Design Visionary

Design Visionary

Patrick Whitney is out to bridge the chasm between the cultures of business and design

from Business Week Online

Looking for talent? Of course you are. A titanic talent search is under way as managers scour the globe for innovators. Companies are struggling to transform themselves from cultures driven by cost and quality control to organizations that profit from creative thinking. Everybody knows where to find Six Sigma black belts, financial hotshots, and vice-presidents into Total Quality Management. Harvard, Northwestern, Stanford, and lots of B-schools churn them out. But innovators?

Enter Patrick Whitney, a 54-year-old Canadian native who is director of the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago, the largest graduate school of design in the U.S. Whitney is a visionary, a key leader in a new movement to create a discipline of design. Like W. Edwards Deming, who transformed the “mushy” notion of quality into the rigorous, useful TQM methodology, Whitney is turning design into a core methodology of innovation. In doing so, this soft-spoken man has quietly become the guru of integrating the best of business and design thinking.

Whitney believes that companies today face an “innovation gap.” They have the tools of technology to make virtually anything, but lack the tools of empathy to understand what consumers really want. Filling this gap is the task at hand. It is also the sweet spot for top-line growth and high-margin profit.

To Whitney, design is uniquely suited to mine users’ unarticulated needs, whereas focus groups are limited to what consumers already know. “Design thinking can offer greater, deeper, and faster insight into users’ lives to help businesses know what to make in the first place,” he says.

Traditionally, design education is based on visual expression, and students learn through drawing, model making, and studying the work of other designers. That is still the case in most design schools. Little emphasis is placed on how design fits into a business context.

Whitney pioneered a completely different model. The ID curriculum focuses directly on design strategy and innovation. Some 80% of the school’s courses don’t involve making things. User Observation & Early Prototyping aims at understanding consumers’ wants, the crux of the innovation gap. In New Product Development, students also learn how to read a balance sheet. In Design Languages, they learn how to make effective business presentations. In Systems Design, students look at designing business organizations.

Graduates of ID know how to design business processes as well as products and services. “Most designers don’t understand business,” says John Seely Brown, the former director of Xerox’s (XRX ) Palo Alto Research Center. “Patrick has done more than anyone in crossing this chasm.”

Whitney’s latest effort is a dual master’s program. The first of its kind, it coordinates courses between ID and the Stuart Graduate School of Business (both schools are part of the Illinois Institute of Technology). Students can get full design and MBA degrees in as little as 2 1/2 years, vs. the four years that kind of load usually takes. More than half its graduates already cross the design divide and take jobs in strategy, marketing, brand management, and business planning..

The new dual degree option makes that crossover easier, says Brad Nemer, a senior business planner at Motorola (MOT ), who has a design degree and an MBA from IIT. When you graduate, says Nemer, “you are fully conversant in all the business conversations you are going to have.”

Whitney’s efforts at bridging business and design extend to conferences, which are becoming standing-room-only events for senior managers. In Beijing last December, his Design for the New China Markets conference brought an A-list of more than 200 Chinese, American, and European execs and high Chinese government and university officials. With so much innovation shifting to Asia, Whitney made it a must-attend conference.

Corporations have traditionally mined the best B-Schools for by-the-numbers managerial talent. But who really wants to hire people with masters degrees in “administration” when today’s business culture demands managers who can master the process of innovation. Patrick Whitney has made the IIT Institute of Design one of the best sources of creative talent for business today.

By Robert Berner

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