The real value of an MBA in Design Strategy is…

Delving into the unique blend of design and strategy, the chair of the MBA in Design Strategy (DMBA) program explores the distinct edge a DMBA degree offers.

As an alumnus, professor, and now chair of the MBA in Design Strategy (DMBA) program, a full-fledged, STEM-designated MBA program housed within California College of the Arts, a 120-year-old private art and design school, I am often asked, mostly by prospective students, to provide details on why a DMBA and what value they might get from this program over other programs, including employment opportunities. While it’s relatively easy to convey our central tenets and value propositions, showing the “why” as hard data is a bit more difficult. In this article, I’ve attempted to make the case using both.

To begin with, it must be said that in today's volatile markets and competitive business landscape, the need for professionals who can seamlessly merge human-centered design with strategic business acumen has become increasingly evident. All one has to do is survey the myriad of large companies for where they are focusing today, and you will no doubt hear from their leaders and hiring managers that they are looking for people who can add value to their businesses…in this case, value = money to the bottom line. These organizations are looking for people who have real business chops and can also design products, business models, value propositions, ads, copy, etc., that contribute to that bottom line.

Similarly, in the startup world, fledgling organizations need people who can do it all, from designing a product, business model, value proposition, etc., to speaking directly with customers about their core jobs-to-be-done, pains, and gains to building spreadsheets that incorporate data about the markets the startup is trying to serve.

Not only do the organizations referenced above require T-shaped people, but (often without having the words to describe it) they are looking for what we, in the DMBA, call Design Strategists (or in some circles, Strategy Designers). These are people who are adept at analytical skills, creative thinking, as well as resilience, flexibility, and agility. All of which the World Economic Forum called out as the “core skills required by workers today” in The Future of Jobs Report. Fortunately, this is EXACTLY what we teach and practice in the DMBA.

In the DMBA, we take a comprehensive and practical approach that integrates design principles with business strategy. The way we have always described this to people is that design methods – empathy, co-creation, experimentation, and iteration – are baked into just about everything we do and every course we teach. And though you might think a typical finance or accounting course is not the place to experiment or iterate, numbers are numbers after all, design shows up in these courses as co-creative ways to learn and design data-backed solutions to complex financial situations.

And, as you might expect, design doesn’t end there. Unlike most MBA programs, the DMBA curriculum also includes practical design courses that focus on experience and service design, like Experiences Studio, and futures design, like Strategic Foresight.

We teach all of this not just because we believe, through design, our students will be able to be well-equipped to solve real-world problems, but also because organizations increasingly rely on design to help them succeed. A study published in the "Harvard Business Review" (HBR) emphasizes that design-led companies outperformed the S&P 500 index by 228% over the last ten years. This statistic underscores the growing significance of human-centered design and design-led innovation in driving business success. By immersing DMBA students in a curriculum that delves deep into the intersection of design and business, we equip our graduates with a competitive edge in the job market and entrepreneurial endeavors.

Moreover, the DMBA program's emphasis on business fundamentals ensures that our graduates possess a well-rounded understanding of financial management, market analysis, and strategic planning. An article in Forbes highlights that graduates with a strong foundation in business fundamentals are better positioned to navigate the complexities of the corporate world and bring innovative solutions to the table. This proficiency in business acumen sets DMBA graduates apart from their counterparts in other certificate and even design management master's programs, resulting in a higher potential for career advancement and the (mostly obvious) financial rewards that come with it.

Another key factor contributing to the high return on investment (ROI) of the DMBA program is its practical application of business creation, entrepreneurship, and management. The key word here is practical. As a program that’s been called the “maker’s MBA” by administrators from other institutions, we take pride in the fact that our students work with real-world clients on real-world problems in at least four courses, and are building real-world products, services, and experiences in at least another four courses.

By focusing on the practical application of what we teach in the DMBA, we not only aim to solidify learning but also to enhance our students' problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, making them more adaptable and effective in diverse professional settings. What’s more, the emphasis on hands-on learning experiences underscores the importance of integrating practical exercises into the educational curriculum as a whole to bridge the gap between theory and practice, ultimately benefiting students in their future careers​. Fun fact: most DMBA alumni see this program as one where they had the opportunity to design or redesign themselves and their careers…through practice.

In conclusion, when you account for the above, the DMBA program offers a higher ROI compared to other certificate and master's programs due to its unique integration of design with business fundamentals and practical application of business creation, entrepreneurship, and management. As the demand for professionals with a multidisciplinary (i.e., T-shaped) skill set continues to rise, investing in this specialized, design-led program not only promises a rewarding career but also positions individuals to be at the forefront of driving innovation and business success. And, don’t just take our word for it. Listen to some of our amazing alumni speak about their experiences and what they are doing now on the “Everything is Prototype” podcast. Or…join us at any of our public events.

Justin Lokitz, chair of MBA in Design Strategy (DMBA)
April 18, 2024