Greetings from rainy San Francisco. I spent Valentine’s Day participating in a design retreat in nearby Sonoma County led by Phil Gilbert, the general manager of IBM Design. It was a not-for-attribution event for about 50 IBM clients, so I can only share a bit of what I learned. But I can say the discussion was frank and fascinating—and reaffirmed our view at Fortune that design has become a top strategic priority for a huge swath of the companies we cover.
My three takeaways: 1) even when a CEO commits to the idea of embracing design as a part of strategy, translating that commitment into meaningful changes in corporate structure and culture is really hard; 2) corporate design teams still have a long way to go on gender and ethnic diversity, especially in appointing senior leadership; 3) as business leaders recognize design’s tremendous power, they’re also discovering that power can be used for good—and evil.
There’s an increasingly urgent debate among designers about whether they’re aiding and abetting business models that manipulate users into surrendering personal data, buying stuff they don’t need, and engaging in socially destructive behaviors. Though the “Target effect” (which nudges shoppers to over-consume), the addictiveness of video games like Fortnite, the hijacking of social media platforms like Facebook, and other ills are often described as “tech problems,” they can also be construed as epic design fails. Designers fear advances in AI, Big Data and 5G may only make things worse. The new wave of “techlash” titles such as The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Harvard Business School theorist Shoshana Zuboff and Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by former Zuckerburg adviser Roger McNamee, are hot topics for the design crowd, not just techies.
We’ll tackle design ethics and more at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore March 5-7. The program is packed with thinkers at the vanguard of this new alliance between business and design. Among them: Ideo CEO Tim Brown; Tony Fadell, who helped invent the iPod, the iPhone and founded smart-thermostat startup Nest; Dyson CEO Jim Rowan; Facebook VP of Design Margaret Gould Steward; and top design experts from Alibaba, Amazon, Google, IBM, McKinsey, and Salesforce. You can see the full agenda and request an invitation here.
One highlight of yesterday’s IBM event was the venue: the 25-acre Eames Ranch, home to a vast trove of prototypes, artifacts and personal mementos of iconic designers Charles and Ray Eames. Charles’ granddaughter Llisa Demetrios, who’ll join us in Singapore next month, led an enchanting tour of the house and the studios. She steered me to a wall displaying a Venn diagram, hand-drawn and annotated by Charles, showing three amoeba-like circles. One circle depicted “the interest and concern of the design office,” another “the area of genuine interest to the client,” and a third the “concerns of society as a whole.” A note scrawled in the upper right-hand corner identified the darkly cross-hatched space where all three circles intersected: “It is in this area of overlapping interest and concern that the designer can work with conviction and enthusiasm.”
Sounds like the basis of a pretty wise design ethic to me.