The role of the modern designer

This note draws on the theme which came out at the recent Design Means Business national conference and experiences of design-led businesses over the last few years.

Over the last couple of years we’ve seen the role of the designer move from being something being the purveyors of stardust to something deeper and more commercial. The modern designer is often as likely to be reviewing financial data as designing product features.

This trend is only going to increase as digital design becomes more significant and the gap between the design and commercial aspects of business narrow. In digital business the customer experience defines the business. The size of the team tends to be smaller and the business is more agile than traditional business so the influence of design is so much stronger.

1. From product design to business design. The discipline of design-led thinking makes a massive difference to those businesses that embrace it. The impact of this has spread from product design and service design to something much more fundamental which guides the evolution of a business.

2. From theory to action. Designers are at their most effective when they bring insight needed to identify the value in a business and fresh thinking to how to enhance that value. Commercial skills are needed to move this from theory to practice; i.e. to move it from being a great idea to something implemented in the business.

3. Elegant solutions. The easiest place to get traction with this in traditional businesses is to solve problems — less negative being a starting point for more positive. Design is often defined as developing an elegant solution to the right problem; that problem can be simply how to keep a business relevant in an evolving market. The basis of any elegant solution is an insight into why the issue is important to the business and its value proposition.

4. Commercial responsibility. Designers have been crying out for more influence for years but with more influence comes more responsibility. Driving iterations of business plans means working at board level and speaking board language, learning excel and using evidence and metrics to support vision. That doesn’t mean the designer is responsible for delivery, but the designer will be responsible for identifying the impact of change in the business and setting that out to the decision makers.

5. Getting commercial leverage. Decision makers often want to base decisions on facts which necessarily involves looking backwards. Change involves looking forward so there is a natural friction where these elements of business strategy look in different direction. Designers can reduce that friction by reducing costs, making use of tax breaks around innovation, recruitment of new people, attracting investment, etc.

6. Reducing financial risk of problem solving. Solving problems is encouraged by the tax system through R&D tax relief and the patent box tax relief. R&D tax relief applies a lot more broadly than what is generally understood as R&D. There has to be a technical challenge rather than just a commercial challenge although commercial drivers are often behind technical challenges. In looking for R&D (for tax purposes) I often ask what makes a business more or less competitive compared to others in its market. There are often technological aspects to the problem or the solution and work around that can be subsidised through this tax claim. The subsidy applies to salaries, materials, testing, etc. If a patent comes off the back of the work the company pays tax at half the normal rate on related profits which is another great reward for innovation.

7. Who’s responsibility? Designers therefore should take tax relief into account and take responsibility for it in a business as this makes their work commercially compelling particular when extended into patent box, employee incentives and fundraising. Interestingly one of the major speakers at the Design Means Business conference highlighted that these tax breaks were exactly the type of measurable data which the boardroom would take account of and contrasted that with the intangible benefit of design which is much harder to measure.

8. Taking responsibility is the beginning, not the end. It’s obvious, but when the designer moves into a more strategic role there will be a learning experience which will vary business by business. The way in which decisions are made and the language used all have to be learned, producing graphs, excel sheets and business cases. Like any new service analysing feedback and effectiveness over time gives the ability to keep building the role.

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