Five Ways Good Design Can Help Your Business

Five Ways Good Design Can Help Your Business

The Cognitivie Puzzles Ogilvy campaign for IBM Software. Illustration by HORT and Carl De Torres.

This article was originally published on as the third in a three-part series authored by AREA 17’s leadership team.

Good design is good business. Now more than ever this well-worn phrase, coined by long-time IBM Chairman-CEO Thomas Watson Jr., is worth repeating. In an increasingly competitive business landscape, design is the new battleground and the success of your business depends on it.

Still design remains an elusive concept. Many equate it with aesthetics, but good design is much more. Steve Jobs described design as “the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.” In other words, design is the character of the thing you make or do. And it’s that character that can attract and retain customers.

The power of design lies in its ability to express the intention of a product in a way that elicits a positive emotional response. It is not enough for your product or service to do what it promises; it must do so while winning consumers’ hearts and minds. But harnessing that power requires more than hiring an agency or a team of designers. It means building a design-focused business.

To understand how to make good design work for your business, look at two of the most successful companies in the world: Apple and Google have arrived at design dominance from vastly different perspectives, but the lessons we can learn from them are the same.

Apple is widely accepted as the preeminent design-led business of the last two decades. The partnership of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive developed a host of products that won our hearts and even changed our lives. Google, on the other hand, may seem out of place in a discussion of design-led businesses unless you’ve observed the quiet design revolution that Larry Page set in motion when he became CEO in 2011. Already inseparable from millions of people’s lives thanks to its technology, Google is amassing brand devotees through design.

1. Start at the top

Good design can only happen when it’s a priority at the very top of your company. Long before Page took over as CEO, there were efforts made to elevate design within Google. All failed. It was only when Page made design an absolute priority that the company culture shifted and Google was transformed from tech company to design powerhouse.

Design has long been on top at Apple, and Jobs’ unwavering commitment to every aspect of design is legendary. Since Mr. Jobs’ passing, Mr. Ive has continued to extend that vision within the company.

Lesson learned: Design needs a seat at the table. If leadership is unwilling to engage design in the conversation, your company will never reap the rewards of a design-led business.

2. Build inside out

Good design must be valued by every person at your company. Apple and Google are both known for instilling company values in their employees. Also interesting is their strategy of hiring people who have enthusiasm for those principles from the get-go. Skills can be taught; beliefs and values are much more difficult to impart.

Apple has taken this approach at every level. From the Geniuses at Apple Stores to the cashiers at its on-campus cafeterias, each employee exemplifies Apple’s core values and speaks the language of design.
Unlike at Apple, Page did not hire a chief of design to carry out his vision. Instead, he directed a small group of designers to develop a visual language that each product team could then build on to fit its needs. This strategy made everyone responsible for results and empowered a culture of design that permeates every division of Google.

Lesson learned: Design principles and values are relevant at every tier and discipline of your company. The more completely they are shared, the stronger the design culture and, by extension, the brand itself.

3. Leave no stone unturned

Good design relates not only to your primary product or service; it must be applied to every facet of your company.

Hang out for the afternoon at Google’s Creative Lab in New York or take a tour of Apple’s Infinite Loop Campus in Cupertino, Calif., and the far-reaching effects of their design cultures are clear. The same values of beauty, simplicity and delight are evident in the smallest details of the environments (though applied in different ways).

Through comprehensive design programs, both Apple’s and Google’s visual outputs are unwavering expressions of their principles and values. In the words of IBM Design Director Eliot Noyes: “A company’s buildings, offices, graphic design and so forth should all contribute to a total statement about the significance and direction of the company.”

Lesson learned: From your email signature to your invoices, design matters. Apply the same principles to your shipping warehouses as you do your package design because everything is connected. Seemingly disparate functions will ultimately influence each other.

4. Trust your gut

Good design is not achieved by following a recipe; it requires human intuition. In the years before Page took over, Google’s data-driven design strategy was well-publicized, including the testing of 41 shades of blue to see which one consumers responded to best. It was this kind of thinking that led to the departure of the company’s first visual designer in 2009. Data still plays a role in the design process at Google, but Mr. Page’s revolution began by putting design back in the hands of designers.

At Apple, Jobs knew what it meant to make difficult design choices that went against the data. The decision to include the Genius Bar in Apple stores meant 20% less retail space and a corresponding projected lack of sales. Yet Apple stores now outperform many others worldwide by square footage.

Lesson learned: Great design decisions are influenced by data and constraints, but they are not made by them. Ensure your design process is human one.

5. Stand your ground

Good design is not easy and requires steadfast commitment to your principles.
Both Jobs and Page spent years away from the companies they helped build in part because of their adherence to practices that were considered impractical at the time. In both cases their views on design were among their issues with the companies and, also in both cases, aided their returns. Those ideas about design helped both companies become the brand powerhouses they are today.

Lesson learned: Design is worth it, but you need to truly believe that for it to be worthwhile. Fight for it and embrace it. Your competitors will be doing the same.