Traditional MBA vs Design Strategy MBA: Which is better?

Associate professor Steve Diller explains the advantages of earning an MBA from one of the top art and design schools in the country.

When I tell people about the MBA in Design Strategy program (or DMBA, for short) at California College of the Arts, I’m often met with the same puzzled look and dismissive follow-up question:

“Why in the world would anyone in their right mind want to get a business degree from an art and design school?”

Setting aside the obvious bias against the massive contributions artists, designers, architects, and writers have made to the world—it’s a valid question. What could you get at a small, not-for-profit graduate art school like CCA, that you wouldn’t get from Harvard, Stanford, or one of the more traditional MBA programs? Turns out, the approaches to these programs are almost night and day.

What can an art and design approach offer to the business world?

There are multiple schools of thought in business that have developed over the decades and many of the traditional business schools simply aren’t adapting their curricula to meet the changing landscape. Many students might assume that the benefits of studying business at an arts institution would be on the creative side, and while the school certainly has a vibrant community of creative thinkers who are incredibly inspiring to be around, that’s not exactly what a program like the DMBA is selling. The truth is that every product and service we see around us is already an example of creativity informing business. These offerings couldn’t exist without at least some degree of creativity.

Ultimately, a lack of “creativity” in business isn’t the issue—it’s creativity informed, channeled, and deepened by insight into human need that’s missing on many fronts—and that is what forms the foundation of design strategy principles at CCA.

Humanity has hugely benefited from the creations of innovators, but we could have benefited even more had we known how to better apply those innovations in ways that align with what end-users seek.”
Steve Diller, associate professor and chair of MDes in Interaction Design

Model of Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925.

Low-income housing project

Low-income housing projects.

Humanity has hugely benefited from the creations of innovators, but we could have benefited even more had we known how to better apply those innovations in ways that align with what end-users seek. For example, look at the decision many cities made to build superblocks of high-rise apartment buildings for low-income residents, focusing on using mass-production techniques to keep costs low. Maximize output, minimize costs—makes perfect sense. The only thing missing from the process was an exploration of how the people purportedly being served (the end-user) actually prefer to live day to day. The result was massive social dysfunction built into the cores of our cities, which has taken over half a century to unwind.

Design strategy—rooted deeply in the nimble process of prototyping, testing, and learning—provides the tools and methods that can help us avoid these kinds of missteps, and innovate in alignment with the experiences people actually want. The results of this more people-centered approach are increasingly visible all around us— products that are effortless to use, services that enhance the sense of meaning in our lives, and immersive environments that heighten our sense of what’s possible in our lives.

That is the primary reason why CCA’s MBA in Design Strategy program takes a customer-first approach to building businesses—it produces stronger, more sustainable outputs at a net-positive return to both shareholders, customers, and humanity as a whole. Prospective MBA students should understand, however, that this type of thinking is not necessarily standard and design thinking may not be embraced or even taught at all business programs; there are different schools of thought taught at different institutions and each student should evaluate which approach makes the most sense for their situation.

The traditional MBA approach

Most business schools have their roots in “business administration” and, thus, naturally think about business practice from an administrative standpoint. In other words, they envision business as an inward-looking practice whose goals are primarily about improving return on capital for shareholders, through efficiencies, greater productivity, financial management, etc. The “customer” is generally perceived as an abstract entity to be acted upon by a company’s tools of persuasion, to align their behavior with corporate objectives.

The Design Strategy MBA approach

The DMBA flips the traditional perspective on its head, focusing instead on business as an entity that exists to make customers’ lives better; with administration, financial management, etc., as necessary tools in service of customers. When this approach is done successfully, shareholders as well as customers benefit far more. We also greatly reduce pollution and waste by considering supply-chain, environmental, health, and social impacts as integral in the longterm viability of any venture—because they are.

That's the kind of power that design strategy has to change the face of how business is done. We're prototyping the future of business in a way that's both profitable and sustainable. Being located in San Francisco, CCA’s program is also able to leverage partnerships with some of the world’s most innovative brands to offer hands-on collaboration with sponsored studio projects, lectures and workshops, and, of course, ample industry networking opportunities.

Want to learn more about what CCA has accomplished in just the first 10 years of our DMBA program?

About Steve Diller

Associate Professor and Chair of MDes in Interaction Design
Founder and CEO of Scansion, Inc., a customer-centered innovation strategy firm, Steve is an experience strategist with over 25 years of innovation and marketing consulting experience.

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