Design Management vs Scientific Management

Reawaken manual labor? Start in design schools

Corporate competitiveness dots the economic landscape. Politicians and economists are perpetually setting up ministries, commissions, and committees to deal with “economic recovery plans.” All this is a futile attempt to pull Western countries out of a never-ending series of crises and to get back on track with industrial growth models. Which makes me wonder, how farfetched is it, really, to sit down with all concerned parties and talk about “manual labor?” Could it be an answer, albeit a modest one? Could it be a modest remedy to the very slippery slope down which Western businesses are sliding?

Students spend an enormous amount time drawing, working with paper, cardboard, and other materials as well as devoting energy to cerebral nourishment bred from “playing” with Legos or Meccano which enable them, eventually, to design models or even their own rooms. With this immersion, is it therefore, surprising that when they’re in college, kids devote significantly less time to this type of “intellectual” activity?

It seems that the mere idea of “working with one’s hands” may have been a pointless and degrading exercise. In France, for instance, leading engineering schools no longer produce engineers; their graduates opt to take positions on the floors of stock exchanges, from London to Frankfurt. Life in the factory has become unappealing, observed the head of Schneider recently. How surprised should we really be at this turn of events?

Since the Industrial Revolution, scientific management consistently drew a clear divide between the intellectual work entrusted to the “elites” and manual labor allotted to the working classes. In the late 19th century Frederick Taylor created his very own model of scientific management, fueled by the necessity to draw a clear distinction between the side that thinks, models, sets down the procedures, and dictates the rules of “work well done” and a growing number of less qualified workers whose sole purpose was to apply the rules and not their minds. In response to this segregated and mechanized system, design arose from the shadows to restore a bit of humanity to this warped sense of mind and body divivision.

But this approach of an enlightened, qualified, and competent workforce quickly came to a screeching halt, extinguishing any glimmer of cerebral activity or any notion connecting the thought process with the hand. The end result was a skill-thirsty workforce. To fully grasp the belief that “using one’s head” was a waste, take a look at Charlie Chaplin’s struggles in Modern Times. He’s a victim of his own society. He gets “sucked into and spit out” by the very same machine that his automated gestures nourish day-in and day-out. Or look at Roger Vailland’s 325,000 francs. His hero, Busard, has his arm mercilessly crushed by the plastic toy machinery he operates every day on the assembly line; yet another testament to human collateral damage induced by the perils of automation.

Scientific management does have an economic upside: lower pay for less qualified workers.

But this comes with a hefty price tag. Emerging countries have caught on to the trend as they’re giving the competition a run for its money with even lower salaries, defying the rules for healthy competition, and eliminating human value altogether.

In the end, businesses no longer have skilled workers at their disposal. Those who reflect the very essence of creation and innovation, bridge theory (strategy) and practice (implementation) on industry’s front lines are absent. And so I must ask, how much longer before we wake up to the reality that industry in the western world is shooting itself in the foot?

Recent research done on quality by these same businesses may be on to something with regard to solving this dilemma. Putting procedures in place, with the obligation of applying them, lowers the chances of those applying them of having to think. More to the point, these systems also inhibit business’s creative ability. In the eyes of quality fanatics, creating and innovating are ultimately synonymous with breach of corporate purpose and interest.

The “productive recovery plan” for industry in the West may just come about by “taking matters into our own hands.” This means re-training teams and instilling in them the notion of responsibility and recognition, and breathing new life into the age-old value of compatibility between the mind and our ability to build, design, assemble, put up and take down. This would mean investing in the power and talent of one to design something from nothing. It would mean revealing the multiple facets of innovation and the meaning(s) innovation communicates; this is precisely why business needs designers. Designers don’t just think. They do!


To merge “thinking” with “doing,” the Compagnons French Trade Guild teaches us that “the hand is the mind.”No “Design-thinking” conference has ever developed an activity or business, nor has it generated the slightest added value. Only those who take “matters into their own hands” move things forward.

Designers are catalysts. They set in motion the ideas generated during “design thinking” sessions or other creativity-oriented conferences.

If I were a politician in charge of industrial development, I would do what I could to bring the technology and manual labor classes out of the closet in schools. I’d freshen them up and call the courses “Design and Innovation.” I would shine a long-overdue spotlight on those devoted to the matter and its transmission.

I’d ask that design schools take ownership of finding ways to accommodate both the “having done” and “doing,” keys to an efficient and effective partnership, and an industrial reawakening of our territories and of our resources.

So what do you say? Isn’t it time that we had a heart to heart, head to head discussion about “manual labor?”



Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries in 2008; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequenly on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

Read more posts from Christian Guellerin here.

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