What does a design-led business look like?

Design Week’s roundtable discussion – in partnership with IBM – asked if the growing trend for businesses to integrate design as a strategic tool is becoming key to their success.


Design Week’s roundtable discussion – in partnership with IBM – started with the statement “Design isn’t secret any more. Why is it an attractive idea for businesses to be design-led today?”

The discussion centred on why companies are suddenly giving more attention to design, what design means in the context of a successful business and how to encourage future generations of business-focused designers.

In attendance:

Angus Montgomery: editor, Design Week
Anna Bateson: director of digital, Charlotte Tilbury Beauty
Durrell Bishop: tutor, Royal College of Art
Malcolm Garrett: creative director, Images&Co
Charlie Hill: chief technology officer, IBM Design
Mat Hunter: strategy director, Central Research Laboratory
David Kester: principal, David Kester & Associates
Jeremy Lindley: global design director, Diageo
Ben Malbon: marketing director, Google
Hugo Pinto: innovation and digital transformation expert, IBM
Kati Price: head of digital media, Victoria & Albert Museum
Naomi Turner: head, All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group

Why do so many companies aspire to be design-led at the moment?

Mat Hunter: Digital technology has been a huge lubricant of change. It’s causing fierce competition and when you have that, you have to use every tool in the box. Design is part of that toolkit. No amount of organisational information or technology alone is enough. You have to understand how to be creative.

Mat Hunter
Mat Hunter, strategy director, Central Research Laboratory

Jeremy Lindley: Our reinvestment in design came out of crisis. In a board meeting a member brought in one of our big brands and said: ‘What is this?’ It had been redesigned and it caused two shocks. One, that the board members hadn’t seen it before now and two, that it was awful. We realised then that we’d lost our way.

Anna Bateson: Design has become a bigger word. You could argue that some years ago it was product-based, around how it looked. Design was aesthetic output. Now it is manifested in so many different ways and part of so many different functions. Its remit has grown and is a much more fundamental part of how the business competes.

Why are we still using the term design in that case? Why not some other term, like ‘creative thinking’, for example?

Hugo Pinto: There is a need for all companies suffering from disruption to anchor themselves in method. Design creates differentiation and magic. It’s not about making a product and finding customers. How do you create the whole experience from the object to the interaction? I’ve always worked with designers around me because there is a need to understand how I’m going to arrive at the desired outcome.

Malcolm Garrett
Malcolm Garrett, creative director, Images&Co

Malcolm Garrett: Design is a point of conversation between product and consumer.

Jeremy Lindley: At one point, design became very small. It was all about systems and in digital and we imagined that it was all about the code. But as soon as stories started being told it changed. Airbnb thought to talk to consumers and people who were or weren’t using their site. As a result they got on a plane and took professional pictures of the rentals. The income doubled. Design is about listening to users and prototyping; empathy and trying things. Everyone can grasp that.

Anna Bateson
Anna Bateson, director of digital, Charlotte Tilbury Beauty

Anna Bateson: Putting design at the intersection of art and science is such an effective and productive place for it to be. Technology wasn’t interested in design or aesthetics but as user experience has changed, beauty and simplicity has become more important.

Is there a danger of over-simplifying the designer’s role?

Jeremy Lindley: It’s part of a myth that designers are simplifiers and Jonny Ive is part of this. Often it is the case but if we reduce it to the narrative that designers are simplifiers then we reduce the role.

Malcolm Garrett: Designers are communicators and simplification can help.

Ben Malbon
Ben Malbon, marketing director, Google

Ben Malbon: In moments of chaos you need people to bring rules and discipline. Why now? It’s driven by the massive complexity of digital businesses. Designers are great problem solvers.

David Kester: We have to provide definitions for design. When I was at the Design Council we had to provide it to the Treasury to identify the role of design in the economy. It’s pretty hard and the only one we could find works only for some businesses. It is design as the connection between creativity and innovation.

Digital brings a world concerned with measurement. Are we adequately measuring design’s contribution?

Mat Hunter: As much as I believe in the Design Council working with economists to create financial ROI, often it is about people who say: ‘We believe, so should you’.

Charlie Hill
Charlie Hill, chief technology officer, IBM Design

Charlie Hill: Digital is removing the friction between consumer and company. We need to establish intimacy because if customers don’t get it, they go elsewhere. If you are unable to be empathetic to the user then you’re in mortal danger.

Malcolm Garrett: If I know you, I trust what you tell me.

Anna Bateson: At YouTube the engineers would be influenced by data. You’d change something on the site and get user data back. But this is all about aggregates and you’d improve performance incrementally. The user experience designers were the voice of the customer. They’d talk to people. Getting quantitative data at scale meets the power of small groups of people talking to the user experience guys. Then the business moves forward.

Kati Price
Kati Price, head of digital media, Victoria & Albert Museum

Kati Price: When the V&A collections went online there were real fears about visitor numbers falling but in fact they went up. People have had a digital experience and now want to see it for themselves.

Hugo Pinto: People want choice – look at second and third screening. People watch TV and comment on Twitter. Not that one is better than the other, it’s complementary.

Charlie Hill: The limitation of split-testing is that you won’t get new ideas.The design-led thinking of talking to users and living in their shoes drives innovation because you can be inspired by what you learn. It’s not the whole picture but certainly a big part of it.

So from understanding how to measure design and how to create a rough definition to defining what design means to the business – how do we broaden that idea?

Naomi Turner: I was relieved to see the definition of design picked up and put away. I’ve stepped away from trying to define what design is. A lot of design policy is about procurement and how it is bought and used. Where’s the value in it? We’re doing a lot of work in architecture and the interoperability of standards but it’s frightening for architects themselves because it’s their living. The unglamorous reality is it is about procurement, social proof and thinking of wider systems.

Naomi Turner
Naomi Turner, head, All Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group

Anna Bateson: Thinking of design’s value leads you to look at the book sector. It was an industry that was in crisis that looked to design to save it. Five years ago, physical books were in real trouble. Everyone had been excited by the Kindle. But then publishing became design-led and books became beautiful in ways they weren’t before. The desire to own physically beautiful things increased value and differentiation.

David Kester: Publishers realised that they didn’t have a relationship with end consumers because until digital came along, it didn’t matter.

Malcolm Garrett: The point to bear in mind is the differentiation between the book as an object and a book as something to read. The same happened with the advent of the camera in the 19th century. They said painting was dead. It just changed.

David Kester
David Kester, principal, David Kester & Associates

David Kester: I disagree on the causes of this change but agree wholeheartedly that design has been part of the reinvention of the book and people rediscovering their love of them.

Ben Malbon: in the same way that it doesn’t make sense to own vinyl but it’s a beautiful thing to have.

Kati Price: I don’t think design has been totally embraced or that people fully understand the benefits. From a tangible perspective perhaps but it’s not understood about its potential for business transformation. That creates tension. It’s easier to align an organisation around the tangible. I’d like to create a culture where design is part of the process.

Jeremy Lindley: I believe the case for design is conclusively proven. Huge companies are talking about design being at the core of their business and reports state that design-led companies outperform others by 228 per cent.

Jeremy Lindley
Jeremy Lindley, global design director, Diageo

Are we bringing in the next generation of designers with the right skill set?

Durrell Bishop: There’s a problem with silos in colleges that get people entrenched with the wrong skill sets. You now create designers who don’t think they need to do some things. A bigger problem is that they all come from private schools so you lose diversity.

Charlie Hill: The professionalisation of design and narrowing of skill sets makes generalists incredibly powerful if you can get hold of them. It’s about teaching people how to think and make it a habit to develop ideas. I’m concerned that schools are trying to create repeatable skills.

Hugo Pinto
Hugo Pinto, innovation and digital transformation expert, IBM

Hugo Pinto: There needs to be a contextualisation of teaching. In the real world a visual designer won’t be working with 100 other visual designers.

Ben Malbon: We hire lots of designers but all of them want to build apps and launch their own companies. That’s a different mindset to problem solving at scale. The best ones are the ones who immerse themselves in groups, want to learn and are patient.

Comments (1)
  • Neil 28th October 2016 at 9:16 am

    Brilliant article, such an interesting read. This conversation reminds me of Robert Brunner’s book ‘Do you matter? How great design will make people love you company’.