By  on June 26, 2007

NEW YORK — Business executives' interest in design may start and end with the color green — as in the amount of money coming through the door — but designers can bolster a company's profitability just by sharing their ideology with The Powers That Be in the corner office.

The ever-increasing importance of design thinking was dissected during a panel Friday, "Design = The Bottom Line," at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum here. IDEO's chief executive officer Tim Brown, one of the panelists, said, "Traditionally, most companies have used analyzed thinking, but now there are alternative ways of thinking. Design provides an alternative way of thinking. We need to combine analytical thinking with generative thinking."

In his opening remarks, the museum's director, Paul Warwick Thompson, noted how design's link to commerce is sometimes forgotten. In the 19th century, design museums were engines for thought and for commerce, he said. To that end, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris was designed deliberately to look like a department store and the first exhibition staged at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was actually taken from a trade fair, "The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations," that was held in 1851. At that stage in the V&A's life, the British — however adept they were at manufacturing — were still worried about their French counterpart's stronghold on design, so the London museum was trying to up the stakes.

Brown, whose Palo Alto, Calif.-based firm created the first computer mouse and the first laptop, said design can be revolutionary, as evidenced by the iPod. In three or four weeks, IDEO will open its first New York office, which will be manned initially by a staff of 12, but will eventually have 40 or 50 employees. In addition to Palo Alto, the company has offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, London, Munich and Shanghai, with employees working in 40 to 50 disciplines.

The panel, which also included Gael Towey, chief creative officer of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., and Claudia Kotchka, vice president for design innovation and strategy at Procter & Gamble Co., was moderated by BusinessWeek's assistant managing editor Bruce Nussbaum. They discussed the need to break down "silos" that exist in most companies — where one department is too focused or too busy with its specialty to take the time to work with another to try to drum up more efficient and often profitable ways of working. Design schools also need to implement that type of cross-pollinated thinking in order to turn out well-rounded graduates who are better prepared for the workforce. Stanford University's d. school for design is a leader in that capacity, and Columbia University and California College of the Arts in San Francisco are making strides with collaborative teaching — something the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University have done together for years, IDEO's ceo said.

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