The Role of Design in Business

Outside the [wonderful] ‘bubble’ of the creative industries, businesses often see ‘design’ as a cost, as something that the marketing department does in between espressos and yoga. The truth however, is that the vast majority (if not all) of the most successful businesses I have ever seen place design thinking at the head-table of conceptual pillars for their enterprise; alongside financial and strategic.

Chris Bangle was Chief of Design for BMW Group, where he was responsible for BMW, MINI and Rolls Royce Motorcars. Design is the great ‘re-configurer’ of problems for business…” he told me, “…for example design takes an engineering solution for transmitting signals called a phone and reconfigures it into a hyper complex problem of glass and metal shapes, etc.  I hesitate to respond bluntly but ’design’ to many businesses is an invisible element somehow present without effort…like ‘free wifi’.  And, as my son says, to his generation, ‘wifi is like air’-–taken for granted and only notable when the quality is bad or (god forbid!) it is not there at all.” He continued by stating that, “other enterprises understand design for what it is, the backbone of their corporate culture as well as the summation of all experiences their clients will have with their services and products––and as such well worth the investment of time and resources.”

 What is Design Thinking?

To me, design thinking means putting the ‘human’ at the middle, rather than the problem. As the firm IDEO say, design thinking “…brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.” When approaching opportunities and challenges with a design-thinking mentality, we are putting the subjective human experience at the centre, rather than the financial measurable impact. As Chris Bangle states, the results can be profound: “…What kind of impact do you want?  Cheaper? Quicker? Faster selling? Longer-lasting appeal? Iconic longevity? It would be difficult to find a sector that design and/or design thinking cannot impact. Since it is not a narrow discipline and one with great roots in cultivating subjective experiences the integration and contribution of design is often overlooked in a silo mentality of product and service definition/development that likes to put things in neat little boxes or measure “impact” in direct dollars and cents.  In addition, design thinking is an overreaching philosophy with great potential but often difficult to pin down deliverables.  What is the value of asking the right question to prompt the right answer?In practice, we can split businesses into a number of ‘categories’ for this purpose.

Aesthetic & Psychological:

How does your business interact with emotions and senses? How do people feel at every part of interacting with your business, what makes it desirable? What do you feel like to touch? What do you look like? What do you sound like? What do you smell like? For example, In one of my own businesses, we take great care to make sure that the lighting, scent, materials and sounds of our showroom and meeting rooms are just right to get the emotional response we want from our visitors.


How does your business work with people? How do people engage with all parts of what you do? (Whether that is your own team, customers or other stakeholders) What are the processes they go through, the pace, and so on. For example, one financial services company I was advising gained a tangible, financial benefit from looking at their business processes from a human- rather than process- perspective.


How do people derive value from your business? Is it financial? Emotional? Or even something more abstract? What is the utility they gain from engaging with you. For example, one of my own businesses found that the value brought to customers was not in ‘best price’ but rather that the customer felt ‘safe and re-assured,’ this is a significantly different strategic approach, but one that creates value!

It may seem alien to many managers to approach business strategy from this perspective, but it’s hard to sometimes remember the fact that regardless of what your business does; ultimately, it’s humans that are at either side of a transaction! As Bangle says, “Businesses, or rather their leadership, is often saddled with a set of problems and daily issues that prevents them from taking an objective view of their realities…forget the trees, often there is too much leaf watching to notice they are in a forest.   Management that is forced into near time results and paybacks is not tuned for the sort of messages that design has to offer––those of long term customer relationships, of innovative approaches to creating desirable uniqueness, or even to investing the energy and resources into making a strategy about design first and then creating the needed design statements to fill it.”

 Is it worth it?

In my own experience, applying design-thinking principles has allowed my businesses, and those I advise to generate real value – and to overcome real problems. My advice? Maybe it’s time to put the human in the middle of your business!

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