Why design-led companies do better in business

Lee Coomber explains why blending design thinking and business strategy is such a successful combination.

There has never been a better time to be a designer. Leading brands - such as Nike - are moving designers into CEO roles. Consulting and financial companies are snapping up design firms. IBM has bought three design agencies this year alone.

More than a third of the top 25 funded start-ups are co-founded by designers. And the Design Management Institute found that, in the US up until 2014, design-led companies outperformed the S&P stock market index by 219% over the last 10 years. What’s created this shift to design?

With functional differences becoming harder to hang onto and disruptive technologies offering ever-increasing tools for reinvention, it’s not surprising that tackling issues from a true design perspective makes total sense today.

This means looking at the problem in two ways: the first is in applying a design mind-set to reconfigure and simplify complex business problems; the second is in activating design’s ability to build strong emotional connections. From this perspective, it’s little wonder that design has become the tool of choice for leading companies.

For a number of years now, ‘design thinking’ has been a reference point for anyone wanting to jump out of past paradigms. Yet many have failed to pick up the other half of the design tool kit and commit to the craft of design - ‘the design doing’. In other words, the seduction and the sense of a design approach.

Here are four imperatives that seek to convert business strategy into beautiful, simple and meaningful work that can move the heart and with it, the bottom line.

1) The purpose is the brief

This may sound blindingly obvious, but most often design is asked to merely style or decorate. Yet transformation comes from seamlessly tying design into the organisation’s core DNA and culture. Making a company’s vision and business strategy tangible to its customers and employees creates unique emotional bonds that surpass the rational.

Virgin Atlantic is true to its founder’s vision of being the Robin Hood to the Prince Johns of national carriers, giving value yet doing things differently. It is committed to having fun and absolutely knowing its customer. This can be seen in the end-to-end customer experience: from the way the cabin crew chats with customers to the on-board bar, designed purely to facilitate that conversation; or from seat design and the edgy safety film to advertising and airline lounges.

Its online booking site is both easy to use on a smartphone and refreshing in its lack of advertising. Virgin designs things around its ideal customer not the airline industry standard way of producing things which are predominantly more or less slick presentations of the same products and content.

2) Craft the whole experience

In an age when everything is continually scrutinised and reviewed, brands can’t afford a weak link in their courtship of the customer. It doesn’t work to simply talk your way into their hearts – you need to demonstrate it through actions and experiences. It’s this desire for experience that is driving the up-and-coming brands’ fame, growth and differentiation.

Uber-for-London-taxis-app Hailo is neat, sharp and witty in feel - from its logo to the haptic behaviour of the app. Hailo typifies a generation of businesses that have managed to put their company in your pocket without the stuffiness, patchy service experience and corporate attitude.

Traditional players also understand you can’t just advertise your way into established markets, you need to immerse customers in an end-to-end experience. When BMW took over Mini it understood Mini better than the British Motor Corporations ever did. BMW took its own functional prowess and wrapped the Mini personality around it.

From the sales rooms that are a homage to the Britishness of the brand to delightfully quirky advertising and events, Mini has injected real personality into the serious and self-conscious world of automotive, right down to the smallest product design detail like the bullet references used to indicate remaining fuel levels.

In terms of a coherent brand ecosystem BMW leads the industry. From electric charging points to cultural exhibitions to digital interfaces, nobody (so far) has worked out how to infuse their DNA beyond the car better than BMW.

3) Design for the on-demand age

Today, brands speak using visual and verbal elements that echo the sound bites of texting and social media. Consumers are learning how to navigate an increasingly complex world through symbols, pictograms and other visual shortcuts, cues and conventions.

Design is dealing with small screens, even smaller attention spans and increasingly demanding audiences. The way brands have responded to this is to become more fluid and adaptive.

‘Milk’ from Samsung gets round this by creating an adaptive toolkit to constantly refresh the core brand by condensing brand stories into digital micro moments.

Take Ebay, Giffgaff, Deliveroo and a host of other digital businesses that live almost entirely as interfaces. While these organisations may feel like they have a face and a personality, they are the sum total of graphics, symbols, colour, type, language and layout. In other words, they live through design and anyone that doesn’t invest the utmost in thought, craft and care isn’t going to challenge those that do.

4) Simplify and seduce

Simplicity in design is nothing new, yet in a world where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate through the constant barrage of information and sensory overload, simplicity is increasingly important. Yet simplification alone is not enough, design must say ‘like me’.

Ikea has a ‘more from less’ philosophy running through to its core but it enjoys surprises, humour and design quirks which allows its brutal minimalist exterior and utilitarian business model to sparkle with personality and charm.

While Apple or Nike’s design language embraces simplification, they use this as the context to find ways to delight and stimulate. This approach builds the desire that people fall in love and identify with. It’s what differentiates these brands from their competitors. Google, while the master of simplicity, refreshes its brand through Google Doodles that respond to current events, rewarding visitors with these visual ‘fact’ettes’.

Design is to business what evolution is to nature: it enables brands to change and survive. It is becoming less a visual strategy than a means of facilitating continuous dialogue and building emotional connections in a complex world. And with it, opening up infinite opportunities for businesses.

The best design today embraces this new reality. It creates experiences steeped in the business strategy. It celebrates the new and the unexpected. And it adapts to maintain relevance and vitality in a time where change is the only constant.

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...