The Design-Centric Company

Jon Kolko contributed a great article in the September 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review. In Design Thinking Comes of Age (subscription required), Kolko makes the case for corporate leaders to develop a more design-centric culture within their companies. There is a general shift under way towards greater design centricity as leaders look for new ways to deal with complexity in business. Below are some principles that Kolko lays out to help define a design-centric culture. If adopted, they could help bring design closer to the centre of any business.

Focus on users’ experiences, especially emotional ones. Companies can accomplish a lot by empowering employees to observe and give feedback on processes and user experiences. When doing so, leaders should allow space for emotional language, not just specs.

For example, some financial processes, such as invoicing and payments, can be key client touchpoints for a company. In a design-centric company, these financial touch points could be designed in a way that focuses on a user experience that goes beyond operational efficiency. As a result, simple touchpoints can create a good impression and reinforce a trusting relationship.

Create models to examine complex problems. Design thinking was originally associated with tangible objects, but more recently has worked for intangible processes, such as a customer experience. Companies can use “design artefacts”, such as charts, diagrams and sketches, to better comprehend and solve problems that can’t be visualised on a spreadsheet.

Use prototypes to explore potential solutions. Whilst models help to explore the problem space, prototypes help to examine the solution. Great design-centric companies tinker with ideas openly and iterate quickly with prototypes. This creates a feedback loop of testing and reflection that transforms a rough idea into something truly valuable.

Tolerate failure. The iterative nature of design means that design teams rarely get it perfect the first time. While not encouraging failure, a design culture does recognise that sometimes the breakthrough comes after testing and learning from designs that are, let’s just say, less than perfect. Does anyone remember the Apple Newton tablet? How about the Apple Lisa, Pippin gaming system, or Copland operating system? If not, go ahead and Google them. We’ll wait.

Exhibit thoughtful restraint. Many products that create the strongest emotional experiences for their customers also deliver fewer features than their competition. There is value in deciding on what you want to do better than anyone else and focusing your energy on just that.

Creating a design-centric company requires focus and leadership from the top, otherwise it’s difficult to overcome the cultural challenges of accepting ambiguity, embracing risks, and resetting expectations. Corporate leaders may buy into design as a quick fix, but without removing entrenched cultural dynamics very little is likely to change. The payoffs, however, are great - a company where people want to work, that responds quickly to new business challenges, and that values individual contributors.

Design thinking is not just for designers. Simitri offers design thinking workshops to help teams and leaders solve problems, lead change, and drive business results. For more information please contact us.