Thoughts on the Design Management Institute's 2009 Conference "Re-Thinking Design"

Last week I attended the Design Management Institute’s 2009 Design/Management/Brand Conference, titled “Re-Thinking Design”. It was my first DMI conference, and I was initially attracted by the “strategic conversations” focus of the conference, being organized by Roger Martin of the Rotman School at U. Toronto and Darrel Rhea of Cheskin Added Value. Adding to the attraction was a panel that would feature Jeanne Liedtka, a strategy professor at U. VA’s Darden School of Business, and Tony Golsby-Smith, my former boss at 2nd Road in Sydney. All these people have been really crucial to the evolution of my thinking and practice of design over that past 5 years or so, so even though I’m not usually much of a conference maven, I realized that it might be pretty fun to be where these people were gathering in the same room.

The organizers chose a different format from the typical parade of slideshows. Instead, the speakers were invited to participate in panel discussions (only two speakers gave slide presentations). DMI President Tom Lockwood described it as “thoughtful conversations with thoughtful people—a process of rethinking design live”. Overall, this format gave a pleasant informality to the proceedings, but I have to admit that at times it had a bit less structure and depth than I might have liked.

I totally agree that no one likes to sit through hours of narrated slide presentations that usually amount to the latest version of a presentation that the speaker is using to promote their business or book. But I do like conferences that force their speakers to put themselves out there a bit, with a bold argument or a new concept. We did get some of this, as Robert Brunner of Ammunition LLC put forward a new business model for design, which involves doing away with clients. Or rather, becoming your own client. Also, Tony Golsby-Smith invited all of us to take thinking more seriously and promoted language as the skillset designers need to master if they want to be able to influence the big problems.

There was a strong representation from the business world as well as design leaders, but many of the attendees were designers who worked in large corporations. I would have liked to see some stronger representation from some of the design schools, too. On the whole, the range of topics was varied, and spoke to the different types of audience members—designers, managers, leaders, and consultants. I wear many of those hats, and I knew it would be a lot of “preaching to the choir” for me. I guess my biggest criticism was that I didn’t feel like the conference challenged my thinking significantly. But it does seem like professional conferences like this are more about finding common ground and sharing experiences in a convivial environment.

The running commentary by the moderators was what really held the sessions together and I appreciated their efforts to reflect on the proceedings as we went along.

On the first day of the conference, Roger Martin noted how enthusiastically business was beginning to embrace design. Darryl Rhea later suggested that the reverse was not necessarily true of design; that designers were generally too cowed by business matters; that design is afraid that it doesn’t know enough about the world of MBAs to make an impact and lets that fear of the unknown keep us out of the conversation. Designers always talk a lot about wanting to have a seat at the table. But I think Rhea’s point is that we don’t get to that table by sitting back and waiting to be asked. (Jeanne Liedtka noted, conversely, that the “table” is overrated, and that a lot of the truly important stuff happens out in the organization.) Several speakers over both days echoed the claim that we have a responsibility to learn the language of business, the language of our clients, of those we are collaborating with.

Rhea noted on Day 2 that one of the conference attendees had asked him “Why is it that the CEO from the accounting products company was more persuasive, more passionate about design—more articulate about design—than the heads of IDEO, Ziba and Adaptive Path?” I agree with that observation. I’m not sure why that was. Perhaps designers feel that they are going into alien territory when it comes to strategy, and so they adopt an unconsciously defensive or wary stance, rather than one of confidence and optimism. In any case, many of the design voices I heard over the two days were both cautious and cynical about design’s opportunity space in the business strategy world. But then, perhaps we designers don’t have the best perspective on design, because we don’t always have the opportunity to pull back and look at the impact and potential of our work from an organizational or societal perspective. We only see ourselves at ground level, where we are making and doing, and we may feel compelled to microscope, rather than telescope, the context of our work.

More thoughts on the conference can be read on the post "Some Highlights from the DMI Re-Thinking Design Conference".