A second challenge relates to diversity. Not only is design becoming a less homogenous industry than it once was, its boundaries are also getting fuzzier. IDEO, for instance, works with all kinds of experts: programmers, engineers, even chefs. These days, there are few limits as to what can be designed: the only thing that a design can’t be is boring.
Executives at the global design firm swear by the value of their professional diversity, but there can be downsides to such a big-tent approach. In software development, for example, some programmers have complained that the Scrum methodology—organizing production in rapid development cycles by cross-functional teams—actually discourages innovation by emphasizing completed, billable work over original solutions.
“Like a failed communist state that equalizes by spreading poverty, Scrum in its purest form puts all of engineering at the same low level: not a clearly spelled-out one, but clearly below all the business people who are given full authority to decide what gets worked on,” writes programmer and bloggerMichael O. Church.
Success itself may also not be good for creativity. McKinsey, Capital One, the Chinese communications company BlueFocus, Google, Facebook, and Accenture have all acquired design companies in the past three years. IBM has acquired three ad/design agencies this year alone. Nor is it just a mature market trend: the Chinese brand management company BlueFocus acquired San Francisco industrial design studio Fuseproject in 2014. BlueFocus CEO Oscar Zhao said the studio’s capabilities greatly extended “the range of services we can offer to our base.”
But while the deals are a big vote of confidence in the importance of design in general, this consolidation may not be good for design overall. Even in a firm that is not creatively driven, the number of employees who feel disengaged from their job rises an average of 23% after a merger, according to a recent study of Aon Hewitt, a human relations consulting firm, and the toll may be higher in a creative firm.
As John Coleman, CEO of The VIA Agency said, when asked to comment on the mega-merger of the Omnicom and Publicis global marketing agencies two years ago, “I have never heard a client say, ‘I wish my agency were part of a bigger holding company so they could be more creative.’ And I have never heard a creative person say, ‘Wow, I am more creative now that I am part of the biggest holding company in advertising.’”
The growth of Big Data may prove to be a similarly mixed blessing. On the one hand, Big Data generates far more feedback for product designers than they have ever had before. This is doubly true on the internet, where user experience (UX) designers can test and compare how people respond to and understand particular interfaces. However, these insights may create new challenges as well. Big Data may make it easier to develop a product that people don’t hate, but does it actually make it easier to create something they love? As Steve Jobs famously said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Automation could hurt design in a more direct way. Graphic designers once needed to learn calligraphy by hand before they began working professionally, and furniture makers sometimes even had to make their own tools as part of their apprenticeship. In most cases, nothing is lost through automation—whether a passenger is taken by a cabbie who knows the way by heart or by one whose GPS knows the way doesn’t much matter—but could the shortcuts enabled by the technology reduce designers’ ability to work out fresh solutions?
Although computers have democratized design, some old-school designers once argued that they hurt originality. Paul Rand, one of the great graphic designers of the 20th century (his brainchildren include the logos of IBM, FedEx and UPS), told students in the 1990s that he thought that the biggest contribution of the typewriter had been to destroy handwriting. “I think—and I am not Nostradamus—but I think that something similar is going to happen to art because of the computer. I think that relationship is an adverse one. I could be wrong, but that’s what I think.”
Spurring designers to better performance however despite these potential obstacles is the growing sophistication of the world’s shoppers. Now that Bauhaus-style furniture can be found in living rooms from Shanghai to New York and hundreds of millions of pockets hold smartphones sleek as any sports car, will they settle for less?
Maybe. “Design sophistication is of course about performance, about objects, about aesthetics, but it’s also about the lifecycle of objects and the thought that whatever gets produced then ends up somewhere,” says Antonelli.
Consumers may be reaching a similar conclusion as minimalist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe did in 1947—less is more. The success of such de-clutter gurus as Marie Kondo, who advises people to “Discard everything that does not spark joy,” suggests that some consumers are reaching a new stage in which they will become choosier and choosier in their selection. Sort of like a designer.
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[This article has been reproduced with permission from CKGSB Knowledge, the online research journal of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB), China's leading independent business school. For more articles on China business strategy, please visit CKGSB Knowledge.]