I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker for a University of Notre Dame BFA capstone class last September. I talked about my career as a working designer, how I got there, and the kind of work I do, followed by some Q&A. I think the most interesting questions that sparked some really intriguing dialogue can be summed up like this:

“What can I do as a designer to stand out?”

My answer….you should study business.

Let’s face it, the design market is oversaturated. Not only is it oversaturated, but there are some incredibly talented designers and agencies out there. While being a master of your craft is absolutely paramount, it’s also a given. What will set you ahead of the pack is learning business.

They don’t teach it in design school, and this is problematic.

While I enjoyed my time in design school and it was a great opportunity to really hone my craft through critique and learning from some really great designers, I learned very little about business fundamentals (outside of some electives I took). This is insane to me. Most designers will be working directly in some capacity with business owners, entrepreneurs, and those with very specific business-related goals. How are you going to help your clients achieve these goals without some foundation in business? How will you communicate with them in a way that resonates? Good craftsmanship isn’t enough here. It’s on you to learn this stuff. This brings me to my next point.

The people you interact with on projects are not designers.

As stated, you are typically working with business owners, entrepreneurs, and people trying to achieve specific business goals. From your actual client to the account manager at your agency, to the CEO at your company. They probably didn’t go to design school and they most likely have limited knowledge in the design space. That’s why they hired you. Watch their eyes glaze over as you talk about color harmonies, production techniques, and typography. What they do care about is achieving their business goals. How is the work you’re doing for them going to bring in more revenue or bring more awareness? How is it going to communicate who their company is to potential customers? How are you, a designer, going to tackle the challenges of a CEO head on through design? You know the value of design, but you need to be able to articulate it to your audience of non-designers. Learn the language and connect the dots between business problems and how design can solve them.

Design as a strategic function. Not the aesthetic preferences of one person.

This is probably my personal number one reason to study business as a designer. It has had the most impact on how I design, lead my team and steer my client engagements. Simply put, design is too subjective. Everyone, including the designer, has personal aesthetic preferences. When personal preference is injected into a design solution, it can be to the detriment of business goals. As an example, your (or your client’s) personal aesthetic preferences may not speak to the audience you’re trying to reach. In fact, they can even repel that audience. By tying design choices to objective business goals, you are moving design from a very “in the clouds” function, into a strategic one.

You deliver maximum value to your clients.

Nothing makes my job more fulfilling than to provide the most value as I can to a client. When design intermingles with business, designers are moved from service providers to trusted partners. Design becomes less esoteric to non-designers and the positive impacts of good strategic design can be seen by stakeholders when you marry the two. Here at Vala, all of our processes begin with learning about a client’s business and it’s challenges. Providing strategic design to help meet business goals is what provides our clients with utmost value.

Here are a couple book recommendations that helped me bridge the gap between business and design:

Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors

Creative Strategy and the Business of Design

The Brand Gap

 

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