How 3M's Chief Design Officer Eric Quint Explains Design

Alex Osterwalder, Swiss business theorist and author of Business Model Canvas, recently tweeted--a business idea needs three legs to stand*. The 3 legs are technology for feasibility, design for desirability and business for viability. I re-tweeted that this is one reason why companies need a Chief Design Officer (CDO) to which someone replied, you mean like Eric Quint of 3M, followed by 4 emoticons for trophy. 

The reason I am sharing this exchange is because today Quint has become a symbol for the chief design officer role, the value they bring and why companies need them to stay competitive. I recently interviewed Quint and asked him how he does it. He shared that his metaphor for design is jazz.  

Quint is a jazzman. He plays the acoustic guitar. His office in Minneapolis has great big framed pictures of jazz greats and his talks often are peppered with jazz images and examples. He says playing music has defined how he leads design. Here is how, in Quint's words--

Jazz It

My team knows me for saying, "Jazz It!" What I mean is we need to be strong in improvisation, going and exploring out of the box, experimenting. I give them a key and the rhythm, not a sheet of music. You might fail but learn from your failures and learn to manage them.

Design and music have a similar vocabulary

Music and design use the same expressions: harmony, contrast, tone sur tone, rhythm, composition, contrast. Just like in music, these expressions are crucial to drive design and design quality. 

Innovation is all about collaboration

You need real time, cross-functional collaboration in design. Innovation and brand experiences are only possible by being multi-functional. You need all the parties to run a great idea through the system and bring it to customers. 

"My drawers are filled with great ideas. Innovation is not just about the what; how you bring them to market is just as important."

The specialization and sophistication needed today require designers working together. I created a taxonomy of 40 kinds of designers for 3M's human resources. Old notions about designer as pop star doesn't hold anymore. We are team players. And just like musicians, who respect each other's ability and know you cannot swap a base player for a drummer, we cannot assume one designer to do it all.

Key is getting in the flow

Design is real time collaboration and creativity--that is where the flow happens. Flow is real time collaboration and creativity. And it often brings people out of their comfort zone and capability. You go beyond your limits by building on each other. When that happens you're happy and satisfied.

Designers need a responsive audience

Another dimension of design is about having a responsive audience. You need their excitement and engagement. You can get your audience, your customers and partners, to co-create with you through design thinking, whatI call Collaborative Creativity. 

Design for me is a strategy and not a commodity. It is a strategic partner to business. Together we make music. 

Thank you Eric Quint. 

*Quote credited to Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things.

This article first appeared on on October 27, 2017