We recently hired a new designer who had an interesting story about her previous employer. Just as she joined the innovation team of an extremely well-known brand in the consumer apparel market — she learned that the entire team had just been abruptly let go and replaced.
It reminded me of a joke I’ve been hearing make the rounds in business circles recently: that not only does every firm seem to have a Chief Innovation Officer, but that every three years they seem to have a new one.
As companies around the world work harder than ever to overcome challenges ranging from sky-high inflation to shifts in consumer expectations, design-led innovation has never been more important. It’s also never been more of a scapegoat, with design being blamed for failing to deliver the silver bullet they expect.
Just look at Fast Company, which recently featured an article that suggested corporate America has “broken up” with design. Some of the explanations the magazine offers for the change of heart make sense, such as too many companies hoping designers could pull off miraculous industry transformations akin to the way Apple upended traditional computing with the iPhone. It’s also true that a well-designed product or service can’t make up for the fact there isn’t a customer base to support it.
The designer industry also shares responsibility for their profession falling out of favor in the boardroom. There are too many stories of high-priced creative teams who were given millions to solve a problem, only to deliver a PowerPoint deck. Fancy language and esoteric methodologies have sometimes obscured the fact that a design strategy would never scale to meet the business needs.
Rather than simply break up with design, however, corporate America needs to work harder on the relationship. Like any couples’ counseling, this means improving communication on both sides, recognizing shared goals and committing to change.
People always like to think of design as a silver bullet. It’s not. Design has to be embedded in a more systemic approach to operating in a way that delivers outstanding employee and customer experiences. It requires looking holistically at how the company is operating on the front lines, what happens in the back of the house, and mapping the ideal journey for customers.
If business leaders want to see their investments in design deliver, my advice is as follows:
It would be easy to blame clients for not clearly outlining their requirements in a comprehensive brief that is given to the design team. The reality is that great designers are in the business of creating a spec as much as they are delivering on one.
Businesses may sometimes recognize a customer need, for instance, but not what a successful solution would look like. Great designers are comfortable exploring that white space with their clients, bringing imagination, research and creativity to develop actionable ideas that lead to the right outcomes. This could be an act of co-creation, rather than handing someone an order to fulfill.
Henry Ford may or may not have said it, but that doesn’t make it any less true: if he’d asked people what they really wanted, they probably would have said faster horses rather than an automobile. In the same way, business leaders need to spot the horses within their organization that may be overshadowing the potential design innovations they could explore to benefit their customers and shareholders.
In some companies the horses might be products that have traditionally sold well but don’t solve for the current and future problems their customers face. The horses could even be lines of outdated code that companies are loath to take the time and money to replace with something better.
It has become almost cliché to suggest that the biggest business opportunities are in designing experiences rather than products, but there is a reason that a taxi company didn’t invent Uber or a hotel brand AirBnB. The most powerful design work sometimes requires significant upheaval into legacy systems and processes, and the development of an entirely new ecosystem. Be prepared to support that.
Many of the biggest challenges organizations are grappling with right now require specific domain expertise, at least enough direct experience in the corporate trenches that they know how to learn what they need to know.
Regardless of the industry or sector in which you work, your ideal design partner will have a diverse team with skills and backgrounds that can turn technical design insights and turn them into strategies. They will have spent enough time on the client side – hiring design firms and other agencies themselves – to recognize an organization’s unique needs. They will have a proven track record in delivering results in these roles, which helps them do the same for their clients.
If design has come to be seen as a band-aid, fine – let’s rip it off and replace it with a better approach based on systems thinking.
If design can’t always serve as a differentiator, let it be an enabler of effective change management for companies with the courage to reimagine their future.
If design has failed to deliver for some organizations, the obvious next step is not to give up on it. The next step should be to redesign how companies apply its insights as part of a larger strategy that leads the business to greater success.