What Designers can learn from economists

Digital creativity blog by Flow Bohl, 14.9.2010

Designers are natural inspiration seekers, and inspiration as a form of learning is aquired through observation. Usually designers search for inspiration from other designers or in the field of arts. Looking beyond these boundaries offers potential to gain insights from a different perspective. Designers can learn from other professions that deal with creativity, like economists.


Economists and designers have something important in common: They are forward thinking and draw their conclusions from observation. They look at trends, how things are and how they could be, ideally better. Moreover, both depend on selling their talents using arguments plausibly and persistently to support their self-interests. It is a conflict of compromising sustainable long term achievements for a third party with short-term profits for oneself. A bad economist sees only what immediately strikes the eye, a good economist will be able to look beyond and see the long-term effects (Henry Hazlitt).

The same can be said about designers. A bad designer merely pleases a client for a quick sing-off, a good designer pleases the client's customers. This is more difficult and time consuming as clients tend to have a rather subjective opinion about their products. A designer has to persuade the client that it's in his best interest to follow the objective approach of an expert. As product designer Dieter Rams once said: Design should be as discreet as an English butler. Good design is not noticed, only the lack of it (same for financial regulation).


Green ManSimilarities aside, there are obvious differences between designers and economists. One is the love - or the lack of it - for numbers. Left-brain rational thinking often collides with right brain lateral thinking.

Another is immediacy. Economists talk in abstract terms, that have wider implications and are hard to measure, whereas designers work towards an immediate result of a product or campaign.

Economics is a science and can be learned. Also design can be learned but it's less scientific than it is creative and creativity cannot be learned, it can only be nurtured.


To successfully sell products consumer advantages are needed. These advantage derive from new product development and the ideas of the product designers. In J.M. Keynes words: 'Ideas shape the course of history'. New product development and advancing technologies entail change in the way people act, think and communicate. Also financial circumstances and dependencies are constantly changing. In other words people or economic entities are supposed to learn and adapt.

So what do economics teach designers? That learning isn't just a matter of psychology but also a matter of cost and economics. A good designer should utilize both, acknowledging the economic context of the product s/he is designing for and risk possible consequences of a new solution.

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