The Designer’s Invisible Hurdle: We’re Business Illiterate.

Photo: Digital Compositing: Laura Fish, Original Photo Source: Marion Michele via Unsplash

Photo: Digital Compositing: Laura Fish, Original Photo Source: Marion Michele via Unsplash

Acknowledging the shortcoming holding us back from success in our design careers and respective digital product work.

Quick Recap: The first article in our 3-part series, Designing from Inside the Box, set the stage. Making the case that big business and the designer are fated to move into a balanced partnership founded on mutually assured success. And you guessed it, that fateful time is now.

Here’s my argument: Big businesses are struggling with a generation of product offerings that hazily meet business objectives, vaguely address user problems and misalign with their company’s mission — collectively contributing to digital ecosystems expanding in disarray. Needless to say, big businesses are desperately in need of help. Help not just from anyone — but from us, the digital product designers.

And as practitioners of design, our main goal is to create change for the better — and the big businesses of the world have plentiful resources and the brand reach to make a massive impact. So, if the designer can elevate themselves to influence high-level enterprise decisions, the possibilities are limitless.

So, we’re ready. Ready to dive in and take full advantage.

The commitment to the corporate domain comes with a smorgasbord of obstacles for the designer to hurdle. There’s:

  • 😨 The Insecure Nature of Middle-Management

  • 🤬Excessive Red Tape

  • 😼 Catty Internal Politics

  • 🤓 That Pleated-Khaki, Corporate Squareness That’s Claustrophobic for Creativity.

  • 😩😩😩 Swarms of Negative Nancys

  • 😵 Often a Fear-of-Failure Culture

The good news is, these surface-level obstacles are more of a nuisance than road-blocks. Overcome them by forging both a resilient state of mind (namaste b*tches) and playing your cards thoughtfully.

But hear this, the most significant obstacle the designer has to overcome is invisible — like, “Bird Box” invisibleThis invisible obstacle is our lack of business literacy.

Bird Box, Netflix

Bird Box, Netflix

Here’s where our self-improvement initiative starts. Acknowledging el problemo is the first step. This is the ultimate shortcoming holding us back from success in our design careers and respective digital product work. This is ours to own, and ours to correct.

But it’s worth mentioning where the problem stems from. The problem stems from a short-sightedness in our formal higher education. (I’m looking at you, University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Today the designer’s education focuses on learning the art and digital craft, a focus on the technical skills. But once we graduate college, we can’t seem make the leap to market, i.e., understanding the businesses we’re working for. This is because designers haven’t learned any kind of business literacy that would clarify how their design work fits into the complex nature of a company’s operation.

Hence, while pixel savvy, we’re business illiterate.

This lack of business know-how keeps the professional designer at a continual disadvantage, with real-world implications. Ca$h-money implications.

Here’s what I mean: corporations are primarily business and engineering matrices, structuring the company’s hierarchical ladders, promotions, and raises around those disciplines. If you fall into the “other” category — which the designer often does — you’re at the bottom of an often confusing, fuzzy, and limiting career ladder. As is your compensation.

So, whether or not money and upward mobility is a motivator, know that a firm grasp of basic business proficiency is a must to successfully practice as a digital product designer — the ultimate shortcoming that has to be resolved if we’re to become the bridge that connects design-to-business.

For all these reasons, we need to tackle lack of business know-how head on. Move yourself outside the comforts of pixels and dive into the unfamiliar territory of everything business.

What a coincidence… a big business environment is the perfect place to learn business. Look around you. How many business school grads, expert business strategists and experienced analysts are within arm’s reach? Reach across the aisle and ask your digital business partner for help.

Humility is always a good place to start. Well, first buy them a latte and then beg for help.

Hesitant to ask your business partners for help? It’s not surprising that of the four digital product disciplines — business, design, research, and technology (alphabetically ordered, of course) — design and business have the largest gap between them and consequently the greatest discord. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Case in point: design and technology, as expected, are the closest of kin ❤. For those of us who were around back in the day, the web designer doubled as the web developer. That design-technology connection remains strong, with a scrum schedule that keeps our daily tasks closely intertwined.

Research formed a strong bond with information architecture as equally invested practitioners of UX, and then subsequently with design, as we collectively transitioned into a phase of UXD. That research-design partnership was hard earned for those of us who hadn’t yet learned to place objectivity in front of creativity. But years of working side-by-side gave us a mutual appreciation and understanding of how to effectively work together.

Lesson being, closing the gap with business will take effort, but trust, it’s totally doable. And you’re not alone. Just as the former UXD’er tackles new responsibilities as a newly minted digital product designer, your digital business partners will be in a similar spot with their own growing pains.

Now that you’ve secured reliable business tutors, where to go from here?

Enroll yourself in a homemade b-school. Download the latest business books and generously take notes. If a book’s reading level is going over your head, stop. No shame in moving down a level and restarting from there. Ask your business peeps if you can sit in on some of their all business meetings. Regular exposure to everyday business terminology will help cement the ABCs of business basics. With practice, what will develop is an ear for identifying contextual takeaways. The designer now able evaluate and execute business needs with practical design application.

Picture this. Not too far future, you’re presenting to stakeholders. Walking them through a crystal-clear case how you arrived at respective design decisions with commercially-critical business objectives top of mind. Priceless.

In future articles, I’ll highlight key design-business partnership moments. Look to “Designing from Inside the Box” callouts that offer snippets of insider advice and hints about the inner workings of big business and how they trickle down to the designer at work.

Still with me? Awesome. Stay tuned and keep fighting the good fight :)

All rights reserved © 2017, 2018, 2019 Laura Fish. The Designer’s Guide to Visioneering.

Duplicate article posted to medium publication and LinkedIn publication under the same names.

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