Boosting business with design expertise

Northern Glow, the biggest business event of Northern Finland took place in Oulu in November, for the ninth time in a row. This time the topic of the entire event was design, particularly the use of design thinking and the role of customer insights in companies.

The program of the day consisted of varying views of design in business: an inspiring example from a global corporation, some practical experiences from Finnish SME’s, and stories about implementing design in various industries. Finally, the audience was given an opportunity to test design tools in an insightful way.

Chief Design Officer Mauro Porcini from PepsiCo focused on human centricity in his speech, instead of customer centricity. Company cultures are in turmoil and now the focus should be on committing people (both employees and customers) to the activities of a company. Porcini highlighted three qualities which he thinks are the most important assets of a good designer: kindness, curiosity, and empathy. Teaching these skills to everybody, he says, is important for the development of society in general.


Jesse Maula, CEO of Avidly, also pointed out empathy when listing differences between design thinking and, as an example, lean thinking. He summarized design thinking to be human-centric, experimental and iterative action. Both Porcini and Maula hoped that design thinking would become part of business education as this would further the spreading of design thinking in business operations and enhance innovation and transformative abilities in companies.

Practical cases of the use of design in companies were heard from Vieser Oy from Finland and Kingspan Insulation from the Netherlands. Annika Jyllilä-Vertigans, CEO of Vieser, recollected how they, as a small company, systematically started to grow design expertise in their own organization. The challenge of limited resources, so typical to most SME’s, was solved with cooperating with a design partner. The design agency aided in strengthening the new strategy, clarifying the product portfolio and turning business operations towards comprehensive brand boosting instead of concentrating too much on products.


Product Manager Bastiaan Terhorst from Kingspan Insulation brought forward the use of design methods especially in boosting innovation and customer insight. Operations typical to design, “soft skills” such as observation and qualitative research methods, are particularly good in finding customers’ latent needs. Deep understanding of the insights helps companies in launching products and services that are truly based on customer needs. Terhorst also pointed out challenges that companies may meet when implementing design thinking. With conventional industries in particular, the siloed organizational model may become a problem as it may hinder multidisciplinary and creative co-development.

At Northern Glow, we also heard speeches about developing employee experience and the challenges in gathering customer insight and utilizing this data. Finally, Adam Lawrence, co-founder of WorkPlayExperince, a consultancy specialized in service innovations and customer experience, made the audience try out service design and design thinking methods in practice. He emphasized that design thinking is above all doing things with your hands and feet. With this, he concretely referred to various research methods and agile piloting taking place with real people. 

According to Adam Lawrence, design thinking is not something just added on or quickly sprint-developed but learning by doing and repeating this cycle determinedly and persistently. Lawrence engaged the ca 300 participating companies in trying out design thinking in practice in group exercises. Concluding from the excited reactions, from now on, design methods are probably more approachable in companies in Northern Finland than before!

Saija Malila

Project Manager, Circular Design
Design Forum Finland

Thank you for the cooperation: BusinessOulu and DesignOulu, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Helsinki and Kingspan Insulation Netherlands!

Photos: 1. Bastiaan Terhorst, 2. Mauro Porcini, 3. Annika Jyllilä-Vertigans, photos by Harri Tarvainen