All businesses, from Aunt Edna’s corner bakery to Coca-Cola, need the sort of long-term strategizing specific to Marketing activities to survive and thrive. That is a proven fact. Walk into any bookstore and there’s almost always a “Marketing” section filled to the brink with the latest hoopla, buzzwords or success story told by the latest sales guru or TV business personality of the hour. Scams or not, try now to find the Industrial Design section anywhere, we’re in the Decorative Arts aisle, thank you very much.
Even if most business books are a lot of hot air sold at a premium, the fact remains for such books to continually appear in such numbers, someone must also be buying them. This in itself proves the point. And what do repeated reads of these books reinforce? That What you project and How you sell is everything, product is secondary and can be custom-fit to your specs cheaply, quickly and anywhere today. Enter the world of globalization, creative imitation and the the quickly eroding need for genuine originality or practical problem-solving in product design. Being first now feeds the competition.
Since marketing as a distinct discipline is taught in business schools across the world in an ever-increasing number of institutions, it has inevitably gained more clout and visibility than design, and I’d venture to say even engineering in terms of measurable business impact. In fact, both design and engineering can be rightly said to be fully subordinated to Marketing, which is itself far closer to higher management heaven than us. Business sees and uses us as executants first and foremost, and this is an important distinction. Where I work design and engineering have more leeway than in most firms due to the highly-technical applications we provide for, we even assist Marketing in drafting product briefs and better gauge consumer needs in the field. But everywhere else I have worked at before there was no doubt about who called the shots.
We actually live in very conservative times, historically speaking, where those whose education is based on memorizing text, mathematical computations and empirical tests performance raises them high above those trained in what used to be called the “humanities”. An Age of Enlightment, this is not. Surely, we all can argue having often substituted for engineers in perfectly empirical, technical situations such as mechanical design, and so on, but the vast majority of designers do not seek that type of work. This way that “touchy-feely” aura we project in industry will never disappear and ensures we stay labeled a nice-to-have versus a must-have. I am not at all surprised reading here about $1000 design projects in Asia, it is the natural flow of events from imitative manufacturing to services, especially in a country (China) that today, latest statistics show, graduates as many engineers yearly as the U.S.
Those here seeking “solutions” to being manhandled by Marketing from time to time obviously see this as a “problem”, even though typical industrial designers do not normally impress with their business sense, and that’s putting it mildly. One ideal road to nirvana here is for more designers to enter the business ranks and become Marketing directors, and so on, an ideal opportunity for product designers to have true, positive, long-lasting influence on any market segment in any line of business. But, proportionately-speaking, you don’t see this happen, though you see engineers take that route more often, ill-prepared as they are to relate to direct consumer needs and human psychology in general.
As long as designers only want to keep designing, even after 5, 10, or 15 years in the field, they’ll never make it in the driver’s seat. It’s also true that once you start rubbing shoulders with the suits on a daily basis you can kiss your CAD station and markers goodbye, perhaps many designers are just too passionate about their work to just give it up, even if it means less money or influence. Artistic personalities are that way, thus our label sticks.
For most engineers, their original field of study is strictly a ramp to more. For designers it seems to be an end in itself. Not that there isn’t enough to re-design out there, but at some point many experienced and talented designers can become far more useful to their employers and the general public by stepping out of their comfort zone and applying the same skills, vision and approach to higher echelons of the mechanism.
There are only a handful of design-driven firms out there, firms where the full design methodology, as we apply it daily, permeates the command cabin itself. I don’t see why engineers are more apt for the job than IDers, but I see why they are regularly being selected for management or marketing positions and how apt they are at self-promotion. Are designers too humble, too navel-gazing or simply more of the introspective, loner type typical of artistic pursuits? Does ID in itself need better marketing perhaps?
Creativity sometimes comes with a high price to those endowed with it, but no marketing type or creative director can work without them. What’s more, overly emotional individuals don’t do well in the pragmatic, highly-charged world of business politics, so designers considering marketing a royal pain are actually more right than they think and aren’t missing much either. They probably wouldn’t be happy in that line of work, it’s also fuzzier than what we do and unappealing for those of us preferring to deal in certitudes.
Call it a necessary evil to keep your passion alive. Or join it to alleviate your suffering. Shaking the tree always brings the fruit down.