Lessons in the Business of Design

November 27, 2007

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Consumers today are quicker to shop for style rather than focus on quality, and the best way for companies to succeed is to deliver what the customer demands. Designers can figure that out -- but not without help.

Now faced with countless future challenges, industrial design is more than ever an asset in facing the competition, as excellence in design bridges the gap between the consumer's perspective and strategic product design.

Noted a recent call for papers from International Journal of Product Development, for its special issue Transformations in Industrial Design: Emerging Trends, Approaches and Challenges:

To meet these challenges, future designers need to be prepared to operate efficiently and effectively in a design and development environment, which is highly competitive, fluid and collaborative. An industrial designer, functioning in a conventional manner as a design consultant or being employed by an organisation [sic] to produce design solutions, may soon be obsolete.

Good design not only makes products more competitive — keeping costs down by making manufacturing processes more efficient, cutting materials costs and reducing the time to market — it also keeps users happy and encourages them to return to the same business and recommend the product and/or service to others. Further, design applies power of the brand, and a strong brand identity encourages customers to trust existing products and to try new ones.

All of this builds business and increases market share.

Considering that consumers today are quicker to shop for style rather than focus on quality, the only way for companies to succeed is to deliver what the increasingly demanding customer wants. Designers can figure that out.

But designers need help: They need to be empowered, armed with the proper tools and business knowledge, and a corporate culture in which design is valued.

For their most in-depth study ever, researchers at UK's Design Council recently checked in on the design departments of 11 companies, all world leaders in their fields, including Sony, Whirlpool Corp., LEGO, Starbucks, Xerox and Virgin Atlantic Airways. Notably, all have made a public commitment to the use of design to improve their brand strength and product/service offerings, and all have invested heavily in people, processes and infrastructure to make design work in their businesses.

The resultant study, released in various guides last month, found common themes emerging across the 11 companies, including the following key activities undertaken by almost all:

Strong, visible leadership of the design function; Fostering a corporate culture that values design; Integration of design activities as tightly as possible with wider business processes; Equipping designers with broad, business-relevant skills beyond their core functional capabilities; Maximizing senior management support for design; and Promoting formal but flexible control of the design process.

In the face of increased challenges in recent years, global design strategies have also matured significantly. Companies now turn to the global workforce not only to reduce costs, but also to accelerate product design.

When it comes to the entire "design chain," a recent report entitled Profitable Design Chains: Global Product Design Comes of Age from Aberdeen Group finds that "the strategy to design products across a global network of companies and individuals continues to grow."

Using five key performance criteria to distinguish best-in-class performers in global design from all the rest, Aberdeen confirms that although protecting intellectual property (IP) remains the No. 1 challenge of global design in 2007 — as it was in 2005 — top companies have made strides in addressing it with technologies such as digital rights management (DRM). Moreover, product lifecycle management (PLM) and related technologies are also helping leading companies with collaboration, addressing the operational challenges of global design and managing product development and engineering processes across widely dispersed teams.

The top pressure: market demand for rapid product development. Interestingly, this pressure was cited as the sixth pressure only two years ago.

The Aberdeen report, released this month, offers the following recommendations:

Enable the design chain to operate in parallel to accelerate innovation while minimizing the impact of rework; Coordinate the design chain through formal project management, formal review processes, and centralized product design data to standardize and automate product development processes; and Implement software solutions that protect intellectual property while enabling global design chains to collaborate.

Most manufacturers will be concentrating on product design, Design Council has pointed out. But let's not forget the other areas in which designers can help business: developing branding, making the office or facility more efficient, helping the business move into new markets, leveraging IP and even learning different ways to be creative and develop new business ideas.

Competing on price alone is rarely a viable option for today's businesses. More businesses are realizing that, with competition all over the world, only one business can be the cheapest. The rest must use design to tip competitive advantage in their favor.

Earlier:

At the Heart of a Design-Centric Strategy

Design Collaboration and the Mad Dash to Product Launch

Resources

Managing Design The Design Council, October 2007

Eleven Lessons: Managing Design in Eleven Global Brands The Design Council, October 2007

Eleven Lessons: Managing Design in Eleven Global Companies (Desk Research Report) The Design Council, Nov. 5, 2007

Profitable Design Chains: Global Product Design Comes of Age by Jim Brown and Michelle Boucher Aberdeen Group, Nov. 6, 2007

Call for Papers: "Transformations in Industrial Design: Emerging Trends, Approaches and Challenges" International Journal of Product Development, 2007

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