What is design’s role in business? For years, designers have advocated for more decision-making power at companies, with the goal of building humanistic products that serve users instead of corporate interests or technological advancement alone.
But design luminary John Maeda proposes that the idea–one he has previously advocated for–is flawed. “I have friends at all the companies and I kept hearing about ‘design-led’ and all that and it got me excited. I was pushing for it,” he says. “Years later now, I’m in a phase where I realize that [advocacy] was really important, but in reality, design is not that important.”
Hold on. What?
Maeda, who is the head of inclusion and computational design at WordPress parent company Automattic, thinks that design should play a secondary role in tech companies rather than a leadership role. In Maeda’s annual Design in Tech report, he says the design should be like a supporting actor or actress to the leading characters in a tech company–developers and product managers. When companies become design-led, he believes, designers are saying “get out of the way, I’m the boss.” The forceful “I’m the boss” mentality combines with design’s tendency to become what he calls a “microworld of aesthetic high-fives”: in which designers have an invisible language about what good design looks like based on a history and experience that they tend to privilege, and this understanding that designers together at the exclusion of others. Maeda thinks these two elements end up alienating other disciplines when everyone should be working together.
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