The Role of Design

Design is a set of tools and a process. Like all tools and processes, it can be used in the service of good or bad intentions. It can also be powerful, and so requires people to make decisions about where it is appropriate to apply design process or design thinking, and in what manner.

In our AC4D theory class, Laura Galos and I participated in a discussion about 4 readings this week around the subject of “power.” Pelle Ehn, Professor of Interaction Design at Malmo University who wrote Designing for Democracy at Work, describes this as “the degree of strength in the workers’ collective com[ing] from the ‘we-feeling’ created by shared experiences. The basis for this ‘we-feeling’ is physical nearness at the workplace – which makes interaction possible.”

In Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Schumpeter Revisited, John Hagedoorn from the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology writes about the influence Joseph Schumpeter, an economist and political scientist, had on the role entrepreneurs have in innovation. Hagedoorn quotes Schumpeter on the entrepreneurs’ loss of power by saying, “He pictures the diminishing importance of the entrepreneur who loses his/her function as the agent who changes existing routines. Economic development gradually becomes ‘depersonalized’ and ‘automatized’. Consequently, innovation is being reduced to routine.”

We also read Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education, co-authored by Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management and David Dunne, Adjunct Professor of Marketing. In this reading, Martin and Dunne make the claim that “the idea of applying design approaches to management is new and, as yet, largely underdeveloped,” but critical for the future professional power of MBA graduates. Finally, a short paper, Manipulation, by our teacher Jon Kolko, describes how the power wielded by designers can be put into check by involving the participation of others. He says, “participatory design places a heavy check on manipulation by including the people who will use or live with the design in the process of its creation.”

Each paper referred to design at a level of scale, whether it is the practice of adding design thinking broadly to MBA programs (as in the case of Martin and Dunne) or creating methods through with laborers could arrange and control their working conditions in Sweden (as in the case of Ehn). In each case, the role of a designer fits within a nebula of other roles in an organization, including management, labor, and in some cases users.

Traditional Work

Hagerdoorn, in speaking of Schumpeter’s theories, sets up a view of the traditional work organization, a top-down hierarchy with decisions flowing from management at the top to labor at the bottom. He positions the “entrepreneur” figure, a sort of proto-designer, as part-labor (but “creative labor” which is of a “higher order”), part force-of-disruption that upends market equilibrium and drives market evolution—at least temporarily. Eventually, as “innovation” becomes the norm, the designer/entrepreneur is absorbed into the management-labor balance. Generally speaking, work organization took on a simple structure:

IDSE402_Traditional for Blog

Schumpeter may be right. As “innovation” becomes the norm, designers are absorbed within the management-labor arrangement, in which case they cannot effect larger changes that really are innovative, and have less influence over whether the output of their work is beneficial or harmful. So the question is, where is the designer most effective in an organization?

Design Work

Based on the perspectives represented by each reading, we came up with this diagram to illustrate the position of the designer within an organization.

IDSE402_New for Blog


The writings of Martin and Dunne inform the left portion of the diagram. Martin believes that design thinking should become a part of any MBA training. The outcome of this may be that management also functions as the design team in an organization. However, Martin and Dunne leave out an important part of the designer’s role, which is listening to, understanding, and empathizing with users. Therefore, while designers have a reciprocal relationship with management, they must be separate and accessible to other groups of people who the designed product or service will impact. We have re-named “management” as “operations and strategy” to reflect this 2-way relationship, in which the designers are not “managed” but are partners in the organization.


Sometimes, “users” are laborers, who traditionally are positioned in opposition to management. In the reading by Pelle Ehn, designers explored the concept of democratizing the workplace. In a conscious decision to empathize with the laborers, rather than management, they established the idea that while designers must establish two-way connection with labor, they must also be outside of it. By being outside of labor, they are free to reject the “harmony view of organizations” that management puts forth to keep management in control, and conduct their research in the interest of the “emancipation” of labor.


“Users” not participating directly in a particular management-labor dichotomy are the people who use the products and services that are the result of an organization’s production. In Manipulation, Kolko writes that “design is supportive,” and “frequently serves people who cannot serve themselves.” Because designers cannot avoid inserting their bias into their designs, they can at least put checks on themselves and on other powers within an organization by engaging in participatory design, where the people who use the end products have a say in the creation and direction of the product. Therefore, designers also need to establish a two-way relationship with the people who will live with their output.

Designers as Interpreters:

In conclusion, the role of the designer within an organization must be that of a translator between each piece of an organization. They must understand and “speak” enough of the language of the thinking (strategy and operations), making (labor), and participation (users) to be able to integrate and meaningfully represent the disparate interests of each part of the organization to the other in a way that makes sense to all in order to use their influence to ensure the output of “good” products and services into the world.