The golden opportunity for designers?

Petteri Kolinen
CEO, Design Forum Finland

Antti Pitkänen
Managing Director, S.E.O.S Design Oy

Anne Veinola
Communications Manager, Design Forum Finland

We have lately learned how leading technology and consultation companies in the US have eagerly acquired design agencies. Accenture bought Fjord in 2013, Google Gecko Design in 2014, McKinsey recently Lunar Design. Why this sudden interest in design on areas of business where design has previously not been a central planning method or tool?

The key words are ”customer” and ”digitalization”. Digitalization has brought customers to the Internet and digital contacts have become focal. The design of this encounter is essential. Contacts are mobile, easily measurable and even customized. Marketing has turned into contents. Digitalization brings about new opportunities, services and experiences.

All this has to be implemented onto digital platforms, using several channels. But the old analogical world hasn’t disappeared, either: customers are still contacted there, too. Whether the contacts are physical or digital, they should function and the message should be consistent. A challenge is, too, how to distinguish oneself amid all noise, get new customers and increase the commitment of the old ones.

Design has brought back empathy as a critical ability for the organizations. Being able to understand the customer at every single touchpoint of interaction with the brand and being able to create emotional links to company’s core activities will undoubtedly decide whether companies gain traction, survive or wither away.

The needs of companies have changed and the methods of design – user-centricity, implementation of innovations into practice, creative problem solving and agile and iterative processes – have proved to be useful in fulfilling the new needs. Design is no more only on the operational or tactical level on companies’ agendas; it has become a strategic tool for the executive board. As teaching a company in design thinking is a long-term process, it has been easier to get design skills by acquiring design agencies and even appointing designers to executive positions.

Designers have changed, too. In design schools the emphasis has quite a while been on immaterial design, instead of the traditional material-based work. Marketing and communication skills are underlined, knowledge about the end-user is essential, digital platforms taken for granted. Designers’ skills are valuable in designing customer contacting and recognizing customer needs and experiences. Recently venture capital investors have been starting to utilize designer skills in investment decisions – quite a surprising example of the importance of design.

The most successful companies are, according to several surveys, utilizing design. Design Management Institute’s (DMI) Design Value Index showed that during the last ten years, design-led companies have gained significant advantage and their market value has increased over twofold compared with the S&P Index. John Maeda, Design Partner of the renowned venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, published in May 2015 the report Design in Tech, which also states the significance of design for the growth and success of companies. The public sector is not lagging, either. Several governments are founding innovation labs and speak about developing public services through service design.

Regardless of all this, getting design into the strategic activities of companies – not to speak about corner offices – yet calls for exertion. Design investments have to be justified. And they should be seen really as investments, not expenditure. Here different metrics and indexes come into question.

This issue is extremely topical and researched all over the world. DMI calculates besides the Design Value Index the Design Maturity Matrix, which measures the maturity of design in any organization on five levels (Initial, Repeatable, Defined, Managed, and Optimized). The Design Value Map, also by DMI, pinpoints activities where design adds value in an organization. The Design Council in UK published in October 2015 The Design Economy report where the impact of using design was investigated in e.g. productivity, turnover, employment, and export.

As early as in 2012 the first phase of the Design ROI research by Aalto University, Finnish Design Business Association and Tekes – Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation was published in Finland. There a first prototype of a tool and method for measuring design investments in companies was developed. When the Design ROI was published in Helsinki’s World Design Capital year of 2012, it received much international attention and interest. Since then the role of the project team has been a consultative one, openly sharing the gained insights with other international research initiatives and promoting the results of the original project. The start of the second phase of the research is presently being considered, hopefully with a positive outcome.

The Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy has just published (November 2015) a report on the uses of design in Finland and its impact on business competitiveness. One of the conclusions is that brand building and developing user experience can bring significant advantage – almost 60% of answers stated this. But how informed are the companies, on an average, of trend changes and opportunities generated by design – or even of their own needs in the short run? Another conclusion was that most Finnish companies, especially SME’s, don’t yet understand the benefits of utilizing design, regardless of all the hype in Design in Tech. There’s much work to do in communicating about design, developing the offering of design agencies, selling designers’ skills. Even the word ”design”, in Finnish ”muotoilu”, still bears the heritage of arts and crafts.

A huge task for designers. We have not always been the best to market our skills and know-how. In this, all help, e.g. tools and metrics for measuring the impact of design investments, is required. To speak the same language as board members, to be able to convey relevant information about design methods and to convince corporate management will be required. For design leaders and decision makers the existence of such a tool would inevitably enable making better investment decisions, lead to more efficient design processes and guide the companies towards sustainable growth.

Will designers be able to meet the challenge? Now is the golden opportunity for design and designers. Let’s take it.