Douglas Bowman posted today on about his decision to leave Google, where he was a Lead Visual Designer. He sounds torn: on the one hand it is a fast-paced environment where you can define an entirely new practice with the ability to affect millions of users. On the other hand it is a strongly engineering-driven culture, where decisions are made based on hard data. I've encountered workplaces that fit that description and almost every other one as well. Whether its engineers, MBAs, marketers, or even other designers, an environment that doesn't understand and respect the role of design can be extremely hard to work in. Douglas is right in identifying what has always been a deal-breaker for me: if top management doesn't get it, forget it. I don't expect CEOs to have degrees in design, but they should have an appreciation that it is more than styling, more than just the touching up at the end of a product development process. I'm willing to work with a CEO that is willing to be brought around, too, but its almost hopeless when your role is not understood and poorly utilized (true for anyone, but I'm focused on design here). I'm perfectly happy to discuss the merits of any design decision I've made, but I've encountered a lot of dishonesty when the guys who cooked up the numbers in the Powerpoint deck are unwilling to acknowledge so, or the tech team won't concede that there are many more solutions available to the problem at hand. I'm not saying people are intentionally lying, but many fields have the veneer of science so that people are convinced they are actually producing scientifically valid work.
So what happens then is a Science vs. Art debate. Design decisions are percieved to be all a matter of opinion - most people have eyes, and therefore the ability to judge what's in front of them. Paradoxically, the designer's judgement is not respected when the subject matter is so easily manipulated. What can happen next is the descent into data.
In an effort to placate a manager who just doesn't like what he sees, design decisions are subjected to quantitative analysis. In many cases, there are strong arguments for using data to guide design decisions, whether usability issues are at stake, page load times are affected, and even brand perceptions. In many cases, incremental design decisions can best be informed by data. I'm a huge proponent of incorporating testing into the product development process - not as a validation at the end, but a part of the process. But when people are spending time testing between 41 shades of blue, clearly some time is being wasted.
All of us rely on judgement to make it through our daily lives and our work. Designers rely on judgement (based on years of training and practice), along with data and input from stakeholders, users, competitors, etc. to develop solutions. The solutions are indeterminate, and often not apparent until after the solution has been arrived at. And of course, there are several available options. All this makes the ability to arrive at a solution extremely valuable.