#CXOTALK: Design for innovation, digital transformation, and organizational change

Superstar designer and VC, John Maeda, shares practical advice on design as an economic force for both startups and public companies.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Design plays a crucial role in modern technology companies. From creating user experience to helping organizations become customer-centric, design is fundamental to digital transformation.

Design in Tech 2016

Design in Tech 2016

This broad concept of design, going far beyond attractive screens and pretty colors, is connected closely to innovation and evolving business models. For this reason, both startups and large, established companies have recognized the importance of creating user experiences that are both functional and compelling.

John Maeda is one of the world's most prominent voices advocating this expansive view of design. Currently a partner with the leading VC firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Maeda was previously President of the Rhode Island School of Design and held posts at MIT and other prestigious organizations. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Cartier Foundation in Paris.

Maeda's 2016 Design In Tech report, analyzes the state of design among technology companies and is an essential reference and compilation of data. The report examines M&A activity and offers advice to both small and large organizations on the economic importance of design.

Maeda has extended the concept of design to include economics, leadership, and organizational change. He describes three kinds of design (and designers):

  • Classical design
  • Computational design
  • Design thinking

As part of the CXOTALK series of conversations with innovators, I spoke with Maeda to learn about the report and gain color on his findings. Listen and watch our conversation, which is embedded below. You can also read a complete transcript of the discussion.

What are the three kinds of design?

Classical designers are trained in the old way. The way of the physical world and in print; all the most beautiful thought design for centuries has lived in this space.

Design can be applied to making a user experience; that's computational design.

And then there is design thinking. It's the idea that your company doesn't move fast enough, and if you can think more creatively, like a designer, your company can innovate better.

Of the three kinds of design, design thinking and computational design are going to have the biggest impact on the economic success of countries today.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is all about organization agility; rediscovering innovation over execution. In the case of design thinking, they'll take Post-it notes and use a whiteboard and think about ideas and move them around as if they're sketching the organization, the people roles. So it's all about the ability to sketch. Not just to draw, mind you; the ability to ideate very quickly.

People who do design thinking may not be classical designers; they may not be computational designers. But they're a kind of designer that can think in the medium of organizations and ideas and people.

It's going to help your team, your units; the whole company gets a little more malleable by sketching ideas, testing them and working them out together through a non-rigid medium; in this case, post-it notes and whiteboards, clips of paper.

Is design about active ideation rather than the specific output or medium?

The whole idea behind design, at the most basic level, is process. It's a process of approaching a problem. It's medium-agnostic at its highest level. A great experience is made by having plastic processes, meaning to iterate and test ideas before you execute. What is the famous phrase by Frank Lloyd Wright, "It's better to put a pencil to paper than have a sledgehammer at the construction site."

What is the role of empathy?

You have to care about what the customer feels.

But, in the world of pure software engineers, empathy isn't part of the goal. The goal is to execute on durable code, test it with code. Code that won't fall down, like a bridge maker, like a person who designed a bridge wants to make sure that, number one, it doesn't fall down. But while doing that, they need to think about the person that's going to cross the bridge.

Designers in Silicon Valley have been bringing in the viewpoint, which is obvious to everyone except the people making the bridge, which we have to ask, "How does a person crossing the bridge feel?"

Empathy. So, empathy is what designers bring to the table all the time. They ask, "How does that make you feel and how can I make you feel better? How do I improve the experience?"

So, successful design combines empathy with creating a meaningful experience that's appropriate for the context?

Engineering is important in relationship to design. And a business model to make that product affordable. Good business, good engineering, and good design are important together; they make great products, but not in isolation.

It's synergistic but depends on the product too. They're three things that pull on each other, but at the base level, the engineering has to work. Design can't solve a bad engineering solution.

What about teams and leadership?

At a startup, you're not designing a product; you are designing a team that can build a product. At large companies, you are designing products, designing companies to make great products in perpetuity.

The hands-on makers have a hard time becoming leaders, and so in the report, I feature two characteristics of a company in which design leaders can make a difference: culture and systems.

How can companies create a culture of design?

It requires the CEO to care about design. Not just as a buzzword, but to understand there are three kinds of design and to understand there are three kinds of designers in their company.

It requires the executive team to understand that design is not just about pretty things, like a good looking shirt. But, there are business design thinkers who can help the company think in a more agile way. There are computational designers who work [at huge] scale and reliability. And yes, there are the traditional designers who design amazing, quality experiences in print in the old way.

Bring design expertise into the boardroom, into the executive team meetings. Not to review design, but to ask how can design thinking be used in our company? How can we help our culture innovate better?

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