Main Content

Converting the sceptics

How can we get company boards to take design seriously? How can we convince them to take an enlightened approach to design, 
to see how using design strategically can transform their businesses and secure competitive advantage for the short and long terms?

It’s a question I get asked a great deal, and one which I have spent a lot of time considering. But the short answer to this complex question is actually pretty simple: talk the board’s language and make the arguments in terms that are meaningful to those boards.

There are five key stages in getting buy-in: converting the sceptics and creating new advocates for design; delivering strategy and demonstrating how design manifests strategic intent; adding value by measuring design’s impact on business; building reputation; and analysing design spend to demonstrate the value created.

Here I focus on the first stage: identifying and nurturing the true design advocates within your business, whilst ‘managing’ the sceptics: those who mean well but do design’s reputation no favours: the people – sometimes clients of design consultants, sometimes line managers in a company employing staff designers – who think they understand the role and potential of design, but only see its most superficial qualities.

They see design as a commodity, a service that can be bought on an ad-hoc basis whenever they think it appropriate. They do not see it as something that can contribute to the long-term wealth of the business. If this is the case then these sceptics need to be re-educated so
 that their enthusiasm helps, rather than hinders, the cause.

The issue of how to deal with design sceptics has been around for a long time; it never has been (and is unlikely to ever be) something that can be solved with subtlety and guile. My mantra on this prejudice is straightforward: ‘persuade by the authority of your argument, not the argument of your authority’.

But first we must identify our targets. Sceptics are easily recognised because they tend to share the general view of many others that design is superficial, something that gets added after the real work has been completed. Like the icing on the cake, it’s the finishing touch. Sceptics also believe design is elitist and expensive.

After all, designers charge big fees which business people find hard to accept because they cannot quantify the return for the money they spend on it. They believe, erroneously, only big businesses have the opportunity, and the money, to do something with design (forgetting the fact that most design agencies are SMEs). Design, they argue, belongs in another world; it is intimidating, overwhelming, and, ultimately, a ‘nice to have’.

Sceptics see design as irrelevant because they can’t see that 
it adds any real value. They believe there are far more important things to think about like market share, turnover and profit margin. The fact that these views are held by so many is not surprising considering that we are bombarded with the word design wherever we look and this, inevitably, conditions our expectations of it.

So how can we convince the sceptics of the true value of design? How can we demonstrate that design is one of a company’s most strategically potent assets, which can have a direct bearing on its wealth creating capability? Well, finding good examples of where design has led to competitive advantage is always a good start; the next step is dismantling their prejudices one by one.

Sceptics will always remain so unless they are brought to a position of understanding the potential breadth and depth of the influence design can have in their organisation. If you are lucky to either find a company that has successfully used design before, or a manager that has done so, then the task should
 be easier.

Although it should not be assumed, even then, that ‘design will speak for itself’. It must be given a persuasive voice and it is the responsibility of design managers and design leaders to do this. If they don’t, nothing will change because there is rarely anyone else within an organisation that could, or would, do it instead.

Design is not elitist

The issue of elitism is never far away when considering the role of design in business. Elitism is generally used when describing attitudes and activities of a small select group of people. In this case the reverse is true. Far from being elitist, design should be inclusive by involving everyone in the company because it certainly will affect them; design is fundamental to creating and managing customer experience and many people in an organisation are in a position to make design-related decisions that influence this.

For example, designing a building in such a way that it is easy to keep clean is likely to mean that the janitorial staff will have as much effect on the quality of that experience, or the working conditions of staff, as designing for the chief executive’s long-term strategic intentions. Equally, understanding customer experience will enable businesses to exceed expectations and build loyalty.

When I was at BAA, for example, we undertook a comprehensive study of the experience passengers, staff, airlines and other business partners needed to have at every step of their journey to, through, and when using our airports. This then formed one of the cornerstones of the company’s ten-year design and development programme. It was key to ensuring the user was put at the centre of its design thinking and key to the programme’s success.

Equally, design is not an expensive new overhead but something that companies are already engaged in and could almost certainly do more cost effectively. Designing the right solution in the first place costs less than designing the wrong solution and then having to manage the fall out from that bad decision. There is well-documented evidence that design can save money, not only by making things easier and cheaper to produce, but also by having a positive effect on the cost of ownership.

Design is not irrelevant

Far from being irrelevant, design can be used to position a company in line with its strategic intent. It can influence how customers and staff experience the products and services of the company; it can make clear what the company stands for. It can overtly manifest its values through what it says about itself and how staff behave; it is key to defining, creating and maintaining differentiation. A great example of this approach is GloHealth. A new Irish based company in an already crowded marketplace, GloHealth wanted to be a business that provided the alternative way to private health insurance. The desire to differentiate itself from the rest of the industry had been fundamental
 to the creation of this business – how it looked, how 
it felt to work with, its product differentiation and the manner by which it did things. And it used strategic design thinking to do this. As GloHealth’s Chief Executive, Jim Dowdall puts it; “we know what makes us different and what this means to the products and services we offer. This difference is born out of a clear understanding of our strategic intent, vision, values, product design and quality of delivery. Collectively
 these summarise who we are and what we stand for.”

The arguments for design are comprehensive and profound. For example, the DBA’s Design Effectiveness Award competition has many examples of how
 design has had a transforming impact on business, government and society. Look for others within your own business. At BAA, I used the transformative nature of our Terminal 5 project to continually remind senior managers of the significance of design to our long-term strategic aims. There will almost certainly be many examples that resonate with most business situations and most industry sectors.

The truth is that design is not superficial; nor is it about finishing touches. It affects all parts of the business; it is key to making business strategy at least visible and potentially tangible in many other ways. Design is an essential ingredient that can breathe new life into old products and help create innovative new ones. It can be the basis of designing spaces from the inside out for user convenience, improved work dynamics and operational efficiency, rather than from the outside in for the aesthetic value of it. It can be the key to differentiation and growth in the marketplace.

And even when design is superficial, even when 
it is applied only at the very end of a project, it can still have huge impact. Whilst the dictionary definition of the word ‘superficial’ describes it as something to do with the surface of things, this does not always mean it is of no significance. Fashion is an area of design that has much to do with appearance, or things so called ‘superficial’, but it is a huge industry that employs millions of people and brings pleasure to many more. There is no better advocate for design than the converted sceptic. Once you have them fully on side, the next hurdles are much easier to clear.

This article is an extract from Crossing the Rubicon which featured in Design in Business.

About: Raymond Turner

Raymond is 
an independent strategic design consultant and author of ‘Design Leadership – securing the strategic value of design’ available from:


We use cookies to help improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you agree to our use of cookies.