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Sharpening the focus on design

This article explores the critically important issue of design’s potentially most powerful contribution to business: its ability to help define and then manifest strategic intent. Fail to do this and every other design investment and activity will fall far short of its potential, and possibly fuel the belief that design is something that is just for the good times. It is not. Design is a business tool that makes strategy visible.

The challenge for design leaders is to demonstrate how design makes strategy an everyday experience for all who come into contact with the business. A key point in this argument is that design is one of the critical business resources that can manifest a strategic ambition. If properly managed, it makes strategy tangible. It means going to places where design people often don’t go, and if they do are not always welcome (no one said this would be easy). Leading through design is a very serious matter if stakeholder value is to be maximized – and it is something not to be afraid of.

There are very few resources that can make business strategy as visible and easy to understand as design, and do so in a practical way that is unique to a particular business. Of course it is not the only one, but it is the one where its impact can be experienced most clearly.

As the differences between competitors diminish and competitive products and services become increasingly similar, it becomes ever more difficult to differentiate one’s business. There’s only so much you can do with price as a point of difference. As Rodney Fitch once said: “Only one company can be the cheapest – the others have to use design.” 

Some harsh realities

History teaches us that strategy becomes more critical in the unforgiving times than good times. Experience demonstrates that design can make strategy not only visible but also tangible in many ways. And for busy people living and working in a world of ever more information and ever less time, the quickest and most effective means to manifest business strategy must be of particular interest.

As we confront harsh economic realities, making business strategy tangible is a compelling argument for design investment. And as organisations deal with increased competitiveness, reduced differentiation and increased costs, the role of design now and, more importantly, its potential to contribute to future development should come into sharper focus.

Design is much more than a nice-to-have in the good times. It is a valuable tool that lets a company communicate its strategy effectively by giving it the means to “live its business”. It makes it strategy visible and tangible in a relevant and powerful way at every organisational touchpoint. It is a process by which every aspect of an organisation including, but not just, its products and services, look, feel and become tangible through experience. Often design is narrowly defined as digital or graphic, corporate identity, signage and packaging design. In turn, the job of designers is even more narrowly defined as guardians and implementers of such identities, focusing on the detail of guidelines rather than the reality of the customer’s experience.

Design is much more a way of doing things rather than of just things.

Too rarely does design encompass every visible and experiential aspect of an organisation’s interaction with all its stakeholders. The exceptions to this sweeping generalisation are notable and are the much-cited proponents of ‘good’ design, including Lego, Apple, BT, Heathrow Terminal 5 and Philips. However, design is not just for the big boys. It is encouraging seeing small businesses such as Croots, a specialist leather goods maker, embrace design as a strategic tool and transform its business beyond all expectations. It won a DBA Design Effectiveness Award by presenting stunning results from its investment in design.

Proving its relevance

So, what is involved in delivering strategy and manifesting strategic intent? A key responsibility of business leaders is to understand what their future business could or should be like. Design leaders have an important role to play in this process: one of their core responsibilities is to work with the business to understand what its strategic options are and what these might look and feel like. Encapsulating a company’s vision is a fundamental role of design leadership. Envisioning enables everyone in the company, and all others with whom it deals, to relate to it. And a good way for design to become central to envisioning strategic intent and key to its day-to-day manifestation is to show the senior management team a road map for how it might contribute.

There isn’t one roadmap that fits all situations and businesses. Below is one I have found very effective as a starting point. Senior managers find it easy to understand and relate to. It can be understood whether you are looking at it from the boardroom or the factory floor through a series of clear connections between the two.

If you are looking at the diagram from the top down you can see how the strategic intent is going to be realised through the design projects the company invests in. If, on the other hand, you are involved in working on one of its design projects you can look up the diagram and see where it fits in to the wider picture and reassure yourself why this work is necessary.

If there are any business activities that do not fit into this diagram, the question must be asked: “Do they need them?”

diagrampsThe roadmap has six key milestones

1. Strategic Intent

These take many guises and I’ve heard them expressed in many ways. For instance, at one marketing conference I remember attending they tripped off a presenter’s tongue as soundbites: “A Coke within arm’s reach” or for the manufacturer of small Japanese engines: “Three in every garage”. These weren’t a comprehensive statement of corporate aims, but they make the point that such statements can direct much effort.

2. Vision

Strategic intent is not enough on its own; a vision is needed to capture the potential of that intent. A vision should describe the high ground implicit in the statement of strategic intent. It should also provide the platform for developing design and operational strategies to realise that intent. Eurotunnel’s vision was simple: a service where you could just turn up and go.

Previously booking was needed for a place on the ferry, which may not run anyway because of the vagaries of weather.

GloHealth, a new entrant into the private health insurance business based in Ireland, set its sights on “standing in our customers’ shoes” – something it believed no other health care insurer did well. The new high speed rail system planned for the next 25 years in Britain, HS2, has a far reaching design vision as a catalyst for growth across the country.

It sees the visionary challenge to “enhance the lives of future generations of people in Britain by designing a transformational rail system that is admired around the world”. These visions are ambitious and incredibly difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, without setting an audacious target how can you possibly hope to achieve the high ground that is appropriate to a company that wants to be an industry leader.

3. Values

Before strategies can be developed, the corporate values that steer everything a company does need to be understood, as they condition the development of those strategies and everything that flows from them. These values should be specific to the business. There is nothing more useless than a set of values that are so generic they could be referring to any company – world class, efficient, user friendly and value for money all fit into this category. These fatuous words say nothing of any meaning about differentiation. Values should always be written in a way that shows why each is important. You should be able to complete the sentence ‘one of our values is … because it enables us to …’. Values should inform all aspects of a business – what you say, what you do, how you say it and what you believe.

4. Strategies or drivers for change

It is only when these values are in place that a set of strategies can be developed that will be the key drivers for change. These strategies might be quite different in nature from each other, but all of them would be informed by the vision the business has created for itself. For example you may have a group of strategies that include radical product innovation; increased investment in R&D; a new recruitment programme to attract the latest bright minds; or a new way to raise market interest in the end product or service when it arrives.

5. Customer interactions

A clear understanding of the potential for manifesting these strategies or drivers for change can be found through a detailed analysis of customer interactions with the business. This is where such tools as customer experience mapping and touch-point analysis can be of great help.

6. Design and service responses

Every strategy will have a number of design responses to deliver it, and they all link back through the corporate values to the vision and strategic intent of the organisation. Without such alignment, shareholder value cannot be maximized from design investment, and no one can be sure that every design activity, and every pound spent on it, is contributing to the wider business ambitions.

Tim Selders of Park Advanced Design Management from the Netherlands notes that many leaders believe design is still seen as an operational benefit only and his research shows there is still much to be done before design is accepted as a core competency to help build business strategies. Those in the know – and those organisations that have already benefitted from a more sophisticated use of design – accept that design is a business tool that makes strategy visible.

So, what can we learn from this? Here are a few points:

  • Inspirational brief

    The essence of an outstanding design solution and one that aligns perfectly with strategic ambitions, is an inspirational brief that clearly articulates business objectives. An inspirational brief reflects a deep understanding of the strategic context in which the business, product or service operates. Once a brief reflects the strategic intent of the business, clarifies a vision of the project at hand and reflects the values of the organisation commissioning it, an effective design response is likely.
    Clarity and shared understanding at this stage are most likely to produce a response that is at minimum, acceptable and at best, exceptional in realising business need. So, design that makes strategy tangible and brings it to life is vastly more effective in both cost and communications terms than one that merely decorates a business card or the home page on the company’s website. Look at how Innocent has taken account of consumer concerns regarding traceability, ethics and sustainability, and have leveraged them to create very drinkable smoothies, a strong brand and exceptionally popular consumer promotions.

  • Design is about what and why

    The idea that design can have a critical role in manifesting corporate strategy is one that is readily accepted by designers, although some still prefer the comfort zone of being involved in the designing of things rather than the directing of what should be designed and why. However, this link between business strategy and design is not yet readily accepted by many business leaders and it is the responsibility of design leaders to make the strategic importance of design clear.

  • A key link to design investment

    Show how design can deliver corporate strategy, mission, vision or values and, in doing so, you provide a key link to design investment, briefing, development and implementation. A core responsibility of design leaders is to work with the business to understand what its strategic options are and what these might look and feel like.

  • A critical business tool

    Above all else, make it clear that design is a critical business tool that must be owned by the business – design is far too important just to leave to designers, as I hope this article has demonstrated.

About: Raymond Turner

Raymond Turner FCSD, formerly Group Design Director at BAA Raymond Turner FCSD, is an independent strategic design consultant and author of ‘Design Leadership – securing the strategic value of design’.

Image credits: © Kelpfish |


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