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Why design is more than meets the eye

21 Oct 2015 by Mike Tisdall

From NBR, Friday 16 October

Design was never about making products more attractive.

It’s now treated as a way of thinking: a creative process that spans entire organisations, driven by the desire to better understand and meet consumer needs.

Last week’s Design Institute awards attracted around 1000 industry participants yet the dominant impression was that their potential is being wasted. Noel Brown, an awards judge and a director of design firm DNA, says the majority of companies still use design only as a tactic.

“Not many and very few really big businesses are joining all the dots and using design strategically,” he says. “At the heart of being better is really understanding your customers, understanding them so deeply you can predict what they will value, respond to and, of course, buy. Gaining this insight and then imaginatively delivering on it is design.”

Mr Brown speaks for many who say strategic use of design means organising the business around the goal. “They have to alter the way they control risks, the way they invest and the way they manage,” he says. “The design process doesn’t fit neatly within corporate lines of control and the design mind-set doesn’t run on straight lines. It is always challenging – and uncomfortable.”

Mr Brown co-convened the Best Effect category, which was judged for the impact of design on the business. The winner, menswear chain Barkers, was a standout example. “In some commercial difficulty they radically redesigned the way they do business, with the wants, needs, dreams and whims of their customers firmly in mind,” Mr Brown says. “Their clothing, stores, communication and more have been reimagined to win and hold the heart, heads and wallets of their customers.”

Another example is Powershop, a winner at previous awards. A start-up launched by Meridian Energy, it set out to make people care about the energy they used, how it was generated and where they bought it. “They started by really understanding what would move people from their indifference,” Mr Brown says. “Several years down the track they have a strong, loyal and growing base of customers who go so far as to monitor their power usage regularly on their mobile app and change when and how they buy to optimise financial and environmental savings.”

Design stories always mention Steve Jobs, who created the world’s most valuable company with what he called “magical design.” When he died, “people wanted to know what this design thing he did was,” says Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers design partner John Maeda, who was interviewed by McKinsey for a recent research paper. “How is that the advent of mobile is fundamentally changing the need to think about design, the interaction and the experience in a substantive way?” he asks, adding somewhat cryptically: “If you think about design adding value, a lot of what people don’t understand is that sometimes the best design consultants will tell you not to design it.”

Design, as you will have gathered, can be hard to define. But an evening spent with a thousand others seeing hundreds of examples provides one answer: you know when you see it.

 

Nevil Gibson, NBR

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