MBA for a Designer

An MBA is not typical in the career path for a designer. As far as education goes, designers typically have a Graphic Design degree, a User Experience Design degree, or Human Computer Interaction degree. My undergraduate degree was in Graphic Design and Multimedia, where I learned time honored principles of the craft; like typography, layout, drawing, illustration, etc. Upon graduation, I quickly focused my career development on what is called Product Design today, including web development and user interface design. Just as I entered the workforce the iPhone was released and with the App Store’s launch shortly afterward, Product Design exploded into the field in a big way.

As time went on I grew more interested in how the businesses I worked in and for made decisions in product development, organizational design, and strategic positioning. Designers are often brought in by business leaders once they have decided they need to make a strategic shift in their organization or in the market. They need a new website, a new brand, a new logo, a new product, all of which involve designers. I was working with business leaders making decisions, and grew curious why they did the things they did. Around this time the idea of pursuing an MBA became more and more intriguing, so I started looking into it and was eventually accepted for the Global MBA program at IE Business School.

The best thing about my MBA program was the exposure to smart people from all areas of business and from every region of the world. As with most craftspeople, being a designer can feel very isolated within an organization. Each part of a business brings its own incentives, mandates, and personality types (beyond obvious individual eccentricities). The MBA gave me exposure to these different people and specialties in a way that I would not have been able to do without tremendous effort and discipline. I have really enjoyed getting to know all my peers and have been humbled by how much I have to learn. I think that most of the growth I’ve noticed in myself has been a result of interacting with my classmates and new friends. It’s a cliche that the most valuable thing about business school is the network and connections you make, but it’s a cliche for a reason, it’s true.

Related to the exposure to different types of people and roles is the effect that business education can have on a designer’s career path. The design career ladder is a ladder without many rungs. The benefits of this are obvious. Design organizations tend to be relatively flat, with broad respect for the opinions and experience of every team member. However, it is very clear from the beginning of a designer’s career what they can expect to be doing 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years in the future. Many things about the day-to-day work change as the craft evolves, but the organizational structure is comparatively stagnant. If that future role doesn’t seem appealing the only place to move is out. The MBA can give you confidence to make the leap into something else. Maybe product leadership, marketing, or any number of other roles? An MBA is a good opportunity to look around and see if you want to make a change, even if once you’ve seen the options out there you realize you’d like to apply your new business skills in design.

Designers have been asking for “a seat at the table” in their organizations for a long time, and in recent years some of them have gotten it. However, I fear that rather than influencing the business from a design perspective in the way they could, they are sometimes overwhelmed by business demands and structures with which they have little familiarity. Business school education is based around case studies (many, many, many case studies), wherein we read stories about challenges that businesses have faced and attempt to decide what we would do in their place. We analyze the cases from a variety of angles, including historical, financial, strategic, organizational, political, etc. Our analysis inevitably touches on the business’ cash flow, supply chain, org chart, HR policies, marketing, competition, regulatory environment, legal issues, and much more. This comprehensive look at business was eye opening for me, and it occurs to me that the only other way that a designer would be exposed to the mechanics of business leadership is through experience or disciplined self directed study. Rather than waiting for McKinsey or IDEO to sell business executives on “Design Thinking” or the “value of design,” designers may get further by learning the language of business. While the network is probably the most valuable outcome of an MBA for any single individual, this rigorous view of business could be a great contribution to design in general.

Is an MBA necessary for every designer? I’m in no position to speak for others, and one of the greatest things about our profession is the fact that designers can come from anywhere. “Self taught” designers work effectively alongside those who went to design boot camps, college, or graduate degrees in a growing variety of design related fields. One of the most interesting backgrounds for design in my mind is anthropology, with the rigor that it can bring to Design Research and User Testing. So no, an MBA isn’t necessary for every designer. However, I do think it is one of several viable paths to move design forward and positively impact the organizations in which we work. I’m glad I did it.