Tl;dr: skills or expertise alone don’t guarantee a great business outcome. You also need to know where to apply them.
I was listening to an episode of Marketing for Owners podcast recently, and one idea stopped me in my tracks.
Kate Cook, a nutrition specialist, leads a consulting company focused on the benefits of nutrition. As part of her practice, she audits work environments from the nutritional health perspective, setting up educational programs and/or planning meals. Improving something like the food employees eat may seem like a nice-to-have and might often be treated casually. However, there is a different approach.
Kate is often asked to go to a company and has done so under health and safety rather than employee wellness. That’s because you’re far more likely to have a manual handling accident if your blood sugar levels are not balanced. And that happens as a result of coming to work without breakfast and drinking energy drinks.
The idea that struck me was this: the fact that Kate’s work is classified under Health & Safety can allow her to make a much bigger impact. This is because the business can clearly see value in preventing accidents and improving safety. Accidents cause suffering, can stop work, increase insurance premiums, etc. etc..
If the same specialist’s work is classified under “human resources” instead, the impact can be limited by the scope and budget of that department. Human Resources deals with important issues, of course – but nutritional advice filed under HR could be interpreted as optional. The problem to be solved here is comfort, pleasure, and perhaps health. But without a clear connection to known important business goals (like health and safety) there will not be enough room in the budget to create an impactful nutritional program.
It’s not just what you do—it’s where you do it.
My takeaway from listening to the podcast is this: the impact of my work is never defined by my skill or expertise alone. The impact of my work will be limited or multiplied by how it’s classified - what type of business problem I am solving, in the client’s eyes?
Just like categorizing a nutrition program as “Optional” vs. “Safety”, you could think of design as something optional, or as something essential. You’ll get different results depending on your approach.
You can expect better results if you have the opportunity to define not just the solution, but also the problem and where that problem belongs in the bigger picture of a business. A thoughtful, structured approach of a discovery frames both the problem and a proposed solution against a set of assumptions and constraints.
When we bring in design after the problem has been fully defined, or even once it’s been partially solved, we reduce the potential impact. With a limited impact (for example, if we treat design as aesthetic-only) we can only justify a respectively smaller effort.
What this means for designers
As a practitioner, I know this understanding comes with experience. It took several years to see how much the impact of design work depends on the “category” it’s been assigned by a client. You can be the best designer, but if there’s a limited field to work in, you can only do so much. This can feel frustrating at times, but a good understanding of where you stand can help propose a right-size project instead of wasting time on an unnecessarily ambitious proposal, or under-estimating the impact your work can truly have.
What this means for business owners
For folks who are considering hiring design to solve a problem, it’s important to consider two things. One – the earlier you bring in design thinking - the larger potential impact it can have. Bring designers in at the planning stages to help define big wins for a project. And two – when you do collaborate with designers, at any stage, be honest about what “category” the project falls into within your business. You’ll support the design team’s ability to think at the right level, right away, and get better answers to your questions around scope, time, and scale.