Alex Turnwall
Design, Updates

Talk: Does Business Need Design?


*Scout is the student-led design studio at Northeastern University, which I helped found as a faculty advisor a few years ago. You should check them out—they’re doing incredible work!

I recently gave a talk for Scout Studio* on the topic of measuring the ROI and impact of design practices in business. (Slides included at the end of the post.)

I think it was terrible.

But I learned something. More on that below.

The thesis of the talk sort of comes down to this slide:

How effective are my designs?
How do we evaluate design?
What’s the impact of my work?

In my experience, the best designers are always asking themselves these questions.

And if you make the decision to start your own business or move into a management role, you no longer have the option of asking these questions—you have to have the answers to report back to your business stakeholders or clients, and you need to have grounds for evaluating your team.

But back to my delivery of the talk: do you ever have those out-of-body moments?

I could see my past undergraduate self sitting in the room, listening to me bore him to death, as I realized that my talk needed a lot more context to make the information interesting. Granted, I do think I was sharing some novel information that was useful to some of the folks in the room, but I certainly wasn’t doing my best to make it engaging. It felt more like a dry Calc 101 lecture than the Ted Talks that I admire.

So the new question for me: how can I make this content more engaging? How can I tell a better story around it?

I don’t have a great answer for this right now, but I’m going to continue to work on it, because I think this stuff is important, and understanding and using metrics to measure design impact is still under-utilized.

What I learned is that I actually get excited about this stuff! The work I’ve been focusing on lately is more managerial than individual contribution—and that means measuring impact.

But I forgot my audience (designer faux pas number one). Undergraduate students don’t come to this from the same context as me. In design school, you have goals and you’re graded on them. Did the assignment meet the parameters? Did you solve this problem? Can you defend your solution in critique?

Those are all well and good, but in business context, we don’t need to justify decisions with rhetoric (which it seems has been the defacto for classroom education for some time)— there are a whole bunch of tools and techniques we can use to actually measure the impact that our work made on our actual audience.

These are what I tried to delve into (see the slides), but without case studies—without the real “why”—they seemed overly didactic.

What I do know is that the onus is on us as design professionals to present the impact of our work, whenever we talk about it—in our portfolios, at our jobs, or in the classroom. Framing all design solutions from the perspective of impact will help our profession as a whole establish the guidelines for which we judge effectiveness, and help a new generation of designers ensure that design continues to have a more vocal seat at the table.

Anyways, I hope somebody in the room got something useful out of the talk in its current state. You can see the slides below.

Look out for some better case studies and thoughts on the matter soon, and drop me a line or leave a comment if you have any ideas on how you think about design impact metrics at your organization.

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