Technology

The value of design

July 16, 2014
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What is the value design can bring to a business? How does business measure a return on a design investment — let alone define something as intangible as “good design”?

As the owner of a design firm, these are questions I regularly face when selling our services. Many clients seek hard numbers on what design can do for their business, and up until recently, my response to these questions would be to walk-through a few relevant past projects. I’d highlight preset objectives, key results and talk about the number of downloads from the App Store or an improved click-through rate. However, a recent study has added support to the discussion of design value to a business’ bottom line.

The Design Management Institute’s (DMI) Design Value Index studies the results of companies that meet a certain level of design integration criteria to be deemed a “design-led company.” The criteria included growth in design-related investments, level of design embedded in company structure (org charts, process maps, RACI charts, etc.), presence of design leadership within executives and a senior-level commitment to using design as an innovation resource. The key finding of the study shows that over the past ten years, these design-led companies (a number of whom call West Michigan home) have maintained a significant stock market advantage and outperformed the S&P by a remarkable 228 percent.

But let’s back up. These companies understand design to be more than logos, colors and shapes. Much, much more. Design is fundamentally about systems, divergent thought, curiosity and iteration. Assessing a need, developing ideas, learning from testing, then heading back and improving. These are principles of design that the companies in DMI’s study have learned to integrate into their organization by trusting design thinking and creative problem solving.

Having worked with over a third of the companies on DMI’s list, we’ve seen tremendous results when clients understand the value of design. However, this is not always easy for everyone to understand. Our value proposition often sounds foreign to an organization centered around optimization, accuracy and efficiencies. It's also evident that they have learned how to engage design throughout the entire organization, not just within the departments that require design deliverables.

In an April 2014 article, George Erickcek, a senior regional analyst at the Upjohn Institute, remarked on the value of designers in our local economy: “Designers could be even more important to (West Michigan’s) strong manufacturing economy than the number of engineers based here.”

As a designer who has been defending the worth of my creativity since middle school art class, this is exciting for our industry, field, design-related businesses and our region. The ability to translate strategy and vision into action through design offers tremendous potential for the companies in Michigan. With the collective ingenuity of all the design, engineering and manufacturing history right in our backyard, we have the potential to offer products and services found nowhere else in the world.

But a lot needs to be done for that to happen. Organizations need to understand just how much they stand to gain with design. Today, many don’t include design thinking, experience design or design for innovation in an annual budget line item. In many companies, marketing, R&D and IT are the only places design thinking is evident. As this study indicates, by becoming a design-led organization, companies can deliver a better value to their consumers.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is currently hosting the “Michigan Modern” exhibit until August 24th. It features furniture, automotive and industrial design that shaped America, all from our state. If you need a reminder of the ingenuity, the might and the potential of Michigan, I suggest you visit.

In the end, it seems businesses can't afford not to inject design into their company and culture.  

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