Why Should you Lead with Design?

By Denny Royal

April 28, 2016

For many top-performing companies, design is a strategic imperative instead of an afterthought. A happy accident? Nope.

Over the last few years we have seen a variety of things affect the performance of business. From the Great Recession that hit in 2008 to the continued unrest throughout the world, we have seen these things continue to affect businesses’ ability to grow. And yet when we look at the markets, there is a specific group of companies that have continued to outperform others by over 200 percent. This cohort of companies includes: Apple, Coca Cola, Ford, Herman Miller, IBM, Intuit, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Steelcase, Target, and Whirlpool. What is it that binds this group of companies together and provides the sort of growth that other companies only covet? Design; they all lead with design. Design not as an aesthetic exercise, but as a framework for understanding people and solving their problems. In other words, using design to solve for their customers’ unmet needs. All of the companies mentioned above understand the value of design as a process and as a strategy from the top down in order to better serve their customers.

We continually see companies focus on the ROI of design and put too much pressure on the financial measurements of success up front. This approach often actually hinders the innovation process, because teams will aim only for that initial performance indicator. The result is incremental improvement rather than true innovation. Or, the design team may be isolated as an experiment that a few people are running rather than something embraced throughout the organization. Instead, what would happen if you trusted the process, trusted your teams and let design lead? When we look at the value of design, there are many themes that rise to the top above and beyond ROI.

First, design, when done right, is customer-centered so that you solve real problems and unmet needs rather than coming up with a lot of ideas that may or may not solve a problem. Getting outside of the conference room and really understanding your customers is the key to success. It will help you decide what products or services to make and how to make them in a way that is useful and usable for the customer. All too often when designing new products or services, companies fall into the common pitfalls of not considering the customer, or designing solutions based on anecdotal ideas from management or other sources who don’t represent the target audience.

Second, when we look at design from an organizational standpoint, we see that it has the power to transform and energize companies in a way that most business processes or frameworks can’t. Design works best when it is culturally embedded and when an organization’s leadership sees it as a strategic advantage and uses that advantage to differentiate. When embraced in this manner design should permeate every aspect of the organization. Too often we make design about a function, skill set, or department. It is not about a particular team within the organization; it’s about a way of approaching problems and the mindsets we have while we are working on those problems. When implementing design throughout a company, teams and disciplines are brought together who typically wouldn’t normally work together. By working collaboratively, it encourages dialog, teamwork and creativity at a much higher level, which in turn leads to much stronger solutions. Leading with design as both a process and a strategy provides a more structured and systemic approach to tackling large problems.

At a time when so many high-profile brands are opting to prioritize design, many companies and organizations are wondering if it’s the right strategy for them too. Some organizations may think that they are too small or their business and culture is not compatible with a design-led approach; and quite honestly, some are not. If senior leadership is not ready to embrace design as strategy it doesn’t have a chance at becoming part of the culture and probably won’t have the desired outcomes. But if approached in the right way, design can add value to any organization large or small, product or service. Again, if we think about it as a way to understand people, the problems they have, and how to solve those problems and unmet needs, rather than thinking of it as an aesthetic exercise, then this value can be realized. It can drive innovation and allow a company to open up new market spaces as well as differentiate current products and services. In the end it allows for things to be designed in a way that will surprise and delight users and customers.

Many of the consistently top-performing companies in the world have adopted design as strategy; maybe you should too.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

Related Articles

Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking Bootcamp: Four Surprising Takeaways from a Newbie

UX Design: What’s Empathy Got to Do With It?

Biomimicry 101: An Interview with Denny Royal, Principal and Head of Design and Biomimicry at Azul Seven

Want to get in touch?