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How Designers Get a Seat at the CEO Table

How Designers Get a Seat at the CEO Table
Published October 23, 2014 by Dave Benton
Christopher Simmons’ voice can be heard loud and clear throughout the global world of design. As a leading advocate for the role of design in society and the belief that designers have a place in influencing change, he has helped shape the way many people view the both design thinking and the design craft today. As a proponent for design Christopher is well known for his role in founding San Francisco Design Week.

Simmons’ own life and career can be characterized by a desire to spread this ethos to others. As the author of four books, creator of San Francisco Design Week, AIGA national board member, and former professor, he takes advantage of a variety of platforms to use as his soapbox. Impressively, none of this has slowed down his own commitment to the craft as he runs the successful San Francisco based design studio, MINE, and has several pieces of his work displayed at prestigious design museums around the world.

We sat down with Christopher to talk entrepreneurship, his life mission, and the most valuable lesson he has ever learned. 

Is design about solving problems in society today?

I’m not sure that it’s always just about solving problems. Before you solve the problem, you have to identify what the problem is, and traditionally designers have relied on clients to define the problem. For example, a client will come to you and say, “We want more awareness for our product, and we want a campaign.” Or, “We need some tools to support our business development team, and we need a brochure.” So not only are they defining what the problem is, but also the vehicle to solve that problem. But more and more I think businesses and associations are cognizant of the fact that design thinking is a method of inquiry that can lead to the identification of the problem. Design thinking can be incredibly useful for that.

Christopher Simmons
Christopher Simmons

Where does your firm, MINE, sit on that spectrum?

MINE is interested in any project that presents a significant challenge, somewhere where we can really make a difference. The opportunity lies in making things more meaningful and effective and when we get the chance to have an effect on an organization at that level, that’s the Holy Grail for us.

For example, we’ve been doing a lot of work with restaurants lately and one of the things I love about it is that not only from a craft point of view do we get to do a little bit of everything (the website, the menu, the interior decors, signage, naming, basically every aspect of the discipline…), but we also sat down with a group last week and helped them come up with the concept for the restaurant. So we are sitting there as designers saying, “Things like this should be on your menu.”  If you told me in design school that that would be part of my job, I would have no idea what the f*ck you were talking about.

It seems your ideal is: “We are able to work through big problems using the craft of design and design thinking to create a solution for clients.”

Absolutely. I don’t think the problem necessarily has to be big either. Take the restaurant example. A couple of new restaurants open up every week and a couple close. The ones that open do so with grand ambitions and the ones that close do so because they failed to connect with an audience for some reason—that can be location, quality of service etc. 

But one of the factors is definitely how it connects with people, and the difference between opening a sandwich shop or opening a restaurant like Bun Mee, which is one of our clients where design is very forward in the presentation of the restaurant, is that it captures people’s imagination. The food is really good, the service is good, but people would never know either of those things if they weren’t first tempted to go in. I believe that design plays a huge role in that temptation.  

Bun Mee Market Street

Above: The street view of Bun Mee, A Vietnamese restaurant designed in full by Simmons and his team.<br />Below: The interior complete with hand-painted mural.
Top: The street view of Bun Mee, A Vietnamese restaurant designed in full by Simmons and his team.
Below: The interior complete with hand-painted mural.

You have spoken extensively about design and social good, written a book about designing for social change and even have a discount for non-profits at your studio. Why did you make the effort to go down this road and become associated with design embracing social change?

I was personally very inspired by being associated with Project M which is John Bielenberg’s design intervention squad—idealistic, young creative people—and I’ve been an adviser for that for a few years now. Just seeing the work that can be done by a small group of smart working, well-intentioned people for communities or causes that otherwise weren’t getting adequate attention was a transformative experience for me, so that’s where it all started.

Do you have a personal mission that you are trying to fulfill via your studio and other design related things you are involved in?

Absolutely–I want to retire! But less flippantly, I have a mission to make sure that as many people as possible within the spheres that I influence also believe that design is important. Design as a profession and a creative outcome is the equivalent of the frescos and the public art that you used to see in ancient Rome and the equivalent of the commissions for the church that we see from the Renaissance. The visual landscape that we share now is populated by billboards and signage—all of it made by designers. A lot of it is bad design, but by virtue of the fact that it is ubiquitous, it is important.

A lot of designers want to run their own studio and it’s seen as the pinnacle of success. Is that healthy for designers to see?

I think that it was subconsciously implanted in my brain that the ultimate success for a designer was to open your own studio, mostly because many of the professors that I had in college were studio owners and they were models for me.… I also had a desire to be in charge and create, not inherit a legacy.

Is this healthy? Probably not. Let’s put it this way: I run my own studio and I am very satisfied and fulfilled by that. It goes to my nature; I have a tendency to rise to a leadership position in whatever thing I am involved with. But not everyone is destined to be a leader or wants to be, and that has to be fine too. There’s a letterpress artist in Alabama–Amos Kennedy–who said to me once that if you work for Microsoft, no-one expects you to be the CEO of Microsoft or sees you as a failure if you aren’t. If you’ve been working 10 or 15 years as a designer and haven’t made it to be creative director, or if you haven’t set up your own shop then somehow you haven’t "made it." I think that’s a really limiting expectation to place on people. At the end of the day, being successful in your career is about going to work every day, doing your job really well, coming home happy with what you did and how you did it and why you did it and who you did it for and going back the next day. 

If you haven’t set up your own shop then somehow you haven’t "made it." I think that’s a really limiting expectation to place on people. 

In your time as a studio owner what has changed in the craft or the business of design?

Everything! I’ve been doing this professionally for 18, 19 years now. A lot has changed just by virtue of technology…The rise of the social network has changed the dynamic of how design is delivered, consumed, and discussed. We all know the infamous debacles around the Tropicana packaging or the Pepsi logo or GAP logo etc. where the public has the avenues to comment and make use of them. It’s changed how we manage design – the people responsible for managing brands now have to anticipate those kinds of responses…

I honestly think that businesses now really have a genuine appreciation of design. When I was starting out this was a topic at conferences. “How do we get a seat at the table? How can designers be involved in the decision making and strategic planning of organizations?” I think we have got that now over the last decade. If anything it’s designers who are less equipped than we should be to have those conversations we’ve been asking for all this time.

What can designers do to add more value? Can designers speak the same language as their clients?

That’s part of it–speaking the same language. If we want the CEO, or COO or C anything O to appreciate the significance of choosing one voice over another and understand the things that we manipulate to make our work work for them, then we need to reciprocate and understand organizational philosophy and basic business operations. It’s not appropriate to say, “I want to tell you how to run your business, but I don’t want to understand how your business runs.”

Two years ago you were outspoken during the UC Logo crisis. What lessons do you think were learned?

I think the big lesson from the UC logo debacle is three-fold:

First there’s the lesson that they didn’t do a good job of explaining why that change was necessary and what it signified – all that people were left with was that it was different. The only tool they had to judge it was whether they liked the difference or not… There was no context and that was a mistake on the design management side. 

Left: The old UC logo. Right: The new iteration that was eventually scrapped.
Left: The old UC logo. Right: The new iteration that was eventually scrapped.

Second, the people who raised holy hell about it and then saw it change back, they realized that they had power; it demonstrated that if enough people yell loud enough and quickly enough in the same place about the same thing someone is going to take notice. 

The third thing is that now we know there is a citizen league prepared to pounce on anything new; companies realize they have to do a much better job of rolling out design. The media attention that kind of thing gets is a double-edged sword—it's great that design is getting attention, but sadly it's almost always negative.

What are the biggest issues designers are facing right now?

That’s a tough question to answer. I think broadly designers are facing a certain type of existential realization that what we used to define as design is no longer a complete enough definition.

We are faced as a profession with the choice between adapting or resisting. There are people that will successfully adapt. Designers must realize that design is more than they were taught at school or have been practicing for years and they get excited by that…and then there are people who will resist, and by resisting some of them will be successful by saying, “You know what, I can carve out this design niche with the practice that I am comfortable with and good at and be that kind of a specialist and I can see my way through to doing that for the rest of my career," and then the people who will resist because they can’t change and go in to doing something else.

Stern Grove Festival Posters, Art Directed by Simmons.
Stern Grove Festival Posters, Art Directed by Simmons.

You give lots of advice to designers. What is the best advice you have gotten?

There was a woman that I worked with– she was the senior designer and had been working there much longer than I had…Towards the end of my time there I came in one morning and there was a note on my keyboard that said, “No intern tomorrow. Please arrange for five sandwiches,” and I thought, “What the f*ck!” I was a principal of the firm, in negotiations to become a partner, and although there was no intern tomorrow there was someone who was a year out of school. 

“No intern tomorrow. Please arrange for five sandwiches," and I thought, “What the f*ck!”

I remember thinking, “Why the hell weren’t they asked to get five sandwiches?!” I really felt like I was above being asked to do tasks like that. I felt entitled. It was one of those little “while you were out” phone message notes. I kept the note for ten years as a memento of how mistreated I unjustly felt by this person, because it made me angry. I rediscovered that note the day after my 40th birthday. It was the same day that I found out that she died of cancer. I remember looking at that note and feeling so ashamed that I had kept it for such petty reasons. Now I keep it not as a momento of my anger, but as a momento of my humility. I do a lot of things. I’m capable of a lot and I’m a pretty confident person.  With that confidence also comes the realization that one of the things that I’m capable of is getting five sandwiches. Just pitch in when you have the opportunity, suck up your pride and make things work for people. So the best advice I have gotten was: “Get five sandwiches.”

More about Dave Benton

With a life mission to create exceptional experience Dave founded interactive design firm metajive in 1999. Focused on collaborating with his clients and team Dave is always looking for new opportunities to disrupt. When Dave isn’t working he’s trying to catch a few waves.

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