How to Become a Better Manager … By Thinking Like a Designer

Presentation experts Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds help world-renowned executives, politicians and thought leaders deliver stronger presentations. Here they reveal how to influence and persuade in a different way, regardless of whether you ever have to communicate via PowerPoint.

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The leading question

What can managers learn from designers?

  • Managers and designers have to do the same things: Embrace restraints, take risks, question everything and make sure that tools don’t get in the way of ideas.
  • Design concepts such as hierarchy, balance, contrast, clear space and harmony are just as relevant to managers.

Few people are more dedicated to making sure your presentations are clear and persuasive than Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds. Duarte, as CEO of Duarte Design Inc., has helped shape some of the best-known recent presentations, among them Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth talk. Reynolds, an associate professor of management at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan, is the author of a popular and influential blog on presentation design and used to work at Apple Inc. MIT Sloan Management Review met Duarte and Reynolds at the most recent TED conference, where we started a conversation not about how to make better presentations — Duarte’s slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations (O’Reilly) and Reynolds’s Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (New Riders) do that expertly — but rather about how managers without any design responsibilities can do a better job if they understand how designers think.

What can managers learn from designers about how to attack a problem?

Reynolds: Solving problems is what designers do. They solve problems or otherwise take the current situation and try to make it a better one. There are four ways managers can learn from designers:

  • Embrace restraints. Designers are all about working with restraints (time, budget, location, materials). Identify your limitations and then create not the perfect solution, but the best solution given the restraints. If you can do it with less, why add more?
  • Take a risk. Change does not happen without taking some chances. Designers are comfortable with the notion that they might be wrong, but still they experiment and try new approaches.
  • Question everything. Answers are important, of course, but first come the questions. Designers are used to asking myriad questions that may lead to the right question — which will lead to the right answer.
  • It’s not about tools, it’s about ideas. Designers from various fields spend a lot of time away from new technology tools, using pencil and paper to sketch out their ideas.

Duarte: The primary principles of design are eminently transferable to management.


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Comments (7)
Nancy Maharg
I'm currently leading a change to Lean methodologies and the use of A3 problem solving. I was pleased to find that "thinking like a designer" is very much incorporated into the A3 method. I found this article to be a great encouragement and validation of the choice we have made to use A3 problem solving.  I am hoping that, using the A3 method, we will be teaching those not so inclined to "think like a designer" to make the change naturally as they see the value.
As managers our thinking can be one way or the company's way of thinking. If a manager is willing to learn, digest & lead a way of thinking and processing as in design thinking & integration the result could improve all areas of an organization, ie, internal communications, sales force etc.

A great article not widely known.
Great analogy.
while i certainly believe that managers should think like designers, i also believe organizations would benefit if designers also thought and adapted their work processes like managers. while the correlation between the two as propounded by the authors is an important concept, there are still differences in approaches that need to be addressed. for example, designers are usually 'pardoned' if they overshoot their budgets, but managers find it hard to get 'presidential pardon'!
I have always believe that leaders are creative problem solvers and that designers are creative thinkers.  It seems to me that the article dovetails why leaders are designers because they both leading and solving problems.  This is not new to me.
Thanks. The article is very helpful to enhance once management skills.  The perspective of designers put into management humanizes, improves, and make management more interesting and beautiful.  It supplements or even completes our perspectives thus giving a better understanding of problems and finding the best answers for them.

Mildred E. Maranan
This is a very useful article that clearly lays down the ground rules of using design thinking in the life of a normal manager. But I find it a challenge to teach this new method to well established managers who still wants to do it by data alone. Often the problem is therefore left unsolved. It might take time for the new way of thinking to set in. However, such articles would help managers to understand the advantages and act on it. 

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