Why Design, Not Technology, Inspires the Future

Earlier this year whilst watching the Japanese movie “The Wind Rises”, a line of dialogue jumped out at me. There it was, in hard to read, awkwardly translated subtitles, the most profound statement about innovation:

“Inspiration unlocks the future; technology will catch up”.

The Technology Fallacy

If you ask people to pick out the global brands they consider most innovative, the response you will usually hear includes an Apple, Nike, Netflix or Tesla. They will say that it is technology that makes them so successful. I disagree.

The secret ingredient that has helped Apple for example to become the world’s most valuable company is arguably not great technology, but in fact inspired design. Fresh from the right hand side of the brain, its presence can be found everywhere, from the products right through to the stores and packaging.

So why do so many other businesses have such a lack of appreciation for the discipline of design? Partly it comes down to design being notoriously difficult to define, and as tricky to understand. The very best design is often invisible, making it difficult to appreciate. As such, it can become an afterthought, spearheaded by a small, disempowered creative team, rather than a value stitched into the DNA of a culture.

As consumers we have a subconscious and rapidly evolving appreciation for great design. In the connected age, where our digital lives revolve around our smartphones and tablets, we have very little patience for bad user experience. The screen is too small and our patience is too short. We crave great digital experiences that make our lives easier.

The new wave of technology start-ups born in the digital age, led by design-conscious founders, know the value of placing design at the heart of their decision-making. Take Uber for example — their success lies with the simplicity of the interface, allowing a taxi to be hailed in moments with just a few taps. Airbnb fondly recalls that its business took off when it invested in hiring professional equipment to shoot beautiful high-production photos of its listed apartments. A totally non Silicon Valley move — the antithesis of scalable start-up thinking — but a move that took Airbnb from a $200 revenue per week start-up to a multi billion-dollar success story.

So how can other businesses become more design-centric and use creativity to inspire their futures?

Good Design Equals Good Business

The public’s obsession with Apple over the past decade has proven that design doesn’t exist to just be aesthetically pleasing, but instead as a powerful business differentiator. A recent DMI report found that between 2003 and 2013, design-centric companies listed on the S&P grew 299%, compared to just 75% growth for companies that were not.

With the technology giants of Google and Microsoft clamoring to become more design-led, it was telling that when Bill Gates was asked shortly after the death of Steve Jobs the one quality of Jobs that he wished he had possessed, Gates instantly replied, “Oh, his sense of design,” adding that Jobs’ — with the little engineering background he had — showed how design can lead you in a good direction to phenomenal products.

However, the devil is truly in the detail; success comes from the small and often-invisible changes that can go unnoticed. We recently made a small design tweak to the smartphone app of a major hotel chain and conversion doubled overnight. One small change resulted in a multi-million pound uplift in revenue.

Dynamic Duos

Today you will find many large organizations hurriedly appointing chief design officers, but the most successful CEOs build long and meaningful partnerships with their design chiefs and empower them with a seat at the top table.

Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, credits her success at Burberry to centralizing design and entrusting it into the hands of Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey. She explained to her new colleagues upon her arrival that, “Anything that the consumer sees — anywhere in the world — will go through his office. No exceptions.”

Design With Heart

Design-led thinking can frame business problems in whole new ways, and those that can flex the right side of their brains are becoming ever more critical to solving big business challenges. Designers by nature tend to be empathetic to the needs of the consumer, with a depth of understanding as to what they do, think and feel. They can uncover the smallest of insights which leads to groundbreaking innovation left-brainers could only dream of.

It’s this customer-centric approach that we call “human first”, finding the answer to complex challenges by designing solutions around consumer needs and removing the friction from their lives.

From travel start-ups to electric car manufacturers, it is the role of design, rather than technology, that is at the heart of their successes. The next time a problem comes calling, rather than searching for the ones and zeroes, try putting the right hand side of the brain to work and see where it can lead you. You may be more surprised than you think.

Originally published at www.wired.com on July 30, 2014.