Asian Companies able to Embrace Design as a Business Strategy? (Part 2)

Originally Published July 09, 2006, edited and updated.
It is not necessary, but if you are interested in the background of this article, do read Part 1 first.
Here are some strategies I have found useful and successful in managing and fostering design as a business strategy in an organization. It should not matter if you are an in-house employee or an external design consultant the processes and thinking are the same.
Designer in the lead
Unless you are reporting to a designer, you will need to take the lead in the creation and development of a design strategy. This is simply because no one understands the design process better than you. Convincing the business to listen to you is the problem.
There are a lot of “fly by night” managers who think they know how it is to be a product designer or design strategist, after creating (I would not even say designing) a few products. Personally, the smart ones I respect know that they need to hire trained designers to help them. It’s similar to the perennial problem in Asia in that everybody thinks they are an Interior Designer. Building contractors, furniture retailers, real interior designers, and architects all seem to be able to do Interior design. Yep, just like Industrial Design there are some more qualified than others.
So if you have decided you want to take on this role, it is likely you will have more responsibilities outside your general designing job. Therefore you should ask yourself if you want to do this? On the upside, you will start to understand the bigger picture, become a better designer and you will find you will actually stop complaining about the management’s lack of understanding or respect for a designer!
Reporting to the top
Most of the successful design strategies I have heard or read about, all had one thing in common, the implementation of it always came directly from the top.
Either as an in-house designer or a design consultant, you should always report to the top or at least to the decision maker. Even better, is to have a senior designer sit in the board of directors and thus really be able to influence design strategies within the top most echelons in an organization.
The reason behind this is the nature of strategic design, innovation and creative thinking. Innovation is about a shift in the paradigm, a different mindset and a different way to do things. Change always rub people the wrong way as it makes them uncomfortable, thus to implement innovative design strategies it needs to come from the top. It’s the only way.
A consultative or overly democratic product development process never creates revolutionary products only evolutionarily ones. Do you think the iMac or iPod would have found its foot hold if Steve Jobs was not the CEO? Do you think the design of the iMac would have been approved if Jony did not report directly to Steve?
Designers need to be able to communicate the value of design better
If there is one and only one skill a great designer needs out off school, is the ability to communicate the value of design.
There is a lot of focus in schools on the hard skills like drawing, computer skills and to a certain extent form development. Though these basic skills are important, it is also important to develop a strong design sense and turn this design sense into a language people can understand. Such training the soft skills should also be a requirement.
As designers we also need to be able to communicate a lot better with non-designers such as The CEO, engineers or marketing managers. This I have to say is something most designers are not very good at.
Designers come with so much “emotional baggage”. People always think of designers as the quirky, ranting and raving creatives the advertising industry so loves to show they have. Industrial Design operates in a different sort of industry so we cannot adopt the same general design mindset.
We need to get off our high horse and talk to people in a language they can understand. Treat every job and client as an education process even if they seem to know about design. The reality they are not designers and the don’t really know how its done.
Putting a dollar value to design?
Ultimately design, marketing and advertising all suffer from the same predicament. The value they provide is intangible and to determine tangible benefits is a difficult task indeed.
Yes you need money to create designs. So how do you then justify your product’s design, color, or finish when many decisions will be made based on what the product cost to make. Whether we like it or not, margin or profit is king.
There are a few ways to do this. The first and most important step to justify your design is to formulate a design strategy that encompasses all aspect of the business, and then develop a strategic product route map to support your design decision. See we are back to strategy again. The strategy should include the influences of the brand, design language, manufacturing requirements and even logistics. As you can see the most successful design strategies satisfy almost all the corporate requirements set out.
Another great way is the cost incurred with your design is offset by an increase in selling price, that in the end achieves a better ROI of that product. Also quantitative and qualitative tests with consumers also gives you the confidence that a design is right for your business. There are a lot more ways, but I wont go into them here, do contact me if you are interested to know more.
Design does not occur in a vacuum
I think this point sums it all up nicely. A lot of designers fail to understand that their design work has far reaching implications within organizations and ultimately consumers.
I’ve seem many design consultancies fail, as they provide a great looking design, that never make past the concept phase, as they never considered the cultural fallout within an organization.
Here again communication is vital, and a good designer needs to carefully consider the impact of a design strategy and also ask himself is the company/business/client ready for such a innovative strategy? If not, perhaps another strategy is required to prepare the company for the big main strategy.
A strategy to implement another strategy!

  • DT

    December 4, 2008 at 12:45 pm Reply

    Hi sssj,
    That was a quick request! I might do a few more posts on this issue so do stay tuned?

  • sssj

    December 1, 2008 at 3:28 am Reply

    This is a great post. Can I take you up on that offer of some more ways to put a dollar value to the intangible value of design? It would be much appreciated by a fledgling in-house industrial designer…
    Keep on sharing the great insights!

  • Design Translator

    July 9, 2006 at 4:13 pm Reply

    Thanks for the comment! Thats a huge point you have made, and its an issue with designers simiply becaue creative people are not wired this way.
    Hopefully I can bridge this gap with this blog! Please do visit more often as you comments are very insightful.

  • Peter Kua

    July 9, 2006 at 3:21 pm Reply

    Great article. I hope all designers read what you wrote. Many times, it’s the lack of communication skills and business acumen that gets creative people down. When designers are equipped with these skills, then they can at least balance creativity and what’s practical and in demand out there in the market 🙂

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