Business by design


Design-led business outperforms by 228%
That’s the headline statistic reported by the US Design Management Institute (DMI) when they conducted a study of 15 businesses that institutionally understand the value of design.

It’s easy for those of us with a design background to evangelise about the power of design thinking to transform business (it’s why we do what we do), and it’s always been our jobs to persuade business of the value it can bring. But the DMI statistic was released two years ago, and what we’re seeing is that since that time the trend towards being ‘design-led’ or ‘design-active’ is being comprehensively adopted by some significant brands that are leading the way.  We’re entering a new era where the strategic integration of design is creating a whole new corporate attitude. An era where business, technology and design are no longer separate entities.

What do we mean by ‘design’?
Firstly, let’s tackle the slippery interpretation of ‘design’. We’re not talking about typefaces and colour palettes here… Design is a mindset, a process for making the right decisions to bring you closer to your audience/s. It’s a process that's honest and human (based on real insight), empathetic (it demands deep understanding) collaborative (it’s a team sport), predictive and inventive (it helps you see new connections to shape new outcomes) and analytical, iterative and adaptable (it keeps watching, thinking and it keeps on giving). But most importantly, evidence of this mindset is becoming a base expectation with your customers and clients. They expect to be listened to and understood and will judge your interactions with them on how much you use what you learn to shape their experiences.

‘Design-led’… what does it take?
Global agencies like IDEO and Frog have since the 90s, employed 'design thinking' (divorced from product or communication execution) to solve problems and bring innovation to companies like GE, Disney, 3M, HP... Now companies (large and small) are taking the design thinking conversation seriously themselves. In his article in Harvard Business Review last September, Jon Kolko (VP of Design, Blackboard) said of ‘design centricity’: “…companies today must contend with unprecedented technological and business complexity and that design can help simplify and humanise complex systems”

So, how can you simplify? How do you humanise?

  1. Create emotional experiences (not just rational/transactional).
  2. Work together. Contributions from diverse perspectives will make outcomes richer.
  3. Proof of Concept – use models and prototypes to examine complex problems and identify potential solutions
  4. Test and learn. Iterate. It’s the creative way to risk-manage.
  5. Pursue singularity and focus. Editing is one of the most impactful tools in the design tooklit.

Design from the top?
Doug Powell, Design Principle for Education & Activation at IBM voiced, in a 'Design Matters' podcast, his frustration at designers who think they need an MBA to converse confidently at an executive business level. He asked the question why someone with all the intellectual and practical skills and experience to think differently and make new things real would want to study the models for traditional linear business thinking. So, I wondered, how many Chief Executives/founders and entrepreneurs are out there with a design background? John Maeda’s presentation ‘#designintech’ (reported in WIRED) provides a snapshot from the Tech industries alone:

“…since 2010, 27 companies founded by designers were acquired by bigger companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Adobe, Dropbox, and LinkedIn. Of the cumulative-funded VC-backed ventures that have raised more money since 2013, 20 percent have co-founders who are designers. Last year, for the first time ever, six venture capital firms invited designers to join their teams”.

Mark Parker, CEO at Nike, who in his 10-year tenure has doubled Nike's sales, began his career as a designer. And of course, who could forget Airbnb’s infamous Rhode Island School of Design graduate founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky.

So, could design leadership have a consistent place at the corporate top table? Could we imagine a world where the C-suite incorporates a Chief Design Officer? That world is already here. Welcome… Jonathan Ive, CDO, Apple; Ernesto Quinteros, first enterprise-wide CDO, Johnson & Johnson; Sean Carney, CDO, Royal Phillips …

“We have a specific advantage that no other function has: we own the tool to transform an idea into a reality,” Mauro Porcini, chief design officer at PepsiCo says. “The ability to prototype and story-tell, to get to market with a product, a service, or a brand. This is something no other function has. We only need to think like partners. In any corporation there are silos, but we can be connected from the bottom of the pyramid all the way to the top, and drive solutions across the organization.” AIGA, ‘advice-for-future-design-leaders

Design Integration. 
Corporate businesses are investing in design talent, building or acquiring teams to inject design thinking into every level of their organisation.

IBM are building the largest design team on the planet and is on track to appoint 1,000 design professionals. It’s launched IBM iX – global design studios focused on user experience -  “We think bigger than an agency and more creatively than a consultancy, with the power to integrate the whole system. We are a next-generation services company, dedicated to creating transformative ideas that get our clients to the future first”. GE have built a 70 strong design team at their software HQ. Capital One has acquired user experience specialists ‘Adaptive Path. Accenture acquired ‘Fjord’ – a leading service design firm. Barclays is the biggest employer of design talent in London. And agency ‘Oliver’ is implementing a successful strategy to plant agency teams within client organisations.

No longer is a design position on an in-house team second fiddle to an agency opportunity. In-house teams are being empowered with the data, insights, expertise and investment to make an impact and be recognised for it. However, the design process needs commitment, dedication to process, collaboration with other functions, and a creative environment and culture to flourish. To be successful, this new approach must be about more than just the appointment of creative individuals or creative teams but the holistic adoption of the ethos of design thinking and culture as the engine to drive innovation and change – enterprise-wide. A culture of questioning, a dedication to research and dialogue to find answers, a culture of testing and prototyping, of evidencing and validating, of making things real and most of all making sure it matters to customers and clients.

Design in your business
So I invite you to consider, what investment do you or should you make in design? What is the maturity of design in your organisation? Where could design thinking add value? 

If your leadership, management and employees are not thinking like designers … then perhaps they should be. What would the future look like if they were?...

Fiona Burnett