The business value of design is gaining traction

Chris Ralston | September 27, 2013

Traditionally, design has been misunderstood as simply being decoration or application of ornament. The art of choosing a typeface or a color or directing and editing an image is lost on those outside the studio, because the choices designers make seem subjective or even mysterious. That’s why, in the traditional marketing process, design often is inserted in the middle or at the end. It’s the “make it pretty” stage or, worse, just a production function.

But designers always have known their craft is more than skin deep, and business leaders and consumers are beginning to agree. Retailers like Apple and Target have led the shift. At Apple, design chief Jonathan Ive has successfully engineered the marriage of design and profitability while bringing coveted products to the masses.

“We’ve always thought of design as being so much more than just the way something looks,” Ive said this month during the launch of iOS 7. “It’s the whole thing. The way something actually works on so many different levels.”

Design thinking is an examination of the entire system or architecture of a thing, with the added dimension of user experience. Apple products have transformed the way people understand and value design because they can understand it as part of their lives. The simplicity of Apple design, as Ive says, brings order to complexity.

These are key aspects of design thinking for any business, but often this remains lost in translation outside the design-focused world of retailers like Apple and Target. Designers have an innate ability to see connections and speak fluently in visual terms. Business, however, speaks in numbers. Decisions have to make financial sense and show a measurable return on investment.

Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady, professors at Cleveland State and Kent State universities, recently published a book to help bridge the gulf. In “Design Currency: Understand, Define and Promote the Value of Your Design Work,” they demystify the divide between design and business and arm both camps with the language to understand each other. They highlight the creative transition from making artifacts, which requires craftsman-like skills and qualities, to organizing complex systems of information and products, which demands deeper expertise and knowledge than other disciplines such as data, research and business.

Chris Ralston Glasses

One powerful model they emphasize is the Design Staircase, developed by Danish Design Centre. The staircase charts an increase in business profitability that correlates with a deeper inclusion of design. Most companies, and, ironically, a lot of marketing agencies, never rise above Stage Two, which uses design superficially for styling or appearance. In Stage Three, design is integrated as a process, which generates new products or services. In Stage Four, the highest step, design is infused into a company’s culture. DDC’s study of 1,000 companies showed that those that did business in Stages 3 and 4 performed at a higher level and grew revenue more than 20 percent.

Retailer Warby Parker not only built a design-infused business, they designed a lucrative business solution in the fine eyewear marketplace. Founders David Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal were turned off by the high prices, markup and hassle of buying designer eyeglasses through traditional retail boutiques. Within three years, they built a powerful new business by creating their own designs and selling directly to customers through an online storefront. To solve the problem of fit, customers can order five frames to try for five days before making a purchase. By keeping prices under $100, they’ve tapped a large market of buyers, especially young ones.

But what about a more conceptual example of the power of design thinking that’s still a work in progress? Phonebloks is a crowd-source project that tackles the rapidly growing global wastestream of electronic devices with a Lego-like design solution. Because many products are not designed to last, Phonebloks proposes reinventing the idea of how they’re made and used. By turning each function of a cellphone into removable, interchangeable component pieces, or “bloks,” and attaching them to a base, an entirely new approach is born that is better for the user and the planet. It also allows for more customization and, ultimately, as the promoters define, a phone worth keeping.

Design clearly is integral to Phonebloks’ development, and the concept is a sound creative idea. But they’re only part of the way there. The Phonebloks creators understand the value of the idea, but they need to more clearly describe the target audience and promote the value and profitability so that business leaders and developers will feel comfortable taking an investment risk.

As a business, what value are you putting on design? At what point does design thinking enter your strategic planning and problem-solving processes? If you’re comfortable with where you are, you likely won’t be for long. Moving forward and creating opportunity requires not just taking the next step, but building it. Moving design considerations from the end of your process to the beginning can help get you there more quickly, more strategically and more profitably.


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