Design Pays | NTT DATA

Wed, 17 April 2019

Design Pays - How to make your business more design-focussed

Design PaysThree recommendations for making your business more design-focussed.

“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.” – Steve Jobs (1)

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the designers at Apple had no power. Like so many other companies at the time, design at Apple was driven by engineering and marketing, whose teams would draw up long lists of features they thought their customers needed, then give it to the design team to come up with something that looked good. (2)

Steve Jobs wasted no time in changing things, telling the rest of the company to make the visions of Jonathan Ive – Apple's now world-renowned chief design officer – reality. Fast forward a couple of decades and things at the company could not be more different, with Apple becoming the first $1 trillion public company and design absolutely at the heart of everything it does. According to Leander Kahney, author of ‘Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products’, “everyone defers to the design studio, called the ‘idea team’, and you can’t say no to them.’ (3)

Like Apple, many businesses today are finally taking design seriously, and those that do this best are reaping the rewards. In a recent study, McKinsey, who tracked the design practices of 300 publicly listed companies over a five-year period in multiple countries and industries, found that the best design performers are demonstrating increases in their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts. (4)

So what can you do to make your organisation more design-led, and ultimately more successful? This article sets out 3 key recommendations:

1. Make design strength a C-level metric and drive the importance of design at leadership level

‘Good design is good business’ – Thomas Watson Jr (5)

Design must be acknowledged as a C-suite concern and a key element of corporate strategy rather than a matter of aesthetics or corporate image best left to marketing or public relations (6). In their recent study, McKinsey found that the businesses performing the best financially understood design to be a top-management issue. Some companies had developed design metrics, allowing them to assess design performance in the same way as they did revenues and costs (7). Conversely in lesser-performing businesses, design leaders felt they were treated as second-class citizens (8). In these organisations, design remained stuck in middle-management, rarely rising to C-level. As such, senior executives had to make decisions based on gut feel rather than on concrete evidence (9). 

It should also be emphasised that it’s not sufficient simply to have C-level acknowledgement of the importance of design. It’s incumbent on leadership to drive that belief into all levels of the organisation – overlooking this may result in a senior leadership team that buys into design, but where legacy practices that largely ignore this are still entrenched further down the chain.

Firstly then, treat design strength as a C-level metric that is measured and managed as rigorously as cost, quality, and time, and ensure that your leadership team drive the importance of design into all levels of your organisation. Secondly, empower your design leaders – it is not just a coincidence that designers can now be found in the boardrooms of the world’s most progressive companies.

2. Make ‘Design Thinking’ a core capability

‘Contrary to public opinion, you don’t need weird shoes or a black turtleneck to be a design thinker’ – Tim Brown (10)

The emergence of ‘Design Thinking’ into the mainstream of business and innovation lexicon reflects the growing recognition on the part of today’s business leaders that design has become too important to be left solely to designers. One of the leading proponents of Design Thinking, IDEO CEO Tim Brown, has written at length about how having everyone think like a designer can transform the way businesses develop products, services, processes — and even strategy (11). Brown’s mantra that ‘all of us are smarter than any of us’ is central to his view that interdisciplinary teams of ‘design thinkers’ are key to generating successful ideas that are desirable, viable and feasible. Ultimately, Design Thinking is about people and their experiences rather than technology. Before a solution is created to meet a business need, the first consideration for organisations should always be the human need behind it. By focusing on the people you’re creating for, you’re more likely to create better products, services and processes. The Nintendo Wii is a great example of something that strikes the perfect blend of these things – ebbing the flow towards superior graphics and therefore avoiding a higher price point by focusing on gestural control technology – paving the way for a more immersive experience, a less expensive console, better margins and ultimately a tremendous success story for the company (12).

In addition, Fortune 500 companies are hiring chief design officers and investing heavily in innovation centres. In 2017, there were 21 new acquisitions of creative agencies or designer-found start-ups (13). Similarly, business and design schools have introduced interdisciplinary programs to help students think more like designers and vice versa (14). At NTT DATA for example, we invest significantly in R&D and recently opened a world-class innovation centre in London. We are also investing in upskilling our people in design thinking – I recently had the opportunity through NTT DATA to participate in a design course at the Politecnico di Milano, one of the world’s leading universities for Engineering, Architecture and Design.

In summary, make user-centric design everyone’s responsibility, not a siloed function. Today, companies are investing significantly in design and innovation skills. They are also not just enlisting designers to make an already developed idea more attractive; they are challenging interdisciplinary teams of design thinkers to pull design out of the studio and create more disruptive ideas with game-changing potential (15).

3. Put your customers first

‘You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people’ – Dieter Rams (16)

Despite the obvious commercial benefits of designing great products and services, doing this on a consistent basis is notoriously hard – and getting harder. In an overcrowded ‘phygital’ world (the blending of physical experiences with digital ones) where consumer expectations are unprecedentedly high, only the best designs stand out from the crowd.

It should be the end goal of every business to know their customer and make the best possible products and services for them. Put simply, if you’re not satisfying a customer need or solving a problem, you won’t be in business for very long (17). When Airbnb’s founders tell their story, they recall a time when revenues had flatlined and they asked for some advice from Paul Graham, head of start-up incubator Y Combinator. Airbnb’s founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nate Blecharczyk were based in Silicon Valley, whilst the largest concentration of their users resided in New York City. “[Paul] paused and repeated back what they had just told him: ‘So, you’re in Mountain View, and your users are in New York?’ They looked at each other, then back at him. ‘Yeah,’ they said. ‘What are you still doing here?’ Graham said. ‘Go to your users.” (18)

Businesses are now in a much better position to understand their customers. They have access to vast amounts of customer feedback, particularly through social media and smart devices, allowing them to test and adapt their designs in real-time. Advances in customer insight also stem from the combination of CRM, intelligent automation and machine learning which drive even greater understanding. However, McKinsey’s recent study found that over 40% of the companies they surveyed still weren’t talking to their end users, with 50% admitting they had no objective way to assess or set targets for the output of their design teams (19).

Users must be at the heart of what you do and you must have a way to understand them – doing so will allow you to make better decisions, better products and services and ultimately enhance overall business performance (20).

To wrap up

After years of being treated as a bit of an afterthought in business, design is finally being taken seriously. And it pays to do so, with top-performing, design-led organisations fairing significantly better than their industry counterparts. In a hyper-competitive landscape with consumer expectations at an all-time-high, it has arguably never been more important to create great products and services.

Good design is good business. Empower your design leaders – let them make key strategic decisions and allow them to shape the direction of the company – promote a culture of ‘design thinking’ across the organisation and listen to your customers.


(1) Walker, R., “The Guts of a New Machine,”, April 16, 2019

(2) Brownlee, J., “How To Create The Next Jonathan Ive,”, April 16, 2019

(3) Walker, R., “The Guts of a New Machine,”, April 16, 2019

(4) Sheppard, B., Sarrazin, H., Kouyoumjian, G., Dore, F., “The business value of design,”, April 16, 2019

(5) “Good Design is Good Business,”, April 16, 2019

(6) Chandler, C., “The Meaning of Design Is up for Debate. And That’s a Good Thing,”, April 16, 2019

(7) Sheppard, B., Edson, J., Kouyoumjian, G., “More than a feeling: Ten design practices to deliver business value,”, April 16, 2019

(8),(9) Sheppard, B., Sarrazin, H., Kouyoumjian, G., Dore, F., “The business value of design,”, April 16, 2019

(10),(11) Brown, T., “Design Thinking,”, April 16 2019

(12) Brown, T., Change by Design, HarperBusiness, 2009, page 18

(13) Maeda, J., “Design in Tech Report 2018,”, April 16 2019

(14) Chandler, C., “The Meaning of Design Is up for Debate. And That’s a Good Thing,”, April 16, 2019

(15) Brown, T., Change by Design, HarperBusiness, 2009, page 7

(16) Rams, D., “Dieter Rams On Good Design As A Key Business Advantage,”, April 16, 2019 

(17) Aronowitz, K., “Designers Finally Have A Seat At The Table. Now What?,”, April 16, 2019

(18) Chandler, C., “The Meaning of Design Is up for Debate. And That’s a Good Thing,”, April 16, 2019

(19) Sheppard, B., Sarrazin, H., Kouyoumjian, G., Dore, F., “The business value of design,”, April 16, 2019

(20) Chandler, C., “The Meaning of Design Is up for Debate. And That’s a Good Thing,”, April 16, 2019

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