Why designers and the business world need to understand each other

John Oswald, business design lead at Fjord, talks about the mutual benefits designers and clients can gain from adapting to each other’s ways of thinking.

© ugde via iStock

If you’re reading Design Week, then chances are you already know a thing or two about how design can re-wire a business and transform the way it communicates with its customers and employees.

Designers are now playing a much bigger role and solving problems across many companies – we’re achieving strategic outcomes, rather than just creating beautiful things.

It’s the reason why so many big consultancies have been snapping up design firms in recent years. My own employer, Accenture Interactive bought Fjord in 2013 and went on to consolidate all of its design and innovation units under the Fjord banner.

Designers understand customers

But, while the trend for design moving up the business agenda is in full flow, many senior decision makers still have a way to go before they catch up.

They’ll certainly recognise the challenges that are behind design’s rise. The rate of digital innovation is moving faster than ever before and a business can find itself out of step within a matter of weeks, not years.

Who would have known five years ago the effect Airbnb would have on the hotel sector or the impact Nest would have on home heating and security? Keeping ahead of disruption means gaining a new depth of understanding of customers and their increasingly fluid expectations. That’s something designers have always excelled at.

Design is still regarded as an aesthetic discipline

Despite this, so many in the business world still don’t understand what design is and how it can impact a business. Design is regarded as an aesthetic discipline and not something that belongs at the highest level of corporate culture.

So how can we rectify this? If more and more significant decision makers are looking to design to solve problems, then there needs to be a greater degree of self-reflection on both sides to help bridge the gulf.

Management consultants or designers?

First, we need to understand the historic role of management consultancies. Consultants are all about helping companies de-risk situations and investments. They’re experts at identifying what the client actually wants, working to requirements and then delivering. It’s about making sense of the company and industry that the client thinks they’re in.

But design and innovation comes equipped with an entirely different mind-set. It’s informed by a deep understanding of the end user and of improving how we all engage with the world. Yes, there’s a need to be informed by rational thinking and what the organisation is trying to achieve, but also a focus on what it means for people.

Designers are in the business of provoking clients and posing those challenging questions. We constantly look to re-frame clients’ thinking, saying what we think a company should be doing rather than what they think they should be doing. As such, decision makers need to understand that design and innovation is going to fundamentally challenge them and make them question what business they’re in. Operational norms at most large companies won’t be prepared for this approach to strategic consulting.

What do designers need to do?

On the other side are the practitioners of design and innovation themselves. Designers are essentially becoming consultants, so they’ll need to better familiarise themselves with the consulting playbook and be willing to embrace alternative ways of communicating and articulating the nature of the challenge. This won’t be easy. Designers are engaging with decision makers who are used to management consultants of a traditional nature. Design and innovation differs in that it’s telling a story about how it feels to be a customer or employee of a company. It’s a much more emotional stance than companies are used to.

Designers often don’t have the time or even the fundamental skills to do this. But we too will need to start evolving if design is to find its place at the heart of business. It’s going to require not just a display of sensitivity and empathy to the end user, but also to the people who stand between you and the end user – those running the business itself. Design and innovation needs to adopt a new attitude while maintaining its righteous objectives.

The integration of design and business is young and we’re all learning from one another. The really important question is how we make the relationship a success. The simple answer is that both sides will need to change and evolve – if we can find harmony, the mutual benefits will be huge.

Discover more:

• Accenture plans huge design recruitment drive – says it is building “design powerhouse”

• Accenture buys digital consultancy Fjord

• Consultancy giant McKinsey bolts on design capability with Lunar acquisition

• How IBM is building the world’s biggest design team


John Oswald is business design lead at Fjord, owned by Accenture Interactive

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