Last month’s Design in Business Week events around the country invited audiences to delight their customers by finding what they need rather than what they want.
Market research tells you what people want, but finding what they need takes controlled observation of what people do plus intuitive empathy in the design process. Market research measures the now, and design adds new possibilities, alternatives and solutions. The argument is that marketing or sales managers should not be the only point of contact to the customer.
In Barcelona at Centaur Exhibitions’ Design Forum and in Leeds at a DIBW session, we heard how adverse research findings were ignored in favour of a hunch that something would work (and it did). In Leeds, Pat Gregory of Black Sheep Breweries delighted the audience with his tale of faith in ‘expensive designers from London in yellow spectacles whose work we didn’t much like at first’. But he had the honesty to realise the innovative direction in which those designers took him was a core component of his company’s subsequent success.
One issue common to both the Barcelona and Leeds events was that of decisions. How do companies know which of the concepts on the table is the right one? We should trust designers, they have broad vision and an independent standpoint. If the designer is challenging, and we don’t like what we hear, it gets trickier. Remember Apple Computer’s Jonathan Ive saying to his board, ‘if you liked what I’m doing, I’d know it was wrong’.
Elmwood chairman Jonathan Sands spoke in Leeds of how he tried to work with clients he knew would appreciate his work and have a shared understanding of the customer. The trust and empathy between company and design, whether external or internal, is crucial in the connection between business and customer.
This trust can be fragile, placing a huge burden on design. Designers are placed in crucial situations often without the internal mechanisms to deliver a total customer experience. If something goes wrong, it’s easy to blame the designer, resulting in peak and trough design activities with little strategic direction.
Now large design groups that took the strategic high ground find it tough. Their relationships suddenly seem fragile and the resulting downturn as rapid as was growth. A plethora of smaller groups then replace the bigger ones from which they came. Many of their clients will be disconnected from their design strategies and investment in design lost.
One of the few silver linings of the current cloud is that in-house design teams seem to survive. Perhaps it is easier to consider in-house design as an investment rather than a cost. This may offer a solution to future sustainability of both the design profession and strategic design within companies.
James Dyson, in a speech marking the 21st anniversary of the Royal College of Art’s Industrial Design Engineering course, argued that in product design real innovation, championing of the user and empathy with suppliers and distributors is only possible if the designer is inside the organisation. This might be the key to a heightened strategic role for design that could be the long-term answer to recession-sensitive design businesses.
In Barcelona design groups were not impressed by the case for in-house design as the brand champion or in any way rightful owner of corporate values. How can they understand what people really think, they said. In-house designers are too close to company politics to see the wood for the trees.
It is time to move on from the antipathy between designers inside and outside a company. The strategic role of design in shaping the way a business behaves, communicates and delivers needs strong internal representation and ownership. In-house designers must be open to fresh ideas and creative benchmarking from consultancies. Consultancies must go further than just accepting the internal managing role of in-house resources, they need to nurture it, or create it where it doesn’t exist.
Design is the way to delight the customer, but we need to find ways to help decisions on design become strategic rather than leaps of faith. Consultancies, marketing, design managers and in-house design resources have vital roles to play. If design consultancies forced their clients to invest in internal design resources, a more balanced design industry would have more internal champions to help it and their clients ride the storms.