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Rotman’s Dean Martin Wrong on Business and Design

A couple months back Dean Martin (that cracks me up) of the Rotman School at the U of T wrote a piece  on the Creative Class blog titled Creativity that goes deep.

The following might seem a little nitpicky. But its important to remember, this is a guy who runs a business school that claims to be one of the world’s best. This is a guy who positions himself as an expert in matters of business and design. This is a guy the government turns to for policy answers.  With experts like this its no wonder the world finds itself in the mess its in.

Now, on with the rant…

My first disagreement is a bit of a quibble. The claim that the topic of design is “hot as a pistol” demonstrates a certain out-of-touchenss. Yes it was hot back in 2005 with the hyperbole of folks like Tom Peters and BusinessWeek’s Bruce Nussbaum. But that was the peak, and its pretty moldy now.

(update: Ha! This article really was written back in 2005 for Business Week. I knew it had a nasty passed-the-sell-by-date smell. But it is telling that the author considers this piece still relevant enough to serve it up again).

My second disagreement is with the claim that design as a practice and design firms as a manifestation of that practice are so unique, and so radically different from standard corporate operations, that a corporation must undergo a radical and fundamental change to include design.

This claim implies 1) that there is some standard way corporations operate, 2) that design firms operate different from this standard, and 3) these two different ways are incompatible.

I think all three of these implications are utterly absurd. Both corporations and design firms operate in wildly varying ways. Some design firms act more like accounting firms, and some corporations act more like frat houses. In other words there are no standards, and as a result it is impossible to claim any inherent incompatibility between such non-existent standards.

My third disagreement is with the characterization of corporate workflow consisting of static permanent roles, and of design firm workflow consisting of projects with defined terms. I’m not sure how these are incompatible as the article suggests, but let’s assume they are.

Just as corporations have directors, AVPs, VPs, so many design firms have traffic managers, art directors, creative directors, account managers, etc. Each role has well circumscribes responsibilities, and exists in a hierarchical relation to each other. Sure not all design firms have these roles, but not all corporations have AVPs either.

And yes design firm operations are centered on projects. But so are corporate ops (hence the corporate ubiquity of project managers and program managers). Indeed the internal flow of capital within many corporations is usually tied to projects, with team members billing their time against specific project budget codes—projects with start dates, end dates, resources and budgets. My experience working in big corporate America is that outside of manufacturing and customer support, nearly everything is project based.

So the author’s characterization of the organization and activities of both corporate and design firms is so wrong that I have to wonder if he has any first-hand experience working within either corporations or design firms.

My fourth disagreement is with the implication that corporations *should* change to be more like design firms. Corporate America may be full of dyfunction, but anyone who has worked in a design firm can tell you the design is every bit as dysfunctional–and two dysfunctions don’t fix the problem.

And lastly, mentioning Apple or the iPod as an example of anything in the context of business or design is a giant red flag that the author knows very little about both business and design.

So what’s my point here?  Well my point is to show how so many ”experts” are little more than sophisticated bullshit artists.  Just because someone is a b-school Dean, or a published author, doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about. 

Be critical folks, and don’t get conned.

11 Responses to “Rotman’s Dean Martin Wrong on Business and Design”

  1. Gong Szeto Says:

    bravo. that’s all i can say. here’s something i wrote recently, loosely related:

    my favorite passage here: Corporate America may be full of dyfunction, but anyone who has worked in a design firm can tell you the design is every bit as dysfunctional–and two dysfunctions don’t fix the problem.

    isn’t “the blind leading the blind” a bad thing?

  2. niblettes Says:

    Well, it seems we’re living in world where we turn to the people who cause a problem for a solution to the problem (the fed and the treasury are two very current examples).

    Its so disheartening how easily sophists and con-artists are able to ply their trade.

  3. Gong Szeto Says:

    and you wonder why the phrases “consumer confidence”, “confidence in the economy”, “confidence in the banking system”, “confidence in government”, and so on…isn’t a fabulous irony – for true mass consensus to occur to validate the existence and decisions of the powers that be, requires us to be confident in, to believe in, to trust in. a confidence-artist, as you say, is someone who traffics in creating this unwitting trust as a foil to agenda in a parallel universe. con-game, yes.

    i actually think a “crisis of confidence” as we are experiencing now is a very very good thing. but it takes voices like yours spoken very very loudly to offer something other than despair to the average person in present circumstances. that alternative is, well, truth.

  4. niti bhan Says:

    tsk… come now, i’ve mentioned ipod and design adn business… oh wait that was a blog post in 2005

  5. niblettes Says:

    Hey niti!

    Now, I’m sure you can think of many other, more illustrative examples of good business/design… something mobile perhaps?

  6. niti bhan Says:

    *grins* welcome back hisnibs ;p the blogworld was uninspiring somehow without the curmudgeon ;p

  7. niblettes Says:

    Ha! I’m not just “a” curmudgeon, I’m “the” curmudgeon. Thanks niti!

  8. niblettes Says:


    I would take the word “confidence” a step further and say “faith” — we are expected have almost religious unquestioning faith in our systems, institutions and decision makers.

    It seems however that such faith has dire consequences and is no substitute for critical engagement.

  9. niti bhan Says:

    aka applied critical reasoning vs religion as opium etc

  10. Designguy Says:

    Lol, this blog is sh1t

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