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Design as a Signature Skill for the Knowledge Economy

The knowledge economy makes all of us designers every day. We need to become more adept at inventing and crafting new solutions to new problems.

by Jim McGee

6/21/2005

My high-school friend went on to become a successful chemical engineer. He’s definitely a smart guy. His mantra was “just give me the equation.” Give him the formula and he’d return with the right answer. Ted was successful in a school setting and he’s been successful as an engineer. While he’d probably still be successful in school, I don’t believe he’d do so well in the economic world we live in now. While execution was the signature skill of the 20th century, success in the 21st century will depend on our design skill: our ability to invent and craft new solutions to our problems.

In the 20th century, economic success was about execution. Design was the province of the organization’s creator and perhaps a few specialists. For everyone else, success depended on how closely they executed against the game plan.

Design has become a more visible component of economic life. Fortune magazine runs features on excellence in product design. Academics focus on innovation and debate business models. Pundits proclaim the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to be the new MBA.

For all this attention, however, design is portrayed as relevant to the organization rather than to the individual. The still-buried cultural message is that design is about innate talent; if you weren’t there when they handed it out, you were out of luck.

This is all a by-product of an industrial economy. If the objective is to produce a gazillion identical widgets cheaper than the next company, it is all about execution and you don’t want everyone feeling free to redesign the assembly process on the fly. On the other hand, this is a risky, if not dangerous, position to adopt as a knowledge worker. If the knowledge economy has more in common with the world of craft than the world of factories, then knowledge workers must reclaim design from the experts.

Design is about approaching situations mindfully; about seeking to answer the question of how anything (object, computer system, business process, organization) might be altered and adapted to interact more effectively with its environment. This makes design a daily human activity, despite efforts by so many organizations to restrict it to controlled times and circumstances.

The phone tree in a customer call center that lists choices in the order dictated by someone in marketing intent on selling you something (instead of someone who was interested in how quickly you could get your question answered) was designed that way. Perhaps not very mindfully, but designed nonetheless. The engineers working with a box of random stuff trying to bring the astronauts of Apollo 13 home safely were designing. They had a problem and a fixed inventory of material. Design was what cobbled together something that worked.

Design matters to organizations and knowledge workers because the problems they face continue to morph and shift. For example:

  • My bookstore is threatened by a company in Seattle using a Web site with a funny name. Adding a café and encouraging customers to browse longer is a design answer to the challenge.
  • People standing in line for a ride at Disney World tag a ride as a hot item, but discourage parents with young children who dread the thought of a prolonged wait. Sell privileged access to those willing to pay a small premium and manage their day’s schedule more tightly. That design decision preserves buzz, satisfies multiple customers (parents and those who don’t need to listen to the whines of tired children), and creates incremental revenue to offset the systems costs of two-tiered access.

Opportunities for design decisions surround us. We need to develop better eyes to see the opportunities and encourage those who can see them to pursue the opportunities.

As individual knowledge workers, we need to invest time in developing our eye for design. Carry a design notebook as you work and travel. Try to see how decisions made during design show up in the world you interact with every day. Use the new camera in your cell phone to snap pictures of good and bad designs you encounter. Work backwards from the designs you encounter to uncover the choices that led to the design. Examine how different choices would produce different designs.

If you’re in a position to do so, take design out of your organization’s ivory tower and give some of it back to everyone. Make it easier to experiment by deviating from standard operating procedure. Deliberately mix experts from multiple disciplines on project teams so they can benefit from different perspectives. Start to think of your role as designing the conditions under which design activity becomes more widespread and more effective within the organization.

Design is a talent, but it is also a skill, and whatever talent we were graced with, the skill can be developed. Few of us will rival MacGyver (few of us have a scriptwriter and props department handy either), but we can learn to start looking at the world around us as potential resources with more possible uses than intended. We can start to see opportunities to make small changes that will lead to a better fit between our resources and our problems.