NUMBERS AND BULLET POINTS AREN’T THE ONLY THINGS DRIVING EXECUTIVE DECISION MAKING. AND PRETTY PICTURES WON’T GET YOU THERE EITHER. BOTH DESIGNERS AND MBAS HAVE A LOT TO LEARN.
This year marks the third anniversary of the Rotman Design Challenge. It started out as a commendable experiment by the school’s Business Design Club to expose MBAs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to the value of design methods in business problem solving. This year, the competition drew teams from a few other MBA schools and some of the best design schools in North America. As a final-round judge, I had a front-row seat to the five best solutions to the competition’s challenge: To help TD Bank foster lifelong customer relationships with students and recent graduates while encouraging healthy financial behaviors.
Both this year and last--the two years that Rotman invited other schools to participate--business school students were slaughtered by the design school students. Of the 12 Rotman teams this year, not one of them made the final round. And while only seven of the 23 competing teams were from design schools (including California College of Arts, Ontario College of Art and Design, and the University of Cincinnati), design teams scooped the top three places in the competition, doing significantly better than their MBA counterparts. So what does this tell us?
It might tell us that MBAs significantly underestimate the skill and expertise a designer brings to the table. After all, about 80 MBA students volunteered their evenings and weekends, believing they had a chance of winning a design competition with minimal, if any, design training. Would you go toe-to-toe with even a purple belt in jiu jitsu having never taken a lesson? While the typical design-school competitor has (at the least) studied the design process in depth for several semesters and practiced it in co-ops and internships, for many MBA students, this was their very first exposure to the discipline. So while we should applaud the organizers’ efforts to open MBA eyes to the importance and value of design in solving business problems, it seems that even its most forward-thinking students may not have fully digested that design is a serious pursuit that requires serious training.
The competition outcome might also tell us that designers have reason to be encouraged. With only 15 minutes to convince a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today, they fared significantly better than their MBA counterparts. Why? Because they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making.
Finally, it tells us that we still have a long way to go to develop business professionals who both appreciate and can engage the tools of design effectively. Rotman gets kudos for taking a step in the right direction. But a few workshops and an extracurricular competition won’t produce business leaders with real design-thinking skills. Business education must be completely redefined to include the best, most appropriate principles of design in every curriculum. Marketing classes should teach a deep reverence for the user in context and the power of observational research methods. Finance classes should teach the art of storytelling and information design. Strategy classes should teach systems thinking and synthesis. If the goal is to create great "hybrid thinkers" who will have real impact, design should not be tacked on to existing business education but infused throughout it.
I’m not letting design schools off the hook either. While design students fared much better than their MBA counterparts that Saturday afternoon, I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.
And I was less than impressed with the business-thinking skills of designers the following Monday morning, when I interviewed 10 of them at the Institute of Design in Chicago for jobs at Doblin. To most candidates, I asked of the ideas they presented in their portfolios, “But how does it make money? Who will pay for that? How much would you need to sell to be profitable?” and was met with far too many blank expressions when I did so. Design schools have a long way to go to integrate good business thinking into their programs. In order to make their value known to the world, designers need to speak the language of business--that’s where great ideas get funded and developed. Design education needs as much of an overhaul as business education if we are to benefit from the talents of design thinkers in the business world.
I hope that we see meaningful reinvention of both design and business education so that the business world can realize the true value of design thinking. Until that happens, Rotman’s Business Design Club would be wise to require challenge teams to comprise both designers and MBAs. At least it would level the playing field, and it may improve the educational experience for both--assuming each can decipher what the other is saying.
COMMENTARY: I could've predicted that a designer would win a product design contest over an MBA, no matter what school he or she attended. You're talking about two different brain types--Type A (serious business, marketing, lawyers) versus Type B (creative types like musicians, artists, engineers and designers).
I agree that combining elements of design into a graduate business program would be a great idea. It would certainly open the graduate student in business, finance and marketing to the importance of good design in designing products, attracting the consumer and being able to compete in the marketplace.
Graduate programs would certainly be more interesting than just debits and credits, and boring case studies. Design is very important whether you are marketing a line of fashion apparel, accessories, or mobile devices like smartphones or tablet computers.
I don't think you need too much proof to convince people that good design wins over the consumer. Apple has clearly demonstrated that simple, elegant and well engineered products increase perceived value and win over consumers, and that they are willing to pay premium prices.
I spent several years in the advertising agency business, and having worked in such a creative environment, learned the importance of design and creativity from an advertising perspective. Even an inferior product can be made to look and sound good, and from a marketing perspective this is very important in communicating with your marketplace.
According to the Rotman School of Management, a team from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) emerged as the winner of the 2012 Rotman Design Challenge. The competition was held at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School on Management on March 24, 2011. The IIT team narrowly edged out a team from OCAD University who won the competition in 2011.
Teams from the Darden School of Business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NYU Stern, California College of the Arts, Illinois Institute of Technology, OCAD University, the Rotman School and UofT’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design presented their ideas on developing concepts and products which will shape students’ financial behavior that will lead to a more sustainable and economically viable adult life.
Here are the Top 3:
- Winner - Team Beta (Lauren Braun, John Shin, Helen Wills, Jorge Angarita, and Janice Wong) from Illinois Institute of Technology won the competition with their TD Stacks engagement model.
- 2nd Place - The A-Team, (Jen Chow, Josina Vink, Jessica Mills, Martin Ryan, and Phouphet Sihavong), from OCADU, last year winners of the Rotman Design Challenge, placed second with their TD Table Talk platform.
- 3rd Place - FabFore, (Ben McCammon, Uma Maharaj, Eric Leo Blais, and Ana Matic), also from OCADU placed third with TD BranchOut.
Martin Ryan of The A-Team said.
“Competitions like the Rotman Design Challenge are vital to the future of graduate education in business and design. They are the closest students get to real life experimentation with the evolving mindsets and toolsets of innovation, and how they can be best put into practice to deliver both human and business value.“
This was the first year participants, visitors and judges were also able to cast their vote as part of the people’s choice awards for:
- The Best Story, won by OCADU’s FabFore.
- Most Fun Presentation award to Team Beta from IIT.
- Most Disruptive Idea won by OCADU’s The A-Team.
Lauren Braun speaking on behalf of the Beta team said.
“We're so grateful to have been part of the event this year. The chance to compete against such a diverse group of schools was both challenging and rewarding. The exposure to different perspectives and problem-solving methods left a lasting impression.”
Plans are already underway for the next Rotman Design Challenge as it continues to develop as one of the premier international venue for sharing best business design practices and solving wicked problems.
Josina Vink of The A-Team said.
“There is so much we can gain from sharing our unique approaches to thinking through these sorts of complex challenges.”
TD Bank Group was the lead sponsor of the 2012 Rotman Design Challenge
The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is redesigning business education for the 21st century with a curriculum based on Integrative Thinking. Located in the world’s most diverse city, the Rotman School fosters a new way to think that enables the design of creative business solutions. The School is currently raising $200 million to ensure Canada has the world-class business school it deserves. For more information, visit http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca.