Business leaders need to know the importance of design
For practitioners, the importance of design is obvious, but leaders are harder to persuade. The leaders of companies struggle to see the difference between design — a process integral to developing products and services — and decoration – an add on at the end of a process to pretty up a new product. And few chief executives would consider design applies to services at all.
It’s a pity, because there is a lot of evidence that the best design not only makes money, through charging premium prices, it also cuts costs. There’s a lesson for designers there too: we need to stop talking among ourselves and start convincing our leaders, corporate and political, about the critical role of design in the future of Australian companies.
Recently, American designer Natan Linder summarised the idea beautifully. “Design is not about making products pretty, it is about creating an experience for the user of any product or service - an experience that is fun, informative, different, new, exciting and useful,” Linder said.
Linder, who is a masters student at the Fluid Interfaces Group, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab in the United States, is designing “fluid interfaces”, technologies that bridge the gap between the digital and physical world.
Leaders who understand the critical importance of design are going to be ones to survive, especially in Australia, where our current manufacturing industry is being undercut by cheap operators overseas.
That is not surprising when you look at our fastest growing manufacturing sectors – topped by making sugar, alumina products, and copper, silver, zinc and lead. Australian manufacturers are still very low on the value chain, says Professor Roy Green, dean of the business school at the University of Technology, Sydney. “A lot of our manufacturing is in low and medium technology,” says Green, who was recently appointed to the Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s new manufacturing taskforce.
Critically, leaders need to bring their Head of Design into the executive team, just as the late Steve Jobs did with his head of industrial design at Apple, Jonathan Ive (who has since left).
This signals to everyone within a company that design is central to the thinking of a company. Better design should extend to management and organisation systems, Green says. If leaders do this, they will find that innovation is not all about expensive research and development, but can be about incremental improvements, including shaving costs across the whole company.
This month, from 16-18 November, Brendan Boyle will be talking about “design thinking” at the Creative Innovation conference.
“Design thinking is a team-based creative approach to solving problems,” Boyle says. His company, IDEO, brings clients into the problem solving team, as well as experts in design and in collaboration. There are several stages. Inspiration is all about understanding the design problem, through interviews and observation.
Then the team sets about brainstorming ideas, pruning them and selecting prototypes. “Don’t waste time making your prototypes fully resolved and beautiful,” Boyle says. “What you desire at this stage are the learnings from these experiments so you can improve your concept or discard it and go in a different direction.”
That’s the way to come up with new designs for products that really challenge old-hat thinking, as with the Node chair, which created a chair for school kids that permitted collaboration, rearranging classrooms, and saved space.
The dutch lighting company, Philips, has just committed an extra EUR 200 million to research and development, even though it is facing job losses of 4,500 people worldwide and cost cuts of EUR 800 million. Its recently appointed global CEO, Frans van Houten, is clear that only entrepreneurial design thinking will turn the company around.
Frustrated and misunderstood, it is all too easy for graphic and industrial designers, architects, interior designers, to give up talking to our leaders and chat amongst ourselves. There is really only one way to convince leaders about the importance of design: make the business case. I’ve listed some examples, but there are plenty more. Our job is to get out there and tell the world.
Author: Kath Walters, Senior journalist at BRW.