Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco

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The Subtle Art of Being a Designer at a Massive Company

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco
The Subtle Art of Being a Designer at a Massive Company
Published March 16, 2013 by Sean Blanda

Consumer-facing web apps and Kickstarter-backed manufacturing projects garner attention but there’s an entire sector of the creative economy that is too-often ignored when discussing the creative process.

Some of the most adventurous and daring acts of creativity happen as the result of a combined effort from massive global teams in huge companies. To be able to push creative ideas through layers of bureaucracy, internal politics, and across national borders is a skill in itself, and it’s what Eric Quint spends every waking hour of his working life thinking about.

Quint is an under-the-radar man at an under-the-radar company. The Netherlands-native is the Chief Design Officer of 3M, the 90,000-person company based in Minnesota that is known by most as the creator of the Post-It Note and Scotch Tape. But the sprawling conglomerate that cuts across health care, electronics, aerospace, and much more has been just that: sprawling. Quint’s mission? To make design part of 3M’s DNA rather than just another part of the process.  

We spoke with Quint about how to best navigate your career path through a large company and how design is recreating 3M.


Q. How does a company as massive as 3M even have a single “design process?”

A. I’m not designing products, I’m enabling an organization to design products. In order to do that, I needed to put fundamentals in place first. I needed to make sure we design our design processes well enough to integrate with all the other processes in the company.

The Chief Design Officer’s role is to design the function of design. To execute design on an enterprise level, you have to think like a CTO or a CMO and look at the business groups in each country and think of structures that support each one. It’s no different approach than HR or Marketing.

Q. Easier said than done. How did you tackle that?

A. To start, we made sure we had a description of the terminology of design that everyone in the company could understand. We let the rest of the business know how we are complimentary to them. I provided HR with a description of all of the titles, all of the descriptions, all of the roles in design, so designers know what their career is about and so the rest of the organization knows our role in respect to engineering and marketing.

Next, we needed to educate. I am continuously educating the organization about design, upward and downward. If people don’t have appreciation for design, is it because they don’t appreciate design? Or because they don’t know what design is about? I give as much internal keynotes as external keynotes to make sure we are connecting and explaining our role well.

Q. How do you communicate design internally and make that case to those who’d rather do things as they always have done them?

A. Show and don’t tell. There are different mechanisms to use depending on the size of the resistance but each requires you to remember that design is in the role of stretching, and this is the nature of your job.

For example, to show the impact of great design, we created an entirely new corporate brand identity. That’s a huge initiative with a big impact and it touches everything. Something like this shows the rest of the company what is possible.

With the identity, we made our point by making the opportunity very visual. We did a brand evaluation, and demonstrated that there was lot of chances to communicate our consistency as a company through design.

I made a book for all of the leaders to make the reasons we need to make this tangible and visual. And the advantages were clear. As soon as I presented them with the book the conversation moved from not “why” we should do it, but “how” we should do it.

Q. How do you remain patient and cooperative when getting approval for something like that?

A. One of the key elements of designers is that they have empathy to translate customer needs into great products. If design leadership would use a bit more of that empathy to connect better with other functions in the company, design would be much more successful.  

But you must manage this in a humble but strong way. Respect the culture of the organization and the experience of everyone. So this project was in collaboration not opposition with the senior leaders. We became partners in crime, so we share the pain and we share the glory.

That comes with resistance, and it brings people out of their comfort zone. The result of the new identity is that Interbrand said our brand went up in value by $1 billion last year. Everyone shared in that success.

“If design leadership would use a bit more of that empathy to connect better with other functions in the company, design would be much more successful.”

Q. How did you make the transition from designer to executive? And why?

A. If you are in a leadership role, you can better amplify your good ideas. For my first five years, I realized being product designer, you can have great ideas. But you need to be a great influencer to get your products actually made.

One year into my first leadership role, my boss told me that if I generate enough worthwhile ideas I could have a designer on my team. Then that turned into five designers. In a leadership role, your influence is just on a different magnitude and going through my career I realized I was missing that business acumen, so I sought it out in Phillips while there. And I learned how to put design in the context of business.

I think designers go wrong nowadays and translate this into talking figures. You need to talk inspiration and vision. I have learned that it makes sense to connect to business by speaking their language. If I start to talk about the radius and color of a product to show the business importance, that wont be very successful. But if I’m showing and talking how we can differentiate in relation to competition and how we can create a unique position, that will resonate.

Q. What is your advice for a designer who wants to follow a similar path as your own?

A. My advice is to explore as much as you can in your company. Different organizations have different opportunities. Before I worked at Phillips and 3M I worked in small, medium, and large organizations. I worked in lab environments. I explored different organization types to understand what would fit me in that moment in time best.

Design works best when you work with other departments. And the best way to do that is to understand the language of your colleagues. I’m not saying you should do what they are doing. I’m a big fan of being “T-shaped” of having an expertise in one or two specific areas, but being able to speak the language of the other competences in the room. I taught myself to learn about these different areas so I can bridge and understand all functions of different departments.

“I realized being product designer, you can have great ideas. But you need to be a great influencer to get your products actually made.”

Q. Is that “T-shape” what you look for when hiring designers?

A. There’s a misstep happening in education right now. Students are very focused on a single competence. But even having that developed, you still have a long way to explore to be a leader and an internal influencer. It’s about exposing yourself to all kinds of different situations to find your sweet spot. And that involves a lot of disappointment. I always tell younger designers to go and explore and fail. If you fail you are either motivated to work harder or you come to the conclusion that that area isn’t your piece of cake.

When hiring young designers I look at their talent, their portfolio, and their personality to make sure it all fits. Then there’s space for them to start here. The designers with more experience you expect them to bring some of that leadership ability and more diverse experiences. There is so much opportunity here because we are just starting to build this out, there’s a lot of room for young designers to explore all areas of design: UX, product, packaging, and so on.

Q. Tell me about the workspace you’re building. What are you doing to make sure it’s the best possible space for designers?

A. It’s the market square of the design village. The principal owners of a project can come together but so can other groups for spontaneous discussion. It’s important that we cross-fertilize across teams, it’s in that spontaneity that great ideas come from.

I wanted to give it a “living room” feel. You create that feel at home people will feel at ease and much more able to open up creativity. The other important aspect was flexibility. I see so many spaces where you design it and its already obsolete by the time the space is finally occupied. It’s not designed around an organizational structure it’s designed around the function of design.

I also wanted to make sure that the lightening and materials were the materials we use and make as a company so it’s a bit of a demonstrator. For example, we use our light-refracting films that we manufacture to create visual patterns and effects in the glass panels. We actually used layers of the films when most people only use one, so it’s a bit of a demonstrator of a creative way to use the material that we make.

Q. Which company’s design process do you respect? Which bigger company is doing it right?

A. I like smaller agencies that are working in niches. They are very often exploring new territories that we haven’t had the time to. In terms of a larger enterprise. I come from Phillips and they have a 90-year history of having design function in their company.

Those companies where design is at the heart, where if you start a discussion on a new initiative, design is at the table – those are my favorites. Where design is a competence and respected as a strategic partner. The reason I’m at 3M is that there is huge potential to get us in that conversation.

Editor’s note: This interview is condensed and edited from several conversations.

More about Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

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