2019 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Design Futures Council! Over the years, the DFC has grown a very strong legacy of leadership and transformational change. DFC’s leadership in key trends includes sustainable design, technology, process innovation, management and design, and international practice. We wanted to share some of our articles from our 25-year history—from the beginnings of DesignIntelligence (1995) through today’s DesignIntelligence Quarterly. Enjoy!

In Finian’s Rainbow, Fred Astaire sang: “Look, look, look to the rainbow. Follow the fellow who follows the dream.” I couldn’t help thinking of that song recently while we were visiting a firm on the east coast conducting a leadership audit. It hit me that we were in a firm with a good mission but without a discernible vision.

What exactly is a vision?
Here is our working definition: A vision is an understandable, credible, attractive future for your firm. It is not a mission statement–it deals with the future. In the best firms, the vision is an idea so energizing that it rallies the resources to make exciting things happen.

Why is vision important?
A vision is not a luxury but a necessity; without it, design firms drift and lack focus. Without vision there is confusion and often disharmony.

What are the warning signs?
Here are a few “red flags” to consider:

  1. The firm is not as fun to work in as it once was.
  2. There is confusion about purpose and priorities.
  3. There is inefficiency.
  4. There is resentment toward clients.
  5. There is gossip and rumor throughout the culture of the firm.
  6. There is absence of shared sense of progress.
  7. There is high turnover of staff.
  8. There is unnecessary and excessive risk avoidance.
  9. There is loss of market position and competitive reputation.
  10. There is a lack of trust and respect for principals and officers.

What can be done to turn this around? Leaders in the firm must establish direction. It isn’t always easy. There are strategic choices to be made that require resources, certain behavior patterns, authentic leadership, and business judgment.

Visions are idealistic
They may often remind your staff of that which originally motivated them to choose design as a career. Still, visions are also about change. They are about new models that are desirable. Visions are nothing if they are not motivating. At the end of a long, hard week one still feels a sense of a strong and powerful reason to return to the workplace.

Visions inspire enthusiasm and they reflect the uniqueness of the firm. They are expansive. They are attractive because they clarify purpose and direction. To be clear, a vision is not a mission. It is not factual. It deals not with reality but with possible and desirable futures. Here is what we recommend:

  1. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of your firm
  2. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of like firms in your markets
  3. Involve all levels of staff, as well as principals and the board, in the visioning process
  4. Involve clients in an outside-in analysis and visioning process
  5. Explore options and consider contrarian innovativeness
  6. Don’t tear down the present but build on the foundations you have in place
  7. Ask what business you are really in and ask what value that has
  8. Ask what are the key values and cultural elements of your firm
  9. Develop options and vision scenarios
  10. Make choices
  11. Package the vision
  12. Implement and coach the vision through an action plan checklist

*****

By Jim Cramer

This article originally appeared in DesignIntelligence, February 28, 1997.