5 Things Managers Can Learn from Designers

November 30, 2023

Where creativity and strategy meet

To come up with the best possible solutions for their clients, designers need to think along unconventional lines. This approach, relying on creativity and strategic decision-making, can also prove effective for managers and business leaders, particularly in times of turbulence. Jasmin Roth, a designer and graduate of the MBA Marketing & Sales, and Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, have analyzed ways to apply this to both design processes and managing a company and shares her findings in five key leadership learnings.

Managers often think quite differently than designers, but sometimes pursue similar goals and can still learn something from them. Image: shutterstock, Master1305
Managers often think quite differently than designers, but sometimes pursue similar goals and can still learn something from them. Image: shutterstock, Master1305

“There is a popular misconception of what design means,” Jasmin Roth says. “Aesthetics, pretty shapes and colors, appealing packaging – that’s what people come up with first when they think of design. But design is so much more than that.” The MBA alumna of the WU Executive Academy manages Cin Cin Creative Studios in Vienna, an agency for design and creative consultancy, together with her business partner Stephan Göschl.
As an entrepreneur and creative director, she decided to complete an MBA to hone her business management skills and, even more importantly, better understand her customers: “Many of my clients are entrepreneurs themselves or work in business, construction, medicine, culture, or hospitality. I wanted to get where they are coming from to be able to develop design solutions that are even better tailored to their needs,” she shares.

In the course of her studies, she gained insight into many fields related to management and leadership, not least by interacting with her fellow students. This made her realize that as much as she benefits from having acquired management and leadership skills, business managers can learn a thing or two from the perspective of a designer. “Many people confuse designers with artists", says Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy. "But as designers, we don’t create something for the sake of artistic expression but to solve concrete problems for our customers. Although visual appeal plays a part in this, it mostly requires a good deal of strategic thinking. This is something designers hardly ever get credit for,” Roth says, emphasizing that a brand presentation or communication strategy is always based on a collaborative process that has designers work very closely with customers.

Strategy and Creativity: What We Can Learn from the Way Designers Work

Jasmin Roth and Barbara Stöttinger have identified the following 5 key learnings for managers and business leaders as “particularly in uncertain times, executives need two qualities: creativity and strategic thinking.” And when it comes to those things, there is a lot designers are already getting right.

1. Know Your Customers Better than They Know Themselves

When designers embark on a project, the outcome is often anything but clear.“We keep an open mind, which helps us find the best solutions for our customers’ problems,” Roth says. When customers brief her, “they often only talk about the symptoms of a problem without addressing its roots,” she shares.

“By identifying the real issue hidden behind what seems to be the problem, we can start a joint process of diving deep into what’s really going on. And in the end, that’s what enables us to provide added value with a lasting impact. Design solutions that simply do whatever the customer asks for usually fail to do that. Solid design requires an empathetic analysis and follow-up questions on the part of the designer to come up with solutions the customer did not even know they needed,” she explains.

“This is also the stage at which any tensions within the team usually reveal themselves. Customers with little experience tend to be surprised by the dynamics of this process, which means that designers will be well advised to consult and mediate in advance. All conflicts must have been resolved and diverging visions of the future aligned for the team to be able to start the strategic and conceptual work.”

Understanding customers is extremely important for designers - their customers themselves often don't know what they actually need. Image: shutterstock, fotogestoeber
Understanding customers is extremely important for designers - their customers themselves often don't know what they actually need. Image: shutterstock, fotogestoeber

Management tip: Managers should not shy away from getting knee-deep into the reality of both their customers and their employees, starting a sparring process on an equal footing. This act of empathy, walking in somebody else’s shoes for a while, will make a real difference. A problem must be viewed from both the inside and outside to understand its inner workings and open up new perspectives. In an entrepreneurial context, this approach can be scaled up to challenges of any dimension, be it internal communications with staff members or re-positioning the company on the market.

2. The Best Solution Often Lies beyond the Agreed-upon Scope

Designers are used to taking a creative approach to solving their clients’ problems.“Looking for solutions only within a defined space won’t get us innovative results,” Barbara Stöttinger points out. For this reason, designers initially ignore the limits defined by the customer, as this enables them to focus on what would be the best solution. In customer workshops, Jasmin Roth refers to this phase as “Make a Wish”.

Jasmin Roth

Jasmin Roth

  • Designer and MBA Marketing & Sales alumna

We do a re-briefing and collect the boldest ideas and visions of our clients, no matter how unrealistic they are. Only then do we adjust the goals to the existing framework that is often defined by a limited budget, feasibility, and fixed deadlines.This helps us uncover many new approaches the client would have never thought of.

But what really does the trick is having an ideal and carefully adapting it to the limitations instead of coming up with a lukewarm solution to start with. If this process reveals that measures other than the ones defined in the original briefing will be more effective for the intended target group, customers are often willing to adjust their expectations or the initial briefing.

Management tip: It takes courage, assertiveness, and persistence to think innovatively within hierarchical structures. Always playing by the rules and being cautious and preoccupied with what customers and clients might think will only slow you down. Two requirements must be met to prevent this scenario: the confidence that your intuition is right – and a work environment and supervisors that allow for that. What’s important here is to keep asking yourself: am I convinced that this is the best solution, or am I simply doing what my supervisor, customer, or shareholder expects me to do?

3. Engage in Loop Learning through a Trial-and-Error Approach

Designers rely on trial and error to work out a solution in iterative steps. They view their work as a permanent flow, constantly repeating, adapting, and optimizing things. For them, there is no such thing as a final or static state. Mistakes are regarded as valuable resources allowing them to learn more and gain valuable insights.

Management tip: This mindset can help managers particularly in times of crises. In a dynamic environment, a solution that was sound and reasonable yesterday can be all wrong tomorrow. Questioning one’s own decisions against the backdrop of a changed context is not a sign of weakness but of alertness and flexibility.

Design processes are like many other projects: an iterative loop of testing, feedback, and tweaking. Image: shutterstock, 3rdtimeluckystudio
Design processes are like many other projects: an iterative loop of testing, feedback, and tweaking. Image: shutterstock, 3rdtimeluckystudio

4. Long-Term Thinking

Positioning a company on the market, for example through strategic communication or visual branding, can’t be done in a day: “It is a process because over the years, companies, industries, target groups, and social contexts are subject to change. This also means that one has to keep working on the way how to communicate and present a company to the market,” Stöttinger says. For this reason, designers think in the short, medium, and long term, and, as a result, the entrepreneurial value of a design is sometimes clear right away and sometimes only after quite a while.

Management tip: The pace and performance-driven ways of today’s world of work compel us to look for a quick fix. Frequently, money invested in a design solution in a given quarter must have created a positive impact in the following quarter for the project to be continued. In reality, it would make much more sense to think in longer cycles as it is an inherent quality of design that it fully reveals its benefits only after a while.

5. The Key to Success: a Design Mindset in the C-Level Suite

Both the Design Value Index of the Design Management Institute and the McKinsey survey based on it have shown that design-centered companies outperform the S&P 500 by about 200%. Some of these companies have a Chief Design Officer (CDO) in their management suite. And for a good reason, as Roth points out: “Apple products are all about design because it is part of the company’s DNA. Design is not an add-on that pops up late in the product development process; it is at the core of all considerations right from the start. The potential added value of design can only be fully utilized if such a design-conscious mindset is solidly anchored in a company’s corporate culture. The importance assigned to design in a company is defined by two important factors:

  • First, expectations regarding design. If they are high, design will often play a role. If they are low, design will hardly ever get a chance to do what it is able to.
  • And second, an understanding of design as a task or as an investment. This is, at its core, a question of mindset: do we regard design and everything that comes with it as a cost-incurring chore to be completed or do we view it as a long-term investment with a potential ROI over many years?

Management tip: If a company has little design awareness, design decisions become particularly difficult to implement in middle management because both the levels above and the ones below fail to see the benefits. In such a case, it can help to form alliances. It’s often wise to find supporters for an idea across departments before it is presented to a decision-maker. The collaborative approach in design development can serve as an inspiration here. Design projects often involve cross-functional teams and experts from different fields, who contribute a varied skillset. At the end of the day, it’s often a team’s diversity and broad range of approaches that make it successful.

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