to businesses, there have been times in the past when design and business worked much better together. Since the '70s, at least in American business, the quantitative processes have sort of taken over business, and it's really become more and more about managing in an optimized way. Not that designers can't optimize things, but designers aren't focused on optimization as much as they are with creativity and innovation.
And so the two need to come together, and you're right, they do need to speak a similar language. We created this program because we kind of figured that most business people are not going to have the time, or energy, or desire to go learn design, and they don't have to. So it really behooves designers to go learn the language of business, and to go learn a little bit about business issues, and processes, et cetera, so that they can speak better with their business peers. That's sort of been the history of my career because I got an MBA sort of by accident, and in the process of doing so, realized that, first of all, some of these things aren't as scary as you might think they might be, like accounting, and economics, although finance absolutely is a bear.
But I found a place in the business world that I didn't know was there, that was a place that had a lot of influence and had a lot of enjoyment about taking my skills that are mainly qualitative skills, and applying them to balance out the quantitative tools that we've built up over 100 years in business, and found there was a lot of power in the two working together. And that really is what drives the curriculum in our program, it drives the kind of experiences we have the students go through, and it drives the goals of where we think leaders need to be, again, regardless of their background.
Leaders need to be able to balance these two sides in the future or they're not going to accomplish what they want to. - When you're doing this, there's going to be some cross pollination naturally, between the worlds of business and design. So, what do you feel business can learn from the world of design? - I think the biggest thing that business can learn is a tolerance for ambiguity. Business processes don't have a lot of room for ambiguity. They tend towards optimization, accuracy, exactness, confidence, but the reality is there's a tremendous amount of ambiguity in business.
There's a lot of myths of business, and business people often fail to recognize simple truths about their industry and their place in the world, because they've maybe overconfidently bought into some myths. For instance, any time you see the word plan, that's fiction. Plan is fiction, it's no different than a story, like a novel. It may have numbers attached to it, it may have spreadsheets attached to it, but none of it's happened yet.
And in Silicon Valley especially, you see lots of plans, and at the end of the pitch there's a line that does this, which is about profit. That hasn't happened yet. But when numbers are attached to things in our culture, they take on a new connotation that makes them seem almost assured, right, and sure that's going to happen, there's numbers that say it's going to happen. But it's all just fiction. You have to work really hard to make that fiction work. And a lot of business people, especially the more quantitatively minded, they cling to those numbers as the mechanism to make value, to create things that people want.
And when things aren't so clear, and when times get ambiguous, that really throws them for a loop. Designers, on the other hand, we live in ambiguity. When you're given a blank sheet of paper and asked to make something incredible, you stare at it thinking, "Oh my God, this is the project "I'm going to fall flat on my face on." But somehow we have a whole bunch of processes and tools that we can make something out of that blank sheet of paper, and often make something that just astounds other people. So design, being a more qualitatively focused endeavor, lives in ambiguity, and that's what a lot of business people can't handle.
They do everything they can to mitigate risk and get rid of ambiguity. And it's admirable, but it's just never going to happen. So we can bring our tools to say, "I know that you can't see what's coming, "and I know it's really foggy "and none of this data's making sense to you, "I have ways of finding patterns in that data "that can lead us in a good direction, "and might come up with alternatives, "and then allow us to choose a better direction, "but you've got to trust me with my tools, "the same way I trust you with your tools, "to keep the lights on." - Right, is there a way that when you're talking to a business person, and you're saying this to them, is there anything that you can tell them, or tools that you can give them, to help them get to this place of understanding? - I think that everyone can learn a certain amount of these tools, in the same way that everyone can learn most everything.
Some people have absolutely innate natural talent and find this stuff really easy. And there are people who will never be comfortable with ambiguity, or never be comfortable with the kind of design processes that often look to them like, "We're not getting anywhere, you're just turning in circles, "and talking with customers, and what not, "we need to get to work." There'll always be people like that, so I think that what has to be established is a mutual trust.
You've got your processes, I've got my processes, they work really well together, but we need to use the right ones at the right time, and that's the biggest stymie for innovation is often taking those quantitative metrics and applying them to innovation too soon, when a project's not ready, when we haven't found the answer, when customers don't see the value yet. Especially in big companies, Fortune 500 companies, that need to control the innovation process almost always kills it, because it's done too soon.
So we have to find a mutual respect and trust, and a little bit of a mutual awareness, so that we can work together in a more productive, effective way. But they're two different cultures. They will never be one, they should never be one, and they're always going to have a little bit of a either uneasy relationship, or if it's really working well, like it can be a beautiful dance. - Alright, so let's flip the coin. What can design learn from business? - Oh, a lot.
Designers, especially design education, can be sometimes just really flaky. When you're dealing with the qualitative, who's to say that that's nice, or that's ugly, or this is beautiful, or that's too much, or this isn't enough? It's really difficult. It's even more exaggerated in the art world. In the design world, at least we can touch base with customers to see if customers find value in it or appeals to them, et cetera. But even then, there's a lot of ambiguity there and so there aren't necessarily always clear answers.
That requires clear direction. It also requires a comfort with quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and quantitative data, and so if you look at a company like, well look at big tech firms, for instance, and this obsession with big data. The data tells us really interesting things. Sometimes it tells designers things they don't want to hear. And that's information we need to look at, we need to listen to, we need to integrate into our processes.
Design isn't really about my personal preferences, and I love this color this week, and that typeface, and this kind of illustration style. Design really is more of a curatorial practice where I'm making design decisions in the construction of this thing for other people, so I better know something about how they react to all these things. If I want to make an eco-product for the eco-conscious consumer, I need to know does bamboo make them think dirty hippies? Or does it make them think slick celebrity? Because it can do both, and it does do both.
So my choices as a designer in shaping something and constructing something have to be informed by reality. They can't just be my fantasy, or how I want the world to look like, or I want the world to be, and that's a new thing for design, because most designers, certainly in my day, I've got a fair amount of grey hair, when I was in design school, we were taught to remake the world in our image, towards our preferences, and that people would love it. And for the most part, no, a lot of people don't love designer's visions of the future from their personal aesthetic.
But a good designer is able to assemble and construct something really wonderful, understanding the impact it's going to have and how people are going to react to it. It's not totally prescriptive, it's absolutely creative, but you can't design for people so that they have a meaningful experience without knowing what makes a difference in their life, that's why we do design research, for instance. - Right, how does a designer know what that bamboo is going to trigger in a consumer, say? - Yeah, well, so this isn't easy.
Again, this is always in the realm of ambiguity. We teach our students a bunch of tools to get at what we call triggers. The rest of the world calls them design elements, we call them triggers, because we want to cast all these decisions as this decision is going to trigger something in your customers. It's going to trigger something in other customers as well. You need to know what that triggers like. So we teach them research techniques that help them understand and get from customers, their reactions to these things.
And they can be as simple as having a whole bunch of cards, representing colors or materials, et cetera, and asking them, "Which one of these says honor? "Or duty, or security? "Which one of these makes you feel good, "or warm, or successful?" And often the abstraction of these concepts are so high that words aren't going to work anyways. If I asked you, "Here's a bunch of photos, tell me which one says harmony to you." That's a lot easier than me asking you, "Tell me about harmony in your life, "and what makes things harmonious." A lot of people, it's easier to use a visual medium, and so we teach them to make these tools, and use these tools, and collect commonalities that represent, not exactitude, again, not optimization of these reactions, but to have a deeper understanding of the reaction their design decision is going to have for the customers they're trying to talk to.
- Interesting, it sounds like everybody needs a set of those cards. - Yeah, well, the trick with those cards is that you sort of have to make them for yourself, 'cause you have to understand what they mean to you as a way of normalising bias, before you can start using them with other people. So, yeah, maybe you can get away with selling them, but yeah, I'd love to teach everyone to make a set of those cards.
Nathan explains what business has to learn from design (tolerance for ambiguity) as well as what design has to learn from business (comfort with data and communication skills). He also touches on redefining the word "value," design thinking, and deliberate design that improves customers' lives.