(Originally published on Athletics, October, 2017)
What qualifies designers to tackle business challenges?
Is it the perspective we can offer with fresh eyes, a spring in our step, and no dog in the fight? Some innate tendency to seek out and simplify complexity? We wouldn’t dare speak for our industry. But we can speak for ourselves, and wecertainly didn’t attend business school. Some of us didn’t even finish high school.
No shortage of ink has been spilled on this topic. “Design thinking” as a paradigm is as hackneyed as “disruption” and “bespoke” and puns on “Make America Great Again.” Putting tired terminology to bed, the brand design process does have a unique ability to stir up latent business and management issues within partner teams. Call us Freudian, but it’s our belief that when design summons the potential for breakthroughs, letting the moment pass means forgoing the opportunity to translate struggle into strength, thereby rendering a disservice to partners and collaborators alike.
It’s not our intention to dictate ten commandments for the intersection of design and business. We humble creative-folk simply want to open up our own internal dialogue to others wrestling with life’s great design questions.
Diplomacy is the process by which subjective interests are negotiated to produce peace and order. Peace and order allow business (and culture) to flourish. It’s our belief that for the design process to promote flourishing business, its own form of diplomacy is warranted.
Taking the political analogy one step further, the term praxis* is used in political philosophy to describe the synthesis of theory and action, thinking and doing, internal intention and external practice. We’ve been playing with the idea of design praxis to describe the bridge between a company’s internal culture and external expression out in the world. Design praxis is, at its purest, a method of design diplomacy, helping capture opportunities and resolve fractures within partner teams and organizations. A nice theory, but what could it look like in action?
We see brand culture as a company’s self-conception. Every company has its own stories, beliefs, ideas, values, and attitudes, not to mention how personnel perceive and articulate core offerings, practices, and services. At the beginning of branding initiatives, we conduct interviews and desk research to identify areas of consensus and divergence in this self- conception. In parallel, we assign and analyze workbooks designed to reveal aesthetic accord and discord among stakeholders. A series of workshops help isolate these variances, the first step toward a. eliminating differing opinions, or b. designing measures for them to coexist peacefully.
Reflecting their brand culture in words (i.e. positioning, messaging) and images (i.e. visual identity), we functionally “hold up a mirror” to our partners — or, more, accurately, an x-ray. If they like what they see, we proceed. If not, we work through friction until an equilibrium is reached. Like a latter-day talking cure for modern companies, this all works toward resolving internal dissonance, helping unify teams around a clear positioning and visual identity. This set of common language, beliefs, and images promotes a certain esprit de corps — that sense of solidarity that makes companies (and any group for that matter, from militaries to religious cults) more productive and resilient.
Once brand culture is stabilized, we shift focus from the internal to the external. Brand expression covers marketing, customer service, media, social presence, press, thought leadership — the entire consumer or audience experience. This is where we define how our partners can face the world with the greatest resonance and return.
Mapping how a partner interacts with audiences currently, we work to identify contradictions between internal culture and external expression. Working through contradictions in the process of crafting messaging, marketing materials, and communication channels, we help our partners define a new standard for successful brand expression. We should note: we make a sincere effort to remain agnostic as to the end-product of these engagements. Whether a website, a logo, a print publication, or an immersive exhibition, the resulting designs must simply promote, or create the conditions for, fundamental business change.
As artist David Shrigley (an office favorite) once said: “Weak messages create bad situations.” We agree wholeheartedly. Asymmetry between a company’s culture and the way they express themselves yields conflict internally and weak messaging externally. The goal of design praxis is to continuously reduce (or find a way to embrace) disunity to produce a heightened atmosphere of authenticity and the conditions to truly and sustainably move the needle. In the commercial context, design’s worth should be measured by its effectiveness in inspiring forward cultural, social, political, or economic momentum among partners and out in the world.
Organizations aren’t monolithic. They’re a mosaic of perspectives, experiences, challenges, and victories — and we’re no exception. Through the process of writing this piece, we debated internally about who we are, what we believe, how we speak, and what it all means for our business and world. Defining our own mode of culture and expression is an ongoing process, informed by the flow of designers, writers, and technologists through our studio, the demands of our projects, and the expectations of the market.
Civilizations have always been propelled by cycles of conflict and consensus. Why should design be any different?
* Full transparency: shameless aesthetes that we are, we like the word ‘praxis’ both for its meaning, its historical pedigree (thinkers from Aristotle to Derrida have all adopted it in their writings), and its fine euphonic qualities. Other euphonically pleasing words, in our estimation: vulpine, homunculus, orthogonal, chrysalis, knavery, foible, schadenfreude, and of course, antimacassar.