Big business has been hungry.
Not for money per se, but for design. Lately, there have been unprecedented power plays, made by corporates seeking to gobble up top design firms: Google and Gecko Design Inc., Facebook and Teehan+Lax, and CapitalOne and Adaptive Path, to name a few.
Well beyond a strong brand identity, what’s at the core of a truly design-centric organisation is empathy. This translates as the keen ability for a company to listen, and learn from customers, and continually strive to delight them time and again. For many established companies, the shift to becoming a design-led business is difficult, as they lack both the methodologies and mindset. However, the benefits are vast. Alongside increased customer retention and growth, design can lead to more engaged employees, richer partnerships, and a more responsive way of operating. With this ability to adapt through design, pioneering leaders have learned to welcome change and create progressive 21st century businesses.
The original champions of design in business include luminaries such as Tim Brown, David Kelley and Roger Martin. All have been touting the transformative effects that occur when design is placed at the heart of the organisation. As former dean of the Rotman School of Management and co-creator of DesignWorks, Martin succinctly sums up design’s undeniable influence when he says, “When it comes to innovation, business has much to learn from design. The philosophy in design shops is, ‘try it, prototype it, and improve it.’”
Shockingly, it has taken nearly 30 years for these contentions to take hold and manifest across every industry. Whether it is Computing (IBM hosts the largest design team in the world), Finance (Barclays Bank is now London’s single largest employer of designers), Management (McKinsey recently purchased top Silicon Valley design firm Lunar) or Government (GOV.UK has received countless accolades for its user experience design) — no sector remains unaffected.
In any large company, it takes time, patience and persistence to change a business culture. Organisational structures and processes are often designed, rather ironically, to keep design out. The outdated way of operating where designers were kept on the fringes (and often brought in to put lipstick on a pig) is gradually being replaced by more fluid methods where designers now occupy centre stage. The effects may be felt across the whole organisation — for people, product, and processes.
Perhaps one of the best examples is how Google has evolved into a design company and manages the gentle push and pull between the company’s vision and the living and breathing organisation itself. It is John Maeda, Design Partner at VC firm KPMB who has definitively determined the importance of design in technology and in business. The former president of the Rhode Island School of Design is credited with helping foster the first generation of engineers to elegantly design, and designers to fluently code. He explains that in the not too distant future, all technology companies will be design companies. Now that, is powerful stuff.
Earlier this year there was an acqui-hire by Facebook of long established design firm Teehan + Lax. Many of the their designers took jobs at Facebook causing quite the stir in the industry. In the new economy, as designers like this dance up the corporate ladder and sit poignantly in the boardroom, there can be several side effects. Chief among them might be a bleak future for design as an independent field of practice and the wider repercussions for creative professionals.
Rise of the Distributed Agency
At the crux of this wider shift are the onerous responsibilities of traditional design agencies having to serve clients through consultancy work. This often entails large overheads, an urgent need to generate a steady stream of revenue to cover those costs and most of all, a reliance on employees with narrow capabilities.
This is in stark contrast to leaner and more adaptive offspring, otherwise known as distributed agencies. Here, both veteran and rising talent band together in remote networks to deliver increased value to clients (that they actually view as partners). This new breed of cooperatives includes the likes of Nobl, Hanno, Siberia, Social Fabric and Modern Tribe.
Beauty, Carefully Crafted
In the technology world we have always believed that faster is better. Maeda explains that the shift is really a result of Moore’s Law is no longer cutting it. In fact it’s the holistic view, the entire customer experience that matters. Design is, and always was, the key. Some of the most forceful and well-funded startups — Pinterest, Airbnb, Vice Media and Lynda.com, have designers as co-founders. Indeed over the past five years there have been over 30 startups co-founded by designers that have now been consumed by big tech companies.
As the role design plays in business continues to thrive we the customers stand to benefit. Products won’t just look better, they will work better. Services won’t just be provided, they will delight time and again. Organisations won’t just sustain, they will adapt and evolve to become something truly magnificent.
An edited version of this article first appeared at WeWork’s Creator Magazine.