consulting in design research, strategy and decision-support

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Designers’ power in organizations

“The Prince”, by Machiavelli, has been the definitive textbook on power for the last 500 years. Last year Jeff Pfeffer wrote “Power”, the definitive book on the subject for our generation. Apart from maybe torture and killing, not much has changed. However it is definitely more readable and has many more contemporary cases. How are designers doing in these 21st Century games of corporate power and what is the outlook for their future?

To be continued June 28.


  1. The power distribution in firms has changed over the past hundred years, according to what the various challenges were. When moving from crafts to industrial manufacturing, engineering and manufacturing became important. Then when markets started to saturate, marketing became key. As this field matured, financing then took over. As we move into a time where innovation is important, one could well imagine the influence of designers being on the rise. The question now becomes, what factors determines this?

    To be continued July 5.

  2. As we move into an experience economy, intangibles are becoming increasingly important. Intangibles now represent the majority of many a firm’s value. With markets being increasingly dynamic, old static economic models fail and management strategies have to be frequently updated. Strategies are now a dynamic capability. To create intangible value, you need . . . well, creative people. Of course the value of your creativity depends on the level at which you contribute.

    To be continued July 17.

  3. Button sizes and corner radii, though important, by nature contribute less than creating a new design philosophy for an organization. Of the many recommendations in his book on power, Jeff Pfeffer mentions the following areas on which to focus: Powerful departments have cohesion. Create resources others need and remember perception is reality. Designers may be naturally weak in these areas, however their position has huge potential. How can this potential best be mined?

    To be continued July 24.

  4. To gain a sense of what designers think, we turned to LinkedIn’s Industrial Design Group and posted the question: Are any designers’ in positions of power in the corporate structure? The gist of the comments were that although designers may not have formal authority they have the attention of management. 
    To be continued July 31.

  5. Let us examine the general credibility of these statements by comparing them in turn with the three top power indicators.

    Powerful departments have cohesion! Designers need to have their designs selected in order to have successful careers and they are in competition with their colleagues in a zero sum game. This cultural structure is in no way conducive to cohesion.

    To be continued August 7.

  6. The second power indicator was the ability to create resources others need. Does anybody inside of a corporation need industrial design and how do they know the designers have delivered? Engineering and marketing can measure their performance and back up their claims with data from calculations, simulations, tests and studies. When a new product fails in the market, they can show that they did their job and point their fingers at design. Designers are unable to point back. Since thirty to forty-one percent of new products fail, design is at a clear disadvantage.

    To be continued August 14.

  7. This brings us to the third power indicator, “perception is reality”. If designers are viewed as failing one third of the time, it is difficult to project a perception of a positive and reliable contribution. Studies show you need to provide about three positive experiences to make up for one negative experience. With the current hit rate and little documentation supporting design performance, it would seem designers would not be able to get ahead in the corporate environment.

    To be continued August 21.

  8. Based on literature and personal observations the conclusion appears to be that designers are not well equipped for a position of power in an organization. Whether future changes in society and its needs and/or the actual design education program will change this remains to be seen.

    Next topic "What is “Design Thinking” will be starting August 28.