This post first appeared in Fortune magazine’s Innovation 2005 conference blog on monday as a piece of original content,
Dominic has very kindly asked me to attempt an answer to the question "How can business executives think like designers" and why should they?
After much thought, I realised that I could best explain to you how you can learn to recognize "good" design as judged by their peers by personal examples from my own experience.
I believed once that I had the "eye", that is the innate aesthetic visual sense that supports those who fall into the category of "I don’t know how to describe it, but I’ll know it when I see it." You cannot begin to be considered by your peers as a real designer without this facility.
The fact is, there is no difference between an untrained eye and one who doesn’t have the visual acuity. Since I had dropped out of NID before my training was complete, even though I’d been selected for the eye, I was never wholly confident of my own ability to tell a good piece of creative work from the not quite okay pieces.
This sense of weakness can be a drawback, and certainly when you’re the Marcom Specialist at HP looking after PPGA advertising for India or the Sr Account Manager at McCann Erickson’s direct marketing arm. You’re talking to creatives every day and shaping the advertisements that you will then present to your client, or your boss, or your VARs. The hesitancy stayed with me until I came under the guidance of my most recent mentor at work, John Grimes. John teaches the foundation students digital media and photography, and I have seen the quality of the visual work using just a digital camera that comes of John’s classes at the end of the semester. These were the people that ID had admitted as foundation students, or those who joined the master’s program without an undergraduate degree in design. Students had been English majors, software managers, the first employee of Guru.com, engineers and once, a hotel concierge 🙂
He trained me to read the portfolios that were submitted to the Institute of Design for admissions. And I’d reached the point in just one semester of being able to tell the best and the worst, while I still had some trouble with the gray areas. That’s okay however, the gray areas are purely subjective and no designer can ever agree with another so it’s no big deal:)
This just takes practice. Take your favourite designer out for a drink or meal and ask him about everything you see and get his opinion on what is considered good and what is considered not effective. I had to learn to recognize next generation product interfaces very quickly so I asked Darcy DiNucci to help me identify key differentiators that I could learn to recognize as indicators of next gen interface design without necessarily having the facility or the experience to do so instinctually.
Apart from practice, some theory helps too. Dale Wunderlich, a former student who’d taught design in China a few years ago shared me that while it was well and good say "Oh I know what I like I don’t need to like an "Eames" or a "Starck" just because everyone else says so", since I suffered from that attitude in my ignorance, it was far more important to learn to recognize the theoretical and stylistic reasons why Charles Eames is a good designer. That way, while I could retain my personal taste, I could develop a healthy appreciation for the man who changed the concept of airport seatings or office chairs at Herman Miller.
To end with the title of my post, while the ability to appreciate beauty is often innate, a healthy appreciation based on logic can serve just as well too.