Six Principles of Design Every Business Leader Needs to Understand

Ask the average business leader about design, and most will say they love it. However, few have a Chief Design Officer or prioritize design over market research. This reluctance to integrate design into R&D negatively impacts their IP value, production costs, and profitability.

How Design Can Transform Your Business  

1. Design Is about Cultural Relevance

If you understand the market's culture, then you understand your market. Unfortunately, all too often, culture experts (i.e., designers) aren’t consulted until a product is already far along in development. I suspect this largely reflects the fact that non-designers often assume that a color or texture choice is just about making a product look or feel better. In reality, these choices play an integral role in guiding consumer understanding and trust of new products, and in turn, quickly and effortlessly adopt products, even those that are entirely new and unfamiliar.

2. Design Is a Vehicle to Achieve Business Objectives

Despite the widespread assumption that design is nothing more than packaging, in reality, design is a powerful vehicle for ensuring one’s business objectives are realized. Design helps translate concepts for end users. Without it, no matter how innovative or urgent a solution may be, it risks non-adoption.
     The very best designers are able to do this by bringing two unique and essential competencies to the table. First, they can help a company more strategically position itself for the market by helping identify new and surprising market opportunities. Second, they can pinpoint how to manufacture solutions in a way that not only optimizes cost but also does so with an eye to cultural relevance and sustainability. In summary, designers can help businesses identify opportunities they didn’t even realize existed and execute these ideas in a way that deeply resonates with potential markets and their core values.

3. Design Can Reduce the Time and Money Spent on Marketing

Many businesses invest far more money in marketing than design. In reality, design can radically reduce and even eliminate the time and money typically spent on marketing. However, to put design to work for your business, you need to be willing to invest, ideally by establishing a Chief Design Officer (CDO) position and continuing to bring in external design experts on a project basis.  While this may seem like a large investment, in my experience, the decision pays back. After all, an upfront investment in design means you likely won’t need to engage in time-consuming and costly market research once you’re ready to bring a solution to market because the solution will already be market ready. In a sense, designers are end users’ ambassadors insofar as they represent consumers’ desires at the front end, not the back end, of the development cycle. If you are fortunate to have your market love your product or solution from the onset, you’ll experience runaway adoption, and positive reviews will flood in. By contrast, if the product doesn’t meet consumer expectations,  no matter how much you spend on marketing, you’ll never generate sufficient market enthusiasm.

4. Design Helps Meet Users Empathetically

All too often, scientists and engineers design solutions that only hold the potential to appeal to peers in the lab. Designers, who are trained to see things from different perspectives and anticipate and eliminate potential points of friction, can help bridge adoption gaps. Business leaders and investors who understand the work of designers and leverage it not only are less likely to invest in products that will never be taken up but to invest in building products that are more likely to be widely adopted across different demographics over time.

5. Design Can Help You Discover New and Surprising Opportunities

Design may also surprise you in the best ways possible. Imagine working on a solution that you assumed would cost consumers upwards of $400 per unit and then discovering it can be manufactured for just $10. While this may sound impossible, I recently led a project where we achieved this precise goal and for a good reason. As a software-based service, the service in question requires a high rate of adoption to generate the data needed to support its development. Leveraging science-based design to lower the barrier wasn’t just good for our consumers in this case but a critical step in the service’s research and development.

6. Business Leaders Don’t Need to Be Fluent in Design to Leverage It

Finally, just as business leaders don’t need to be computer scientists or engineers to leverage the benefits of these fields, they don’t need to be designers. They do need to understand the value of science-based design and, most importantly, where design belongs in the research and development cycle.

The High Cost of Ignoring Design’s Impact on Business

Although the case for embracing design is rather obvious, a 2018 McKinsey study found that over 40 percent of companies don’t consider end users during the development stage. By contrast, when business leaders do invest in design, the payback is significant. According to McKinsey, companies that scored in the top quartile on their design index increased revenues and total returns to shareholders much faster than counterparts that scored in the bottom three quartiles. Notably, this held true whether they were focused on the production of physical goods, digital products, services, or their combination.

For business leaders looking to distinguish themselves from the competition, leverage their IP, and accelerate the pace at which they are able to bring solutions to market, understanding the core principles of design is essential.