As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Design School vs Harvard MBA: which is harder?

A couple months ago I was sitting at Harvard Business School describing Daily Grommet to an investor.  When she learned I was an alum of the school, she asked me about my MBA experience.  I casually answered, “It was really good for me, but being an industrial design student was way harder.”  She was a bit stunned, and asked why.  I said,

Well, as a design student you don’t just reflect back what you learned.  You have to dig deep and come up with original ideas that respond to real market opportunities.  You have to develop and defend those ideas in front of tough critics.  You have to be ‘right’ in your recommendations, as though you were already a practicing professional because a company or client is soon going to  trust you to be expert, with a relatively thin safety net.  And you have to do it over and over again–successfully face that blank piece of paper–to excel among your peers.

Business, on the other hand, is not rocket science.  In practice it can be creative enough, but it’s not so at the MBA-school level.  It’s not really even very intellectual.  At HBS, succeeding in class discussions sometimes depended more on ‘sounding good’ than any kind of original thinking.  In truth, at least in the classroom, the professors probably work harder than the students. And the reality is, in business there are often multiple ways to go with a decision, and the person who can defend an idea best often wins, right or wrong.

The investor said,

Therein lies the problem with business ‘as usual.’  You should write about this.

So here, I did.  I found my MBA studies to be really valuable.  (Truthfully, learning how to “do” small talk at the stream of MBA student social events was my best takeaway, but there were many other skills I also carried forward.)  However, learning how to think as a designer was much more difficult.

Today I welcome the huge business press focus on “design thinking.”  I respect the popularity of IDEO and my first startup employer, the design innovation consultancy,  Continuum.  I endorse the fact that designers are increasingly reporting to CEOs and deeply influence business.

But for me, if I really wanted to learn how to think originally and coincidentally advance the cause of an organization, I would pick design school over getting an MBA, any day of the week.

29 Responses to “Design School vs Harvard MBA: which is harder?”

  1. Michael Troiano

    I guess I buy that. HBS doesn’t stifle innovative thinking in the way some people think. But it doesn’t give you the tools to do it.

    Still… harder? Remember the TOM mid-term, first year?

    • julespieri

      Mike- I don’t. I must have surpressed that memory. Was is a take-home? I do remember making a written case against take-home mid-terms and winning the argument.

      What was hardest for me was showing up without the full quant background. The highest math I’d ever taken was Algebra 2. I know the school now helps people like with a crash course before classes begin. And in the end I was fine…the profs filled in the gaps very well in the ordinary course of class.

  2. james a

    I think that speaks more to the way you approached HBS than any inherent originality that is required in Design School. There’s plenty of me-too designs (Dell) and plenty of original business (Netflix). If you think the primary skill you cultivated at HBS was small-talk, I can see why you might think that, but I’d caution you against generalizing to the rest of us.

    • julespieri

      James. Fair enough. But one reason I went to B-school was because I saw the MBAs (and engineers, and accountants) squash original design so many times. I knew I had to be “the man” and help great design prosper. So yes, there are weak designers for sure, but weak designs are as often the product of a bad internal committee and decision making process.

      And on the small talk thing….if you saw how ridiculously quiet I was before HBS you’d see why that was a pretty important takeaway for me!

      • oxdesign

        Spot on. I am a designer and have worked with Product Managers from Ive leagues not just from HSB but others as well. Point you made about MBAs squashing original design in the name of business feasibility is true in many companies. Designers are usually short on persuasive arguments as compared to their MBA counterparts and I am of the opinion that a B-School enables a weak designers become strong in aligning the design thinking to the business goals that gets pitched around in executive meetings. Amalgamation of B-School and D-School sounds a very powerful skill-set.

    • dlweinreb

      I just finished reading “Built to Last” by Jim Collins. It talks about companies that have done well over the very long term, which he calls “visionary”, vs. also-rans. Netflix and Dell aren’t exactly in the same domain; he was only looking at companies over 50 years old, and he’d say that the jury may not be in on whether Netflix depends entirely on the founder and so on. Nevertheless, the whole question of which companies are best, as companies per se independent of their current product and market, was a very interesting topic. Did Harvard B School go into that? I know about the “case studies” but I do not know the extent to which they try to draw greater lessons from an aggregate of such studies.

  3. dlweinreb

    Any tips on how to “do” small talk at the stream of MBA student social events? I’m not entirely joking.

    • julespieri

      Someone who is a master at this gave me simple advice:

      1) When you know you are going to see someone at an event, and you want to connect with them, think ahead of time about four or five simple things that they care about and ask them about them. (Kids, pets, new job, hobbies) Just remembering the details of their life is so charming.

      2) If you are meeting strangers, just keep asking questions. Cover the basics to get to know them. People love to tell their stories and they come away feeling really good about you in those conversations.

      You don’t need to be a genius, or particularly well-informed to master those two things. Thank God. Just alert.

  4. Kaitlyn Burns

    There are some great MBA programs out there now who use Design Thinking as their root. As someone who majored in both art and business – the design thinking / human-centered design MBA program I took used BOTH parts of my brain … which I felt to be much more of a challenge (in a good way). The teach an opposable mind, rather than an “either or” type of mind.

  5. Hannah Rosenberg

    This is a very interesting conversation. Admittedly I have not gone to business school, but I do see how being smarter about the business side could have been beneficial in my career. I did go to design school for apparel design. I have been working for 15 years for a variety of companies, and now I am designing under my own name for a variety of clients in both the apparel and product design fields.

    As a designer you are constantly having to work in and around a variety of fluid, ever changing, and often subjective criteria. Nothing is fixed. In my field, one also has to design product for a wide variety of body shapes and sizes, that is a challenge in itself! In general, a designer has to create product that is current, relevant, adheres to current trends and is applicable to your target market.

    In this difficult economy, companies are asking more of the designers they hire. No longer are you just able to develop new product. You need to know the business side of it as well. You not only have to be a talented designer and come up with a consistent stream of new ideas that meet your client’s needs, but you also have to be out in the market, checking out your competition, knowing your price points, your materials, trends, and your target market. Once all of this is compiled you then have to “design into” the project taking all of this information into account. It is not a book learned, rote, or formulaic process. Your design needs to meet a long laundry list of criteria- from an aesthetic point of view, from a feasibility point of view (can your factories actually be able to produce your design) timeliness, as well as a cost point of view. Can the design be produced at a cost that both your company can afford, as well as your customer?

    Most of what I do today wasn’t learned in design school, but through the hard knocks of working in the industry, and learning how to design better, and smarter into the needs of the client. I am definitely biased in saying that working as a designer poses difficulties and challenges that people that are not in design fields can appreciate. Though the best designers are ones who have an understanding and mind for business as well. Bottom line, designing in most cases is about money.

    • julespieri

      What a thoughtful explanation you wrote. For people who haven’t practiced as designer, this is really helpful. I agree that much of what separates a great designer from an average one can’t easily be taught and so much is learned on the job. I do have a bias for a a broad education though…not just a design-oriented one. Some of the best designers I know studied something else for undergrad and then studied design later. I know that sounds a bit contradictory to what I wrote, but I am referring to having education beyond design but not instead of it.

  6. DesignTheNewBusiness

    What an interesting post you have here Jules.
    We are working here on a short documentary about how design and business are changing and affecting each other. From our perspective this two sides are complementary and need each other. There is a certain lack of trust and over simplification on what design is and what it can really do from part of the business world. But the same also applies from the design world towards the business discipline.
    Thanks for sharing your experience, it is already being a great input to our project.
    If you have a chance take a look at what we are doing and let us know what you think.

  7. Lauren Nham (@LaurenSophia)

    I agree with you, Jules. The biggest differentiation design school has from business school is ability to handle uncertainty. Business people are risk-adverse. If there’s risk, they tend to barrel through it with preexisting frameworks and prior known knowledge.

    While that’s fine, it’s premature when it comes to managing and leading a business into the future. The concept of “Design” (with a big ‘D’) is to explore outside of what’s known. We often confuse “Design” with “design” (small ‘d’), which is more of the execution and implementation of “Design”. “Design” includes design thinking, design research, and design strategy — ethnographic observations/primary research (literally talking to the customers) and lots of ideation, prototyping, and iterative testing. “design” is more appropriately attributed to the actual development of a marketing collateral, website, or logo.

    There’s much argument for the necessity of both business and design. In essence, business is needed for viability (how do we sell it), engineering for viability (how do we make it work?), and design required for usability and desirability (how do we want make YOU want it?).

    My main reason for skipping traditional b-school for the MBA in Design Strategy (dMBA) here at the California College of the Arts is literally to “think differently.” I’ve shifted from hiding behind my desk and spreadsheets to balancing that out with speaking with the customer firsthand (via street intercepts, home observations, and in-depth interviews) and welding my pen and post-its for back-of-the envelope sketches and sticky-note ideation sessions.

    All in all, if you mix design and business together, what you get is an agile startup mentality that is highly applicable to F500s as well. It’s not really rocket science per se, but it’s literally learning to connect the dots.

    • Jules Pieri


      I love how you synthesized all of this in your comment. I also appreciate that you did not apply value judgements to each side of the coin and you connected your current learnings to concrete outcomes in your professional practice. That’s a hard working comment! Thanks.

  8. Maryann Finiw

    I agree that studying Industrial Design at Pratt was much harder than getting my MBA at Harvard Business School. In most academic disciplines, truly original thinking and creative work is not required until a PhD thesis, but designers are expected to be doing that level of original thinking as undergrads.

    Designs have to be 100% finished, in thinking and in detailed execution. Following the 80-20 rule, it takes 80% of the effort to finish that last 20% of the design details. As a management consultant, following the 80-20 rule was encouraged as maximum efficiency. If you could get 80% of the results with only 20% of the effort, any more investment of effort would be potentially inefficient. But design students are taught to aspire to Mies van der Rohe greatness whereby, “God is in the details.” And doing that last 20% of defining and executing all the details to achieve 100% perfection takes an additional 80% of effort that is equally mentally challenging and physically exhausting.

    Design school requires taking the time to do repetitive, iterative loops of prototyping and analysis to reveal the opportunities to improve the design solution. Products that frustrate us, have often been designed only 80% right. An 80% correct product design has all the basic elements there, but the last 20% of managing the trade-offs and perfecting the details is what will exceed expectations and deliver consumer delight.

    In reading and preparing a MBA case study for class discussion or studying to take a MBA mid-term or final exam, at some point you make the trade off to stop studying and go to bed, because it would be better to get more sleep overnight in order to be clear headed for class participation. In preparing drawings and models to turn in for a final presentation and critique in design school, you had no choice but to pull all-nighters. If the design thinking was not fully resolved and then expressed and embodied in drawings and models that were flawlessly executed, you could not succeed or excel.

    The MBA program starts with each subject siloed for accounting, marketing, operations, organization behavior, etc. It is not until the Strategy course that MBA students are asked to consider the implications of all those subjects at once. Design thinking was an excellent foundation for strategic thinking to understand how to manage the trade offs between potentially conflicting demands of marketing, manufacturing, retailing, social responsibility, etc. I was chastised for being off topic in a 1st year MBA marketing class if I raised a manufacturing or ethics issue that to my design thinking was a critical deal breaker on a marketing case decision. But I excelled in Strategy, when I could apply my design thinking training to optimize the components of the entire business model, and was invited to be a Strategy course tutor to other MBA students for whom this multi-faceted design thinking was not as natural.

    • julespieri


      You added a LOT to this discussion and I particularly liked the PhD parallel to an undergrad design curriculum.

      And…your comment about getting chastized about expanding the case discussion beyond the scope of the class really resonated with me. I used to really remark on that a lot in the HBS classroom…I felt like we were supposed to forget everything we learned on the job and just react narrowly to the material at hand, at times. Professors would routinely cut off expanding comments such as you wanted to contribute.

      At the time, I decided there was virtue to that classroom ethos…it levelled the playing field so that a more experienced person could not dominate the conversation, and it kept the discussion driving forward to the points of the case. So it was not inherently unproductive, but the thinking it represented was also not “real world.”

      • John

        I too have an industrial design degree in industrial design from Pratt and one from the Art Institute. I do not have a business degree. However I deal with those types all the time. My personal feeling is that just about anyone can go to business school but not everyone can succeed in design school. When dealing with business and the decisions therein it’s very black and white. Does it make money? How much? Where can we market it? Who can make it cheaper.
        Design decisions are more intrinsic. Form,line,color, material, weight., pattern.
        Nothing is worse than a MBA messing with design. They come and want to change things because it’s makes better business sense.
        I would like to see any of them survive finals week of any semester in design school.
        I have a friend that majored in economics at Rutgers. We summed up our two college experiences this way. His class was a lecture hall of a few hundred students where the professor didn’t know he existed and an honor system of attendance with a sign in sheet. I sat in a design studio with a dozen students my professor walked in with 2 large bags of toys and said pick a toy and draw it! So for 4 hours we drew toys! then we have to design our own then we have to make them. And defend your design. None of that happened to my friend.
        Design school requires skill, talent and ability just to get in! business school requires you to show up! That’s the bottom line!

      • julespieri

        Hi John,
        Thanks for sharing your experience. I have to admit that one of the key reasons I got an MBA was to be able to “fight fire with fire” in terms of dealing with businesspeople who had a lot of power and influence over my work as a designer. It was not their “fault” that they could not manage design or be consistently productive with their inputs, and I decided to meet them halfway. How could they possibly know what I knew after a deep training in design…I wanted to bridge that gap.

  9. Rkg

    I agree ..5 years of architecture school with 24/7 multiple demands seVeral fields taught us much more

  10. Sungmoon

    Wow, you wrote this in 2011? This somehow popped up on my Twitter timeline via John Maeda. I studied electrical engineering in college and graduated from UCLA MBA, and I fundamentally agree with you. MBA was hard. Not because of math, but because of the amount of work that I needed to get done at the same time – exam prep, team assignments, business networking for internship (small talk skill was one of my biggest takeaway as well), and friendship building that can go beyond the school days.

    However, it was not a process of ‘creating something new’. We learned new concepts such as conjoint survey, Porter’s five forces, customer lifetime value, and recommendation algorithms. Some of them were hard to understand, and even harder to apply. However, it was mostly about analysis. Now, which is harder? to analyze complex situation and draw conclusion vs. create something new that can benefit the world?

    I guess the answer lies on what you are analyzing or what you are creating. Creating trivial stuff is easy, but if you want to create something truly unique and beneficial to the world, that’s an incredibly difficult process.

    After spending 5 years in a corporate after MBA, I am now creating my own products, and I feel humbled. Even designing a small mug cup can be an onerous task, and I am so thrilled to think of the day when a lot of people use and love my apps.

    Cheers to the makers and changers!

  11. julespieri

    Sungmoon, funny you noticed the 2011 date. This post did not get a ton of traction until this year so it is either the “John Maeda” effect or simply better timing. Thanks for your thoughtful response, which also resonates with me. You are addressing key dimensions of both analytical and creative work and all projects or goals are far from equal. Good luck with doing your own product development.

  12. Nida Mian

    Am so glad I came across this post at this point in my life even though it was written in 2011! As a recent graduate student who got to spend a semester each at GSD, HBS and HKS at Harvard (and as someone who’s been trying to find the perfect balance between craft and strategy professionally) I have to say you were completely spot on regarding the distinct skill sets (albeit both equally important) of both schools. I found that I was able to get a more holistic perspective being able to not only attend classes but also socializing within two very different cultures within Harvard. I found the biggest advantage MBA students had was the ability to articulate not just any but the RELEVANT analysis with such ease and confidence (perfecting the art of the elevator pitch as well is by no means a small feat in a marketing driven world). On the other hand, design school students may be criticized for their ignorance towards all things “feasible” but i think their pursuit of romanticism and idealism with such integrity is essential to creating sticky and innovative end products. Conclusion being, both business and design school are like the the yin and yang of any visionary business!

  13. julespieri

    Nida, Thanks so much for your thoughtful reflections. Your experiences are broader than my own so this is super interesting to me. I totally agree with that yin and yang assessment.


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