What Good Does Design Do For Business?

Here Thomas Lockwood proposes the Design Mix, a set of principles that define how design adds value to business.

Have you noticed how similar some products are becoming? A Tesla and a Lotus, that’s an easy one. But I’m talking about the similarities between seemingly disparate objects, like an Audi car and Oakley sunglasses, a 3M stapler and an Alessi teapot, or a Starbucks café and your bank lobby. Consumers love cool design, and, in case you haven’t heard, companies are catching on. Investing in the design process can be a sustainable business advantage, because it tends to lead to five things: creative collaboration, innovation, differentiation, simplification, and customer experience.

For starters, designers tend to collaborate with each other, other disciplines, and users to generate new ideas, explore alternatives, and create new stuff (products, websites, brands, stores, etc.). The process of design thinking, co-creation, and design as creative collaboration can help companies move beyond their norms and create new markets. Companies like Intuit and Four Seasons have changed their corporate culture and how they compete with other market players by encouraging such collaborative processes. Intuit created a Design for Delight process, or D4D, which they use for problem solving and has led to launching new mobile products and services quickly, based on employee involvement and nurturing a design-thinking culture.

This cross-pollination can be the path to innovation. Design helps bring innovation—whether in tech or customer-service—to market. Just take away the design part of any innovative idea and see what you’re left with. What would a Dyson Airblade hand-dryer be without its unique usability?

In addition to being a collaborative path toward innovation, design is a way to differentiate a brand’s products from its competitors’. This goes beyond logo, graphic design, and branding to enabling user and customer experiences that cannot be easily copied. HP has done so using their "D3" matrix of design value in their printer design strategy. And when P&G wanted to gain preference in the generic mop category, it asked Continuum Innovation to look into mopping. Continuum developed a waterless solution—the Swiffer—now a branded product asset and nearly a billion-dollar business.

We live in an experience economy, and design is key to creating meaningful customer experiences. Case in point: Philips Lighting wants to sell more light bulbs, but the products have developed to the point where differentiation is hard to achieve, so they’ve beefed up the retail experience by connecting with Engine Service Design to create new software and a service platform that helps their retailers manage their lighting and media assets across their stores. The simple light bulb became differentiated through service design and the retailer experience.

Lastly, design simplifies. We live in complexity, and there is nothing like using the sensibilities of design to unpack wicked problems. The data-storage company StorageTek used to have completely different parts for each of their different servers and data-storage product lines, mostly due to legacy issues and business unit independence. The design department created a common platform strategy using shared components—just as Toyota Highlanders and Sienna minivans share the same chassis platform. The move not only saved StorageTek millions of dollars in just a few years but was the environmentally responsible thing to do. Design simplifies and should enable reuse and ecological solutions.

It is time for the professional design community to promote the demonstrable value of design, as described above. In 1953, Neil Borden, the president of the American Marketing Association, helped define the value of marketing by coining the term "Marketing Mix," which subsequently led to the famous 4 Ps of marketing (product, price, place, and promotion). In 2011, as the past president of the Design Management Institute, I propose that collaborate, innovate, differentiate, simplify, and customer experience become the Design Mix. Let’s talk in terms of real business value, because design is now gaining a seat at the table, and the last thing any c-suite needs is another empty suit.

[Top image by Steve Johnson]

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  • Dweissburg

    I pretty much agree with Thomas' thesis, that Design is good for business, but it's been a historically fickle "argument" to make, because many of us designers disagree on the intent of design, and for sure the language.  

    I would suggest that all design that creates lasting business impact does so because it continues to be compelling for consumers of it (whether they pay or not-public, etc). So I would add some nuance to Thomas' terms and correct something that I believe does us all a disservice. "Consumers love cool design..." is a throw away comment and can immediately turn off anyone who you are talking to about value. "Cool" is just one word, that defines one aspect of some designs that some people like. Design is about figuring out what is appropriate, compelling, useful, valuable to the specific end users. Sometimes it's cool, sometimes it's solidity, sometimes its traditional. It may all be cool to a designer, but I believe that's trivializing it. A design's gotta be.... what IT's gotta be, and that is the trick. The goal of coolness can turn into design for designers. Design for the end USER- that's what it must be to be credible.  End "cool" rant. Cool?And so I'd ground innovation, differentiation, simplification, and customer experience to real valuable aspects that are brought to the lives of the users. These goals are true value to the people who pay the money. These design goals are not just valuable as movers of goods, or as attention getters, they are real new provisions for end users. AND if we focus on THAT value, then perhaps people WILL see what design brings, rather than comparing it to the worst of advertising and branding, as what you put on a product after it's been engineered, and before it gets cost reduced. Innovation brings new technology and techniques to people who could benefit from them. That's value. Differentiation that provides value to the user will be rewarded not because it's different, but because in its difference, it is better. Simplification is always valuable (as Thomas points out), because our lives are complex and our minds have many things on them. And focusing on the customer experience, prompts US to get out of OUR heads and hearts in into the end users', and THAT, will help us see what to bring to them, to keep them coming back.  Real stuff, real goals, real value. Way beyond cool.

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  • Savena Doychinov

    In my opinion, we designers need to market ourselves incessantly and directly to the end user - through our professional associations, articles, books, blogs,etc - any way we can to educate the consumers about the value of our products and services.
    This, I believe, will create demand for well designed everyday objects, furniture, homes, offices, etc. When the public demands it, the best designed product at the best price for the quality will become the bestseller. And the CEOs and CFOs then will have no choice but to hire the best designer for the job - if they want profits!
    This, of course, will take time. We have to be relentless, because in the end, it's not
    about justifying our value, but about enhancing everybody's lives. Churchill said it:
    "We make our buildings and then they make us". This could apply to many other
    products, probably to all of them. Because the power of well designed home to bring us happiness versus the power of a well designed jacket to delight differs only in
    degrees. Everything that touches our lives should be well designed and beautiful or it
    should have no place in our lives. 

  • Kal Mistry

    What a load of tosh! Innovation Killer! That's what I thought of your artical.
    Very few CEO understand the power of design even when they see it happening, eg. Apple or Aston Martin. Every design is compromised towards the end of the design programme by bean counters. The reason why most design look the same is because the new generation and some old have run out creative thinking and they look to copy! or ride the trend! 

  • Patrick Lyver

    The two components that drive business are innovation and marketing - design bridges both categories and should be held in higher regard than it is. More often I find design (especially graphic) is being treated as a commodity, especially with design as a service type websites emerging almost weekly.

    It's great to see an article that promotes its importance in continuing improvement to product, image, and most importantly customer experience.

  • Bruce Renfrew

    Yes a useful jaunt through the topic but it lacks any real depth and fails to differentiate between the various design disciplines and the impact these have already had on our society. The Phillips and Storage Tek anecdotes are out of place in this thesis for example.  

  • ikem charles apache

    Couldn't agree less with Thomas.intelligent post on the design mix

  • Jan-erik

    I think in essence you are right, but the first ingredient of the mix is were it goes wrong most of time: designers struggle to collaborate. It's quite telling to see how designers work on various touch points that create a brans's experience and do this without looking left or right - communication designers hardly know what product designers intend, and vice versa, corporate design floats on top of all and hardly ever is in day to day 'collaboration' with the many other designers involved creating a brand, and vice versa. Integrated design still remains a 'lab experiment' and is hardly 'done' in practice.
    The examples that shine with a good working 'design-mix' are mostly found there where designers are made to collaborate, or are directed by a driven CEO.
    Designers still have to learn to play together in a symphonic way, I'm afraid...

  • Martin Ludvigsen

    Of course, I agree. These are good and interesting points for arguing the value of design and designers in the strategic process of any company. Whether we are on the board or not.
    However, I can't help coming back to your first paragraph. Isn't a problem that a stapler looks like a car that looks like a bank lobby that looks like .. etc.? In my opinion the high value of designers is that we create the concrete difference, including the aesthetic/empathic connection to people. What kind of people would want everything to look like everything else? Cool, sleek, corporate, trendy? There are so many other ways to present things, services etc. - also in the marketplace.
    I know this is a sidestepping of your initial intention with the article - that designers should become a more integral part of the business decision process, but it might ask the question "at what price?". Should we give up our love for detail, use, people, life and 'wholes' in order to fit better with the corporate power structures, strategic linearities etc.?

  • Sandeep Pinge

    Design and functionality have usually been treated as a trade-off zone for long. Great article explaining how good designing actually improves functionality, and experience.

  • Alleyn Yasskin

    Thanks Thomas for talking about collaboration in design. i really appreciate this article. It crosses into all the design disciplines and helps define the why for us.
    Alleyn Yasskin
    Alleyn Yasskin Designs

  • Yawdartey

    I totally agree with Thomas. Design should embrace these factors and we could probably turn out good and functionable design products - consumer products and adverts.

  • Michelle

    Only successful designers would agree to this article. It means a lot when you understand what design does to every kind and what purpose design has for this world. Lack of design means lack of differentiation.

  • Danny

    corporate identity with eyecatching logo design is very important for selling and innovation idea or product. Captions are equally important also !!

  • David Report

    Another interesting upside with design is that it can bring innovation, from just being a new idea, to market,

  • Bjones

    It was a great topic of discussion 10 years ago and is still important today; especially with new internet businesses emerging exponentially.

  • Michael

    I am with Eperterson19, 99% of the time car companies spend there time on design, making it look good, knentic design which is (making it look like its moving) that the real priority which is reducing emissions, is unacheiveable because they simple cant do it. This is THE main reason why the VW darkside moment is here, VW are spending millions and millions lobbying for influence to restrict the increases in efficiencies.... because? you guessed it... so many years designing with focus to look good that the functionality of the car which was effectivised back in the 70's has been sitting in the corner gathering dust.