I see what you mean: a three method symbolic interactionist study of design and business.

  • Jan Jervis

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


In 2007, the Journal of Business Strategy published an article by Professor Roger Martin that asked the question, Design and Business: why can’t we be friends? More than thirteen years on and Martin’s question is still pertinent. Despite substantial evidence that Design adds value to the economy, Design and business are still not friends.

Studies in the UK and USA have examined publicly listed businesses that focus on Design and, for over ten years, compared their financial growth with industry counterparts. The results show that Design-focused organisations outperform others by more than 200%.

Nevertheless, many business managers fail to recognise Design as a valuable contribution to business. This thesis aims to shed light on the ongoing breakdown in communication between Design and business professionals at the very time there is growing support for Design as a 21st century competitive advantage.

Communication issues arise because the term Design is both a noun and a verb and occasionally an adjective. It has no publicly accepted definition or theoretical perspective. Design is not academically endorsed or recognised as a profession. In general, the declaration “I am a designer” does not garner the same prestige or recognition as “I am an engineer” or “I am an architect”.

The theory of Symbolic Interactionism explains how meaning emerges from human communication. It is an established social theory that was particularly prominent in the first half of the 20th century yet is still relevant for the 21st century.

The theory has three foundational premises: 1. Humans respond to something based on the meaning it has for them. 2. Our understanding of something (for example, Design) is related to the interactions we have with other people (i.e., our social communications). 3. We may modify our understanding or change our minds about something based on varying social situations. In other words, the meaning we give to Design emerges from our social interactions.

This research used Symbolic Interactionism as a theoretical guide for examining the different meanings of Design found in business. Three studies formed a mixed-method and convergent parallel Design underpinned by Symbolic Interactionism. The research question was: How do professionals in Design and professionals in business communicate the meaning of Design?

The first study involved in-depth interviews with professionals working in business, but not necessarily in Design. The second study examined how authors write about Design in three contrasting journal publications. The third study assessed how general business relates to Design when they write job adverts.

The results show that professionals in both Design and business had a range of meanings for Design. Five themes emerged: Design Confusion, Design Frustration, Design Ingenuity, Design Manifestation and Design Translation.

This research is significant because it sheds light on the meaning of Design for a diverse range of professionals who potentially collaborate on a global stage. The results of this study will be of great benefit to:
•Design practitioners and business professionals and multi-discipline project teams. The results offer a positive way for professionals to manage breakdowns in communication.
•The Design disciplines. A shared understanding of Design is essential if Design is to be positioned as a discipline in its own right and consequently a more prestigious contribution to business.
•Policymakers and executive officers. Public understanding of Design is essential for implementing innovative Design solutions for the economy. •Educators. Cross-disciplinary shared understanding of Design could close the gap between future Design and business leaders.
•Enabled amateurs or citizen designers. Professionals and the public would benefit from a shared understanding of Design.

Finally, this study proposes that Symbolic Interactionism could be a valuable contribution to a theoretical foundation for Design. It seems Design and business could be ‘friends’.
Date of Award16 Jun 2021
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJeffrey Brand (Supervisor)

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