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Arvind Lodaya is trained in Product Design and has worked extensively on innovation, design and branding. He is a consulting Innovation Strategist for Tech, B2C, G2C and Consulting firms and also a Visiting Professor at AUD and IIT-K

2018 seems to have been a watershed year for design in business. I have on my desk half a dozen reports (scroll to the bottom for the reference list) that are attempts to map, analyse, exhort and extoll the data pouring out of their large-scale global surveys on the practice as well as impact of design in organisations.

But first, in case you missed it, I want to start off with this wonderful self-tribute by/to the most well-known and admired design firm IDEO, looking back to where it all began:

In many ways, IDEO’s articulation of design thinking and the viral “shopping cart” video marks a turning point in modern design. I clearly see in these, the origins of several “design impact/maturity” metrics and best-practices that inform these reports today. (Around the same time, Apple was also making design and business history with its own story. More on that later.)

From 1990s till now: the progress of design maturity

In brief, what the reports tell us is this:

  • In the category of products & services (B2C), most of the organisations surveyed, employ trained and qualified designers.
  • Design makes a clear and strong impact on product/service quality and customer satisfaction, business topline, shareholder returns and market position.
  • In many cases, design has entered the boardroom and is contributing to strategy.
  • This represents a sea-change from the 1990s, when design was regarded as an optional add-on that made business sense only for high-premium products – today, it has clearly housed itself as a core function in virtually every B2C vertical (take a bow!).
  • However, the gap between high-maturity and low-maturity firms remains wide – for example, 40% of respondents to one survey admitted that they don’t engage with their end users during design development (in this day and age). 50% confessed that they lacked objective ways to evaluate or benchmark their design teams’ performance.
  • This was corroborated by another survey where only 12% respondents reported adopting data-driven design practices for analytics, user research, monitoring and measuring the success of specific efforts.
  • This suggests that managers are still hesitant to cost for and deploy design outside of the product/service dev space (pro tip: it may help to imagine it as a “continuous” function, like marketing).
  • One heartening news is that around 1 in 5 respondents of the same survey reported that their design teams are developing collaborative processes involving non-design colleagues.

In a nutshell, what this shows us is that design has rapidly become mainstream as far as customer-facing product/service speccing, aesthetics and styling is concerned. However, it is taking time to step out of its legacy silo and evolve into a multifaceted organizational impactor.

This begs the question, what might such a state be like? After all, design has always been identified with product and service attributes that contribute to customer delight – what more can it do? For that, we need to switch from the IDEO origin story to Apple and Steve Jobs.

Design maturity is going beyond the Product and Service domain

Walter Isaacson, probably the best-known biographer of Steve Jobs, describes how Zen Buddhism and modernist home design opened Jobs’ eyes to the power of “deep simplicity”, which he embraced as the comprehensive design vision and philosophy at Apple, articulated as: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Jobs steeped himself in this kind of minimalist yet rich world view, and started evangelizing this at Apple. This even helped him hold on to a 30-year old brilliant designer who was on the verge of quitting, dejected at the company’s (temporary) focus on profit maximization. This was Jony Ive, who recalls: “I remember very clearly Steve announcing that our goal is not just to make money but make great products.”

Jobs’ deployment of design wasn’t limited to product/service. It was more an organisation-wide mindset or ideology that was applied everywhere:

  • A (non-technical, human-centric) critique of the status quo/current state of art – the “intuitive” buzzword originated here
  • A compelling and systemic vision for change and building the business model around this (remember Tunes?) – with design being empowered/mandated to lead and prototype the shared-future scenario
  • Breaking disciplinary silos and getting talent to collaborate (always looking at the higher vision rather than their own functional or other coordinates)
  • Committing substantial organisational resources to clarify and experiment with actualizing this vision (even continually revising, improving upon and updating it)
  • Turning every individual in the organisation into an evangelist for user/consumer empowerment first and organisation/brand only after, and thus committed to the design ideology

This is a purely speculative and partial list, but it does give a feel of its aggregative power when roaring through the organisational bloodstream. Here, design continually investigates the world-as-is and comes up with exciting what-if and why-not scenarios for world-as-could-be, which becomes the life-energy and purpose that propels the organization (and its heart, the business model) and everything that it does. No wonder that in the Silicon Valley, Apple is not referred to as a “tech corp”- it’s a “design corp”!

Design-driven organisational raison d’etre

Now, that is a terrific example of what design maturity and evolution looks, feels and works like when it is owned by and driven with conviction and passion from top to bottom. This is of course not to say that it requires the CEO to be as driven (or flamboyant) as Jobs was, but it does suggest that if an organization can be imbued with a larger sense of purpose and dedication to making a positive transformative impact on society and/or the environment (integrated with earning its own keep), it would organically tap into the enormous potential of design beyond its product or service-centric contributions.

Jeanne Liedtka [2013] presents an iceberg model of design evolution and maturity within organisations. According to the iceberg model above the waterline are “hard, measurable (organizational) outcomes” (i.e. directly mappable onto product/service performance), but going lower, she lists “measurable changes in perception, changes in conversation and changes in how people think.” One of the reports even proposes a model to capture this potential: “More than a feeling, More than a department, More than a phase, More than a product”.

In the absence of a visionary genius like Jobs who already came pre-loaded with such a vision, drive and the entrepreneurial talent to execute it without losing track of business objectives and requirements (fact: he turned it around from a $1 billion loss-maker in 1997 to a $300 billion capitalization when he died in 2011), we may have to wait for design academics to deconstruct his genius into boring methodology. This would mean capturing, analysing, joining the dots and making explicit, measurable and generalisable all the interconnections and correlations that his maverick model mashed seamlessly together. Only then might classical management honchos and gurus feel comfortable with opening up all their functions to the “in-discipline” of design, rather than only the product/service function.

Social visionaries & entrepreneurial CEOs will spearhead design maturity

What Jobs did at Apple with design was not unlike introducing entrepreneurial ethos within a highly process-driven system. Which is why the best hope for rapid design evolution vests with entrepreneurial organizations which are led by a maverick combination of analytical and out-of-the-box thinking, a passion to make impact rather than ensure one’s sustenance, a higher-than-average appetite for risk and experimentation (and stomach for failure), and ability to de-ossify bureaucratic structures (silos), procedures and timeframes in decision-making. This pretty much conforms with my own consulting and turnkey design experience over three decades: with entrepreneurs as clients, the scope of design invariably tends to be much bigger and all-pervasive, and hence its impact and contribution also correspondingly is felt wider and deeper.

However, for those impatient to accelerate design maturity in their organisation, my simple advice would be—put design into the boardroom and encourage it to take up non-product/-service agenda items and lead a few projects. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. You could also initiate a search for a compelling social/consumer utopia that turbocharges your business model, but that’s a slippery path to pursue on your own. (Yup, call someone.)

In conclusion

Although in many aspects of business, we in India lag behind frontline global companies by a few decades, there is one aspect in which we are probably at the forefront: entrepreneurship. If we can embrace the virtues of entrepreneurial leadership into the corporate culture while integrating rigorous social critique and audacious visioning into our business model, we would truly be on our way to birthing the next Apple in India. And this would also give our design maturity index a huge boost up!

Here, for your reading pleasure, are the reports referenced above:

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