Fast Company

Design Like a Surfer..and How Hyundai Caught the Wave

Over the past decade, driven by an ever-more sophisticated consumer, design has gone from being a bonus to being an essential ingredient in almost every market sector.

Target earned itself a spot on Fast Company's 2008 Fast 50 list by hiring designers like Michael Graves to bring design to the masses. Motorola shook up the world of cell phones with the Moto Razr. Consumers have evolved far beyond accepting products based on function alone. They've developed a hunger for design and even the current financial crisis isn't going to cause them to lose their appetite.

Design like a SurferToday, if you truly want to compete, design must be part of your brand's DNA. It's a little like surfing--the trick is to catch the oncoming wave of consumer demand. Like surfing, business success is about preparation and anticipation. If you wait for the wave to start to break before you begin paddling (or, in this analogy, designing), consumer demand will have passed you by. If you wait to see what your competitors do and rely on "me too" design, you'll always be a beat behind; you'll never get your company into position for breakout success.

Companies that don't invest in design will inevitably find themselves dead in the water. To succeed today, you need consumer insight and design strategy to predict when and where the wave will peak, and you need design to propel your brand and put you in the right position to capture the market, just as the wave breaks.

Hyundai is an amazing example of using design to catch the wave of demand. It wasn't long ago that Hyundai was a punch line for the late night comics. Its brand image was low price, low value. But in the past half-dozen years, Hyundai has used design to turn that image on its head.

To be sure, this transformation could not have been accomplished with design alone. First, Hyundai improved the quality of its product line across the board. But Hyundai also understood the evolving consumer. It had watched Target's example and knew that now, even bargain-hunting consumers crave design. So Hyundai invested in building a new design center and set about connecting with consumer aspirations. The results have been nothing short of astounding. In January, the Genesis won Hyundai its first North American Car of the Year honor.

Design like a SurferJust this week, Hyundai earned AutoPacific's Rising Star award by jumping 11 positions in overall brand satisfaction. And, perhaps most impressively, while other car manufacturers were suffering through the downturn, Hyundai sales were up an impressive 14% this January over January 2008. Hyundai drivers are no longer the butt of jokes--they're smart consumers with an eye for great design and an appreciation of excellent quality at a good price. By delivering designs that elevate, Hyundai has propelled its brand while others are struggling to keep from drowning. Now more than ever, design is no longer a luxury; it's an essential tool for business success.

Read more of Ravi Sawhney's Design Reach blog

Ravi Sawhney is the founder and CEO of RKS, a global leader in strategy, innovation, and design.

Since founding RKS nearly 30 years ago, Sawhney has earned a variety of top honors in the design industry, and assembled a client list that includes HP, Intel, LG, Medtronic, Seiko, Sprint, and Zyliss, among many others. In the process, RKS has helped generate more than 150 patents on behalf of their clients.

In 2004 Sawhney was named chairperson of the Industrial Design Excellence Award program, where he created the IDSA/BusinessWeek Catalyst award for products that generate measurable business results. Most recently, he was named Executive Director of Catalyst to direct its evolution into a program to develop case studies illustrating design's power to effect positive change.

Sawhney also invented the popular Psycho-Aesthetics® design strategy, which Harvard adopted as a Business School Case Study. He is a regularly featured lecturer at Harvard Business School, USC's Marshall School of Business, and UCLA's Anderson School of Business, where he teaches this business-driven design tool.

In addition to RKS, Sawhney has played an integral part in the founding of several other businesses, including Intrigo, an innovative computer accessory company; On2 Better Health, a health products company; and RKS Guitars, best known for its reinvention of the electric guitar.

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