Designers as Knowledge Workers

Designers as Knowledge Workers
Designers as Knowledge Workers
Classic Designs » Essays » Designers as Knowledge Workers

What is knowledge in design?

Knowledge is a field in which designers and managers can find each other. This is why knowledge – in all its appearances the source for innovation, is such a good starting-point for analysing design’s contribution to business.

More than in the past, companies focus on the impact of knowledge. Companies now `recognize’ knowledge and think in terms of immaterial rather than material sources. When companies organize their knowledge, when they organize skills to build up know-how, knowledge becomes a production factor.

For small and medium-sized companies, where knowledge often exists in an informal and implicit way, it is quite important to introduce such an explicitly formulated knowledge.

Typical of knowledge is that it works as a process, so companies should try to introduce new elements of organisation at the same time as learning from them. During this process of learning, design can play its own part as a source for knowledge and innovation.

In new business models knowledge is a `competitive’ factor, is a product itself – in other words, knowledge qualifies workers at any level of the process. This is why we can pose the question: Are designers knowledge workers? 

Designers as Knowledge Workers

An interesting fact is that many of the skills and qualities we find in knowledge workers correspond with the skills and qualities designers display. Knowledge workers have to integrate different kinds of knowledge into their work.

Designers are expected to do the same: they use their own experiences as well as the consumers’ experiences, they learn from what happens outside in the streets…

Knowledge workers communicate through visualizing, just like designers. A good manager should be able to translate reality into a model and synthesize potential solutions into images and a vision. These too are qualities we can find in successful designers. So important role in contemporary companies. 

Which is the specific contribution design gives to the company knowledge? To answer this question professor Bertola compared 30 case studies of companies operating in two opposite contexts.

15 of these case studies concern global corporations with worldwide production and sales activities. These companies were taken from a research originally carried out by the Design Management Institute in Boston, USA. The other 15 case studies are local companies whose production activities are limited to Italy but whose products are sold throughout the world.

This group was researched by the Italian Design System of the Milan Politecnico. Starting-point of this research was that designers rely on three kinds of knowledge: users knowledge, organisational knowledge and network knowledge. Network is not restricted here to a digital context but interpreted as a cultural environment in which individuals exchange knowledge about design. The city of Milan is a good example of such a network.

designers rely on three kinds of knowledge: users knowledge, organisational knowledge and network knowledge.

The results show that in all the examined companies there is a design contribution to the company knowledge, but that global corporations apply this contribution in a different manner than local companies.

The conclusion is that there are different ways of managing design: design planned and design diffused. In the global corporations design has an explicit function and is formally organized.

With the local companies, design contribution has been spread out over the whole of the product’s development process. Here design contribution has not really been managed. It’s rather like a cultural attitude, vaguely present but without a structured function within the company. 

Design diffused: interpreting the Italian local context of SMEs

Within the local Italian context of small and medium-sized companies several reasons can explain this situation of design diffused.

Italy has known a design attitude for several decades. Design is important and has been successfully applied in quite a few sectors. Lucky circumstances must have created this situation, since in Italy design is not supported by government institutions or educational establishments. (The Politecnico, for instance, is a major university which was only founded in 1993, which makes it a very young establishment.)

Italy has always had a sense of style and a cultural community naturally focussing on design. Designers share this interest and can – inspired by the exchange of knowledge living in this wide network – renew their products.

Also, Italy has an industrial culture featuring managers who double as designers. In Italy the natural interest in design has created industrial and professional networks which stimulate and support this design development.

Milan’s Furniture Fair is one of those networks where ideas are being exchanged, knowledge tested, products evaluated… This context of design knowledge inspires and leads to innovation.

Still, the problems of a design diffused situation are evident: how to compete on the global market while being excluded from the global knowledge networks (technologies, innovation of research institutions, scientific communities)?

How to protect local, implicit knowledge while accessing global networks which also enable others to gain access to your own information? How to drive informal design process to formal and reproducible ones? 

Design for trust: an action research case study

The Milan Politecnico regularly collaborates with small and medium-sized companies to transform implicit design knowledge into a formal strategy. In this research they make use of the Polidesign Consortium, a `tool’ developed by the Polictecnico several years ago, to mediate between local and global design knowledge.

Its methodology is based on action research, meaning that the research tries to change the company’s strategy. Major aim of the collaboration is to inspire confidence in design. This implies a great deal of communications with the respective companies, so that they can implement a decent design management into their system.

At the same time the research is of interest on an educational level, since the Politecnico’s students learn from it how to manage design. 


Mangiameli is a small company in the fashion trade producing handbags and accessories for women. It was founded in the mid fifties, a period in which Italian design came to the fore. This family business is run by the two female owners. They are the company’s designer and manager (who is also responsible for communications).

Mangiameli’s example is typical of the situation outlined above: it’s a small company, active in a sector successful in Italy, run by an implicit design management.

At a time Mangiameli was going through a financial crisis and bought up by another company, the new owner wanted to gain insight in the existing informal design knowledge. 

Mapping design process and contribution

The research aims to map the design process and the design contributions: exploring new product concepts, writing the history of Mangiameli’s design knowledge in order to use it for the renewal of design management. The results are used as an educational/communicational tool both inside and outside the company.

The research starts with a product analysis (phase 1) and is followed by a process/market/communication analysis (phase 2). Phase 3 consists of drafting a multimedia case study and a briefing book which can be used by both companies and students. Ultimately, a workshop is held (phase 4) to discuss the results and consider new product concepts. 


Opportunities for feedback on several levels remain possible throughout the research process: feedback on the current product collections, feedback on the company design process and management, feedback on the communication strategy. Feedback on the company design management is aimed at renewing the design process in a small company supporting knowledge creation and acquisition.

This feedback is also founded on an analysis of the company’s structure of activities. At Mangiameli’s, part of these activities take place within the company, while other activities are put out to subcontractors outside the company. Within their company they have a designer and modelist co- operating, they work out the first prototype, implement the selections, produce the first series and look after communication and marketing. For the purchasing of materials, placement inside market partners, final production and selling they rely on partners outside the company.

A couple of weak points can be identified in this structure.

Firstly, Mangiameli’s design management is completely implicit. The designer communicates informally with the company’s modelist. They only produce rough draughts of the product, no technical drawings.

A second weak point: the lack of component buying. Initially, the designer had good relations with a large number of local suppliers who, as supply partners, could serve as a valuable source for product innovation. But the relationships with these suppliers were largely lost in the course of time.

Finally, the company’s market positioning of its collection was a problem. Mangianeli had no distribution channels of its own and relied completely on buying agents for the sale of its collection. 

General diagnosis

We may conclude that Mangiameli’s major problem is the fact that it’s a family business. In the beginning the company’s success was based on a personification between producer and user.

This is no longer the case for a younger generation. The company aged along with its owners and first-time customers. This is not exceptional for small and medium-sized companies in Italy.

The implicit design research process is a second problem. This may hamper the passing on of design knowledge and ultimately lead to a third problem: the lack of internal communication and the loss of company memory. Finally: there is also the problem of the lack of relationship with the local resources and opportunities. 

A new model for the design process could get rid of these weak points. In this model the design director joins forces with the former designer to learn from her design knowledge. Different from the previous situation is the structure the design director can use to gather a team around him. This team consists of someone who is in touch with the market and can give information about that market, someone who is able to experiment when problems arise about the development of a new product, a buyer of materials and components who, as a creative broker, travels the world and can also bring in new suggestions, and a person or institution examining the fashion trade.

The team should, finally, also be reinforced by a number of designers. Small companies often call upon design consultants who will meet the particular demands of the company’s vision or options. Collections develop out of this group’s cooperation. 


Politecnico’s research and its collaboration with Mangiameli’s family business was meant to extend design knowledge to an explicit knowledge resource, to use design knowledge as an internal knowledge management resource and to deploy design knowledge as an external knowledge broker.

Politecnico is a major university. It enables its departments to deploy financial models and coaching for companies. 

Paola Bertola 

Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.