Design Management: focusing on the essential

As a new year gets started, it’s a great time to remind yourself of the road ahead and the destination you’re working toward. Design projects and design agencies can lose their way in the day-to-day details, particularly when we are busy and more easily distracted. Priorities can shift and become confused. Energy and motivation can lapse as everything gets stretched.

Given that life and work are increasingly complex, it is no surprise that ‘simplicity’ has become a major theme that offers us solutions for managing our business more successfully and living our lives with more meaning. You can find numerous books on the subject and one that I read recently was the New York Times bestseller by Greg McKeown ‘Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’. One thing I found particularly interesting was that, despite being a ‘business book’ aimed at executives, McKeown makes a number of references to practices at Stanford University’s d.School and the design principles of Dieter Rams and Paul Rand.

It isn’t a surprise that designers are referenced when simplicity is the subject. “Less is more” is a well-known design adage. It was architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (admirer of the Dutch De Stijl and Russian Constructivism movements) who famously adopted this motto to describe his aesthetic approach of arranging the necessary components of a building to create extreme simplicity. But Mies is not alone. Buckminster Fuller’s design philosophy was "doing more with less", which reflected his commitment to the potential of innovative design to create technology that improved human lives. And industrial designer Dieter Rams explained his design approach in the phrase "Weniger, aber besser" which translates as "Less, but better". He referred to this in his ‘ten principles for good design’. Number ten in that list is: “Good design… is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.”

Given how designers understand the important role of simplicity in good design, I do get surprised by how chaotic and cluttered design projects can become. Somewhere along the line, the pursuit of simplicity in creating a piece of design can become an absence of the same principles when running projects, managing client relationships or growing a design business. So here are seven summary points about essentialism from Greg McKeown’s book that for me connect very well to practicing good design management, in a business or as a design agency. If you haven’t already had a chance to reflect on your projects and plans for the year ahead, I would recommend these as a place to start: 

  1. Prioritise: Where is the sense of purpose? Where is the uniqueness in your offer? Focus on the most interesting and what can be done best. Have criteria. Make them selective and explicit and make sure they are right. Where is your highest level of contribution?
  2. Know you have choices: choose how to spend your energy and time. Very few things are really essential. Figure out what is important and make the trade-offs: we can’t do it all. Exercise your power of choice. If we surrender it, we become helpless.
  3. Explore your options: work out what is essential before you commit. Explore the options so you can choose the right one. Know what is a good opportunity. 1) What are you deeply inspired by? 2) What are you talented at? 3) What meets a significant need in the world?
  4. Eliminate: It takes courage, compassion and emotional discipline to say “no”. Saying no is a leadership capability and is a mark of professionalism. Learn how to say it. Push back on meaningless meetings or unimportant projects. Make ‘no’ part of your repertoire.
  5. Be systematic: Make conscious effort to organise, with a disciplined approach. Otherwise clutter piles up. Create space to breathe and think. Stop celebrating being busy and stop pursuing ‘more’. Find the things that are truly vital and most productive.
  6. Remove distractions: We need space to escape and think about what is essential. Focus is something that we must do, so create environments that help. Schedule time to think. Practice habits to concentrate.
  7. Play: Play has the power to improve everything. Play sparks exploration, flexibility and creativity. It is the truest expression of our humanity. It helps us see possibilities, make new connections and challenge assumptions. Play is an antidote to stress.