Leading business by design


Photo by  Tim Mossholder  on  Unsplash

The term ‘design’ is commonly used to describe a tangible output, e.g. something’s form, layout or appearance; or to refer to a styling activity. But design is more than look and feel. Design is really an holistic approach applied in the development of products, services and business models to generate value by creating propositions that are desirable, usable, viable and feasible. As well as helping businesses to develop and communicate ideas, design can provide insights and help define opportunities and strategies.

The success of any new product or service ultimately depends on human motivations and behaviour—people buy technology for what it does for them. This represents a risk for companies seeking to exploit innovative technologies because even the most cutting-edge technology will fail if potential customers see no benefit or are unable to use it effectively. By focusing on human behaviour, design not only mitigates that risk but leverages opportunities to create more value through delightful customer experiences.

According to the Design Council, for every £1 invested in design, businesses might achieve as much as £20 in increased revenue and a £4 increase in net operating profit. Despite this 68% of UK businesses never or rarely practice design, or they come to it as a “last finish”.

The value of design as a methodology is not well understood

When design is constrained to late styling activities, its role is reactive rather than proactive. Its influence and contribution of value is curtailed. When design is applied throughout the delivery process, beginning in the early stages, it can significantly de-risk achieving a successful outcome. Insights from continuous discovery and exploration of current and future scenarios are synthesised to expose and refine multiple desirable and viable propositions that offer outstanding customer experiences and generate more value for business.

In some businesses, there’s little awareness and understanding of the role of design, how it can be used end-to-end, and the value it can generate. Other businesses appreciate the value of design but do not have the capability to practice it to maximum effect, nor procure it. The 2005 Review of Creativity in Business identified 3 barriers to greater creativity within businesses; they also hinder effective use of design:

  1. Limited understanding of where and how greater creativity could be used for business advantage.
  2. Lack of confidence that the investment in design, in terms of time, money and disruption, will produce a return.
  3. Lack of knowledge of how to go about it, or where to turn for help.

Design is most powerful when it's intrinsically a part of the culture

There’s correlation between the value that businesses are able to realise from design and the extent to which design is embedded within company culture—the earlier design is used and the more strategic its role, the greater its benefit.

When design is integrated into company culture, it can readily explore challenges through a customer lens and in the context of the business model and business operations. It can inform strategies and targets and, with its creative framework, move businesses from contextual understanding towards viable propositions and innovation opportunities. Design becomes a return multiplier.

Fostering a design-led culture means that some companies must step beyond their comfort zones, adopt new ways of thinking, and embrace cross-functional and self-organising collaboration.

The difference is design

Design has gained relevance for the way companies are structured, how they operate and how they think. An increasing number are starting to use design strategically—to differentiate from the competition, to launch new brands and strengthen existing ones, and to inform strategic choices.

The business benefits of a design-led approach are numerable:

  • Improved understanding of customers, enabling more desirable and fit-for-purpose product and services.
  • Increased business resilience through more sustainable solutions with lower total cost of ownership.
  • Reduced innovation risk, timescales and cost.
  • Better differentiated offerings in competitive markets.
  • More rapid identification and opening up of new markets.
  • More effective communication and collaboration.
  • Stronger brand, increasing awareness, loyalty and advocacy among customers.

Regardless of type, size or sector, a business can use design to accelerate, de-risk and capture more value from its product development and innovation programmes. There’s already considerable evidence for design acting as a mechanism for business growth and innovation. Companies like Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Burberry and BMW are winning by design and the thinking behind that design. It’s time for design to be firmly on the business agenda.

Good design is good business.
— Thomas J. Watson