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Is a 'Design' led culture the secret to future success?
- Jul 2014 -

I recently had an interesting meeting with the CEO of an organisation in the world of design (for the sake of confidentiality, I won’t say who it is), but she spends her life meeting with senior executives in both industry and public sector, helping them to understand how they can adopt ‘Design' into their organisations and what effect it might have financially. As someone who runs a design firm and clearly appreciates the value of design, even I was surprised when she said "When Board Directors and Shareholders finally understand the power of design on their bottom line, there will be more work for design consultants than they will be able to handle".

I was reminded of this encounter the other day when I was reading an article / interview in Fast Company with Mark Kawano, who used to work at Apple as a designer. The idea was to get a peek behind the curtain of the secretive Apple organisation to understand just how they manage to pull off such iconic designs. 

Is it the process they use? Do they just recruit the very best designers in the world?

As it turns out, it’s all about the culture of the organisation. Design runs right through the entire company, from the engineers to the Board, it’s in their DNA. Until Google overtook them recently, they were the most valuable company in the world. Coincidence? Of course not! 

So why is design so important?

I remember years ago, everyone used to talk about the importance of having a more ‘Marketing’ led culture, and the evangelists would complain about a lack of appreciation for the effect that Marketing has on the bottom line. They emphasised that businesses should not only invest in bigger Marketing budgets, but it was crucial that Chief Marketing Officers should sit on the board etc....and they were probably right. More recently, an ‘Innovation’ culture has often been heralded as the holy grail to being successful.

Personally, I believe a ‘Design’ led culture is absolutely right for this era, with particular emphasis on 'User Centered Design’. Why? Because ‘User Centered Design’ doesn’t just focus on the primary user, but the entire ecosystem around the user (and the customer if they are different) including all the different users and other people who come into contact with the product or service. It focuses on the entire experience, and depending on the product / service, that could include families, friends, elderly people, children, as well as any kind of profession you might think of….doctors, car mechanics, the list is endless.

I use doctors and car mechanics as examples of other professionals but it really could include almost any other type of person, depending on the nature of the business and product / service. For example, as a car designer, aside from designing a great experience for the driver and passengers, it might be important to make it as easy as possible for people (more often mechanics than the customers) to reach certain areas to change and fix parts that eventually will need repair or updating.

At Zinc we are currently designing an interactive product for children with cancer. As part of our research, we are not just just talking to the children themselves, but the doctors, nurses, psychologists, play therapists, social workers, the parents and the siblings. Although the product will mainly be bought by parents, it will probably impact all of those people and we have to design an amazing experience that caters for all their needs. If we get it right, there will be a huge range of different people that will become advocates of this product, not just the primary user.

In this particular case, it’s not appropriate to talk about the financial benefits because it is mainly being done for philanthropical purposes but in another situation, that would be a major boost to the sales of the product. If ‘Marketing’ is all about the customer, ‘Design’ is about everybody that comes into contact with the company’s product or service. In today’s hyper connected world, in which word spreads so easily and quickly, that dynamic cannot be underestimated. One of the key elements of the user centered design approach (often referred to as 'Design Thinking’) is the inclusion of users throughout the process. We talk to and observe users at the beginning, we develop concepts and test them on users, we iterate on the design, develop prototypes and go back to the user to test again, and we keep going with this process within the constraints of the project, until we reach the optimum design.

By including users throughout the process, it is an economical way of innovating that mitigates risk. At the heart of a great design culture should be this philosophy. Furthermore, a design led culture isn’t just focused on the outside world but also within the business itself. Everything from the office environment to the the technologies and tools the company uses will be carefully designed to ensure that everybody working within the business has the best possible experience in everything they do. Get that right, and you will have a very happy and productive group of people.

I definitely subscribe to the philosophy that if you get the people right, the culture right and the product right, the profits will follow. There are early signs that companies are beginning to take this seriously, what with a few high profile ‘Chief Design Officer’ appointments in the last couple of years like Mauro Porcini at Pepsi, Ernesto Quinteros at Johnson & Johnson and Eric Quint at 3M. Of course, it takes a lot more than making individual senior appointments to facilitate a design culture, but it does hint at companies beginning to understand the incredible impact design can have on their business performance.

Having said that, I don’t want to belittle the importance of ‘Marketing' and ‘Innovation’, both of which play crucial roles in long term sustainable businesses, and of course they very often overlap with ‘Design’. However, ‘User Centered Design’ is so all encompassing that I believe it is the culture that makes most sense for companies to aspire to. I just hope that all those Board Directors do come round to that thinking, and my CEO friend is right. Having too much work because everybody is competing to design even better experiences for humanity around the world would be a great problem to have!

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