Design Myth

Designers don’t make the company money

Written by Stephen Emlund

This myth arises due to designers being seen as meaningless decorators brought in at the end of a project to make something look pretty. On the contrary, great design should be integrated into all aspects of a project. A project that utilized great designers throughout the process can prove to be outstanding in a marketplace of ‘sameness’.

Just look at Apple. They have successfully built a business around products that are designed well and designed with simplicity in mind. Apple’s successful integration of great design has catapulted it as the superior option, even demanding much higher prices. Apple, without great design, leaves it in the middle of the pack.

Good design is good business.
—Thomas Watson, Jr. Second president of IBM

In 1973, The retiring, second president of IBM, Thomas Watson, Jr. said something seen in that day as idealistic. He said, “Good design is good business.” He had just retired as president of IBM where he had hired designers to transform the IBM showrooms, their 1964 World’s Fair exhibit and much more. In a time when design was not highly revered, it had become IBM’s differentiator, alongside the many advances by their engineers. Fast forward to 2003 when Steve Jobs said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Today, everyday objects are more beautiful and accessible than ever before. When an industry matures, the manufacturing quality of a product can longer sustain it’s competitiveness. What’s left is to compete on design improvements. Design is the differentiator.

Smart design = smart for business

Today, more companies are seeing the benefit of great design. Interestingly, a company that is innovating like never before has a designer for CEO. Nike’s CEO, Mark Parker started out as a shoe designer and his company is now innovating more than ever. One such innovation is the Nike+ Fuelband, which started as just Nike+iPod (basically a custom soundtrack to your exercise) and became a wristband that tracks your daily exercise in real-time.

Similarly, Phillips lighting was at a place where it was hard to differentiate with lightbulbs, but they decided to innovate around how their retailers managed products between stores, with a new software called Engine Service Design. This software put forth a clear set of design principles informed by customer insight, brand values and business goals. This helped retailers to standardize the customer experience across many touchpoints. Once again design became the differentiator.

AirBnB, which is a website with a simple interface, that helps people rent unique places in 190 countries. It was founded by two design school graduates and had a $10 billion valuation in early 2014. Smart design = successful business.

Yet another example is Nest Labs, creator of the popular and smart thermostat. A thermostat that allows you to control it from anywhere. If you didn’t think design can make your company money, this well-designed product and it’s parent company were sold to Google for $3.2 billion.

What others say

Thomas Lockwood who has a PhD in design management says, “Investing in the design process can be a sustainable business advantage, because it tends to lead to five things: creative collaboration, innovation, differentiation, simplification, and customer experience.”

A word of caution for those who think great design in a large organization is easy: Dieter Rams knows that without approval and insulation from the CEO, great design can fail. This is primarily due to the layers of approval required. Layers that often follow a common trend – adding things to a design rather than taking away and simplifying them. We all know that cramming more things into a design makes it less effective. Rams said, “My work was only possible because I was reporting directly to the chairman of the board. Design has to be insulated at a high level. Otherwise, you can forget it.” Great design is almost impossible when a designer lacks influence.

The truth

Design has changed how we experience everyday life. If corporate leaders let it, smart design can change their business as well. Good design can be a business differentiator in a landscape of sameness.