Blah. Blah. Blah. This is all we hear from our so-called ‘leaders’. Words. Words that sound great but so far has led to no action.

Greta Thunberg

The ‘Language of Business’, whatever that actually means, clearly doesn’t have a monopoly on empty rhetoric. We see the same indulgence in politics. Particularly climate policy, as Greta so deftly points out. Design is equally guilty, at least when we’re not all too busy “making it pop” obviously. Every industry has its own codewords, lingo and sleight of hand tactics to appear more meaningful or smarter than we actually are.

So when designers talk of the need for each other to better speak the Language of Business, just what exactly does that mean?

It’s almost certainly less about how to navigate these coded cliques or better articulate in the native tongue, and more about the necessity to be commercially minded; to be conscious of the business model, and its “core drivers” such as profit and loss, acquisition and retention, conversion and adoption.

While it seems reasonable and fair to expect a modicum of self-awareness of why you’re employed and what business value you drive in the the context of the work you do, sometimes the incessant self-flagellation required to justify and explain this to those who hired you may be a clue to a much deeper and more troubling question at the heart of the organisation you work for.

Green = good, red = bad

At the core of every business, market or economy are numbers. And the numbers have to balance. The single most important number that rules all others in the world (other than forty two*) is probably GDP, also known as Gross Domestic Product. GDP is defined as the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year. We can question why this number has so much power and influence over life on the planet, but this is not that article and I’m not that author.

However, economists have for many years questioned the wisdom of placing economic growth above all others as a metric that demonstrates absolute success.

On haircuts, psychoanalysis sessions or music downloads [GDP] becomes distinctly fuzzy

David Pilling, The Growth Delusion

One problem with GDP is that disruptive innovation in the digital sector, which tends to make life easier for consumers, can actually result in a decline in GDP. GDP is much better at measuring tangible goods than online services. People booking their own flights rather than going through a travel agent is a good real-world example. As Will Page, former Chief Economist at Spotify, puts it “Lots of what tech is doing is destroying what wasn’t needed… the end result is you’re going to have less of an economy, but [also] higher welfare.”

By comparison to GDP the success metrics for welfare, quality, emissions, equality, and health are all uncaptured or underreported in measuring the state of the world economy. Alternative measures of performance such as the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) or World Happiness Report are signs of transformative ways of thinking about what is truly important and vital for people, societies and civilisations to thrive. But it still sounds radical and questionable to many.

Our global obsession with a single economic measure of success is inevitably mirrored in the organisations many of us work within. No business can exist without financial profit, unless you’re a non-profit of course. But performance metrics suffer from similar blindspots as the singular obsession with GDP – a devaluation of other attributes of the system that are harder to measure, and slower or less direct in producing tangible results.

What gets measured gets managed – even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so.

Peter Drucker

So what?

Well if the Language of Business is so important, and the way economic success is measured is rife with blindspots and flaws, what are we actually hoping to achieve by speaking this monosyllabic dialect? How should healthy and progressive business success actually be measured, beyond just the blunt instrument of company profit?

What if we did what cities do?

Cities are dynamic ecosystems that harness the power of diverse perspectives and cultures to enable creativity. The underlying principles of a wide range of social groups coming together to create something greater than the sum of their parts is being harnessed by the most progressive organisations today. Diversity is proving to be profitable. Diverse organisations lead to better, more valuable outcomes. The benefits of diversity extend way beyond inclusion of gender and ethnicity. They bring together divergent ideas and modes of thought. By contrast ‘inbred’ monocultures lead to stagnation of ideas and competitiveness.

"The seat at the table"

So the next time we decry the lack of design being taken seriously, and the need to conform to the status quo of what businesses currently think of as important, as a means to gain respect, I encourage designers to think again. Do not eagerly toe the line and accept the majority wisdom of the crowd so blindly.

The power of human-centred design is in its ability to more clearly redefine the business from the outside in, to speak truth to power in service of the opinions and needs of those outside the board room, the office, the workshop or the zoom call. If the question is how can design be taken more seriously, the answer can’t possibly be to surrender one of its "unique selling points" and adopt a sterile empty-speak to keep others in their comfort zone.

Yes, human-centred design has suffered from many self-inflicted problems: opaque results, overconfidence, underconfidence, vanity, a victimisation mindset, a hasty obsession in reinventing itself, exploitation of the zeitgeist, believing it’s own hype, reinforcement of a counter-productive echo chamber, the list goes on. But most of what I see and admire in impassioned human-centred designers is actually longer-term, more strategic thinking than they are often given credit for.

To be concerned with brand, loyalty, satisfaction and more meaningful utility are important to business today. To look beyond the quick and easy metrics, the “low-hanging fruit”, or following the mindless whims of leaders seeking merely to maximise shareholder value one quarter after another. These are not worthless attributes in the board room, or harmful, anti-business sentiments.

We’re heading in the wrong direction if we chide designers to grow up, get real and surrender these values. Yes, be more inclusive and tactful. Be modest and respectful of others, don’t throw your toys out of the pram or get a diva complex. You’re not the lone hero. Learn to consult and earn trust from your peers.

But perhaps we’re better off speaking the same language, just in a more diverse lexicon. The Language of Business is in dire need of enriching its vocabulary.


Footnote: In Douglas Adams seminal book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a supercomputer Deep Thought spends 7½ million years computing the answer to the Ultimate Question (of Life, The Universe and Everything). The answer is a number: Forty two.

Sadly, no one ever truly understood the question.