From the Trenches

The Rise of the Design-Led Company — Don’t Be Left Behind

Yvonne Lyons | February 17, 2017
The Rise of the Design-Led Company — Don’t Be Left Behind


New term for you? Wondering how it applies to what you do daily? You, modern marketer, better pay attention to this little post, or I am convinced you will be left behind. Incorporating design thinking into everything your company does helps business. Design can no longer be an afterthought in content marketing planning, business planning, or your company’s overall approach to solving problems. Being design-led is an approach that changes the bottom line.

It means making design an integral part of every thought process in your company’s marketing (and product development or service offerings), and can be the line between success and failure, between blending into the sea of mediocrity and standing out, between ultra-creative thinking and what everyone else does.

Digital and product design are now seen by many companies as competitive advantages. In fact, the Design Management Institute found that, in the United States from 2004-2014, design-led companies outperformed the S&P 500 index by more than 219 percent.

Need more proof? Large companies around the globe are hiring designers for positions created in their C-suites and are gobbling up notable design firms like a kid with a bag of Halloween candy. Consider this:

  • Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers hired John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, to become its first design partner.
  • IBM bought three digital ad/design companies in a three week-span in 2016. Not small ones either: Resource/Ammirati (Apple was their first client), German digital agency, and German agency Aperto (they have clients including Volkswagen and Airbus group). IBM’s iX unit, which claims it is the largest digital agency worldwide, now employs 10,000 people. That’s right. 10,000.
  • Management consulting giant McKinsey & Company purchased Lunar, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest consulting design firms, in 2015.
  • In 2014, Capital One bought San Francisco-based design and user experience consultancy Adaptive Path, and then barely a year later purchased Oakland, California-based design/development firm Monsoon. Monsoon claims clients including the NBA, HP, Wells Fargo, and others.

Design-led, defined

Obviously, these corporate behemoths take the notion of being design-led seriously. But, maybe you are not quite as big as Capital One or IBM or McKinsey, and maybe you don’t have the same resources they have to go shopping for companies. Fair enough. Does that mean you don’t need design-led thinking? It does not. I believe that to be successful, today’s businesses must be design-led. What do I really mean by that? In a nutshell, being design-led requires:

  • An understanding among ALL employees that design for the company as well as the clients will bring results
  • The belief that design (good design) is integral to, and every bit as important as, other efforts for reaching clients’ goals
  • Constant thinking among not only strategists and creatives, but also people in all areas including finance and technology, about how design can be used to strengthen efforts and deliverables and make product or experience better for the customer
  • Embracing the idea that design brings the brand’s promise and core values to life

What will it get you?

At this point, you probably aren’t faulting my logic, but you might be thinking, “Fine, I’m willing to embrace the idea of being design-led, but I don’t have the resources to put a design leader in the C-Suite or buy a design firm.” Fair. But I believe that successful marketers — and business people — will benefit when they embrace the concepts of being design-led. Here’s why.

Good design is profitable: It brings all other aspects of what you are doing as a marketer and a company to life. Content, marketing technology, product development — they are all enhanced and complemented by good design, especially when it truly takes into account the user experience. Look at Apple, Airbnb, even Pinterest. Design and user experience are clearly at the forefront of thinking for those companies (and many others), and it has paid off.

When design leads, innovation becomes the norm: Because designers are curious, innovative, and creative, they will continually look for change and improvement for customers. Get staff from the top down to embrace design “thinking” so they, too, become curious, innovative, and creative, and your company changes from one that is happy to sit on its laurels when things are good, to one where people are always looking to present a new idea, even in when they could kick back.

Design thinking will improve how things work, not just how they look: Design thinking and design are not the same things. Steve Jobs once said, “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Don’t take this too literally and think that if you don’t make a “product,” this doesn’t apply to you. The “how it works” part of what Mr. Jobs said can be how you service your customers, how you present your company, how your sales process functions. Constant innovation from all corners of your company is a hallmark of being design-led.

The mission of  Capital One Labs, an internal product and technology incubator bolstered by the purchase of the design firms I mentioned earlier, is to “redefine the way people interact with their money.” Different than just making Capital One collateral or its website look good or even function well, the Capital One design-led mentality is looking to redefine customer interaction and experience on a grander scale.

Embracing the design-led approach for a company is not necessarily quick, and it has to be embraced from the top down to work. But when it happens, it can be a catalyst for change in every corner of your company.

Are you a design-led company? Let me know about how you’re doing things in the comments. Want to have a chat about what our design thinking does to create content and marketing success for our clients? Get in touch.

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