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Why Design Still Has Such Limited Corporate Impact—and What to Do About It

Despite the best efforts of the design community to the contrary, design is still struggling to influence companies in meaningful ways. The fault lies mostly within the design profession itself, which is unable to supply leadership equal to the current demand.

Instead, brands that want to lead by design are being increasingly influenced by all sorts of persuasive leaders, many from outside of design including, unfortunately, management consultants. Nothing wrong with management consultants, of course, except when they begin to advise management about design. It's kind of like getting financial advice from your doctor. Smart person, just out of his/her depth. Even so, company management tends to listen closely to these folks.

In order to leverage the same level of influence with decision makers, it is wise for designers to choose their battles carefully. Designers would do well to focus on a few things they do well, such as creating design that endures and devising repeatable process models for developing product offerings. Companies desperately need to develop good habits around how and why they develop products and brands. These habits can sustain a designer's or a company's vision, just as great ideas will sustain themselves for a long, long time.

Lamy pens Every year thousands of ideas are hatched and thousands of products are introduced. As I discussed in a previous post, few will endure. Of those that do, how many will survive a decade or, better yet, multiple decades? There are several distinguished companies who make products that do. One great example is Lamy, the German pen company. Lamy is an independent, family-owned enterprise, which was established in 1930. The Lamy brand has existed since 1952. It still sells pens originally designed in the '60s and '70s. Lots of pens. With an annual production of over 6 million writing instruments a year, Lamy today is not only a market leader but also a design brand with global reach and respect.

When I see this amazing leverage of technology and design, I have to ask myself: why doesn't the same model work for cell phones, music players, refrigerators, cars, TVs, etc.? Why is there the constant need to replace them?

The truth is that design thinking, combined with sustainable ideas and sustainability for that matter, will create enduring business successes.

But even great "sustainability" lessons are sometimes forgotten over time and forcibly relearned through competition. Take, for example, last decade's magnificently inefficient and tremendously successful introduction of the super-sized SUV class of automobiles. It was as if an oil crisis and near competitive take-over of the car business had never before happened. Look where we are now.

Let's face it, the idea that you can make products from the last ones, or develop business models that establish re-use as a vehicle for profit are pretty fantastic ideas. Combine this with a little sophisticated work around design languages and vector strategies for creating innovation pipelines, shake and stir, and you have a pretty potent design cocktail. It's the kind of thinking that may stick around for a while and establish some serious influence over time. This is how a design-driven brand like Herman Miller, a furniture company with equal amounts of design and sustainability in its soul, will survive a down economy with its brand intact.

Like-minded retailers Whole Foods and Trader Joe's leverage creative retail thinking with sustainable ideas to great success. So does brand giant SC Johnson, a CPG company (consumer packaged goods), and it has for a very long time.

Whole Foods Market

With stiff competition forcing the need for short term gains, sustainable thinking and enduring process models might be a hard sell, but sell hard we must. The methods companies employ in developing products are in many ways even more important than the executions. Future design-thinking that excludes longevity as a priority is flawed. Non-sustainable, ephemeral business successes will fade. Designers can increase their impact and influence by creating not just timeless designs, but also the systems and models that allow the repeat of multiple new products, developed in responsible and efficient ways. Management should listen closely to designers who lead in this area.

Read more of Mark Dziersk's Design Finds You blog

Mark Dziersk is the VP Design at Brandimage-Desgrippes & Laga, one of the world's largest design and branding firms. At brandimage, Dziersk has worked on projects for clients ranging from Dove to Banana Republic to a pop-up store for Henri Bendel. Dziersk joined brandimage in 2007, after 13 years at the Chicago product design firm Herbst Lazar Bell, where he and his teams won dozens of awards for products as diverse as the Motorola NFL Coaches' Headset, to the first-ever single use camera for Kodak. Dziersk, himself, holds over 100 patents.

Dziersk gives back to his larger professional community as well, having served on the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America and as president of the Society in 1998. He also acted as executive editor of IDSA's premier publication, Innovation, introducing new design elements and recruiting authors from outside the design field. Mark's course, "Essentials of Industrial Design," in Northwestern University's Master of Product Development program, helps left-brained types get comfy with their inner tattooed design side.

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  • SGA2

    It's a bubble pack world out there. Non-functional, non recyclable or reusable, everyone hates it but it just makes shipping and store display easy.  There is no democracy in it. 

  • Soren Nielsen

    I'm not so sure that our profession is most to blame for the poor use of design thinking at corporate or strategic level.

    The benefits of Design Management thinking have been known for more than 50 years, yet:
    2007 research from the Danish Design Centre (DDC), show that only 21% of danish companies consider design a key strategic element. This is where strategic design is currently seeing utilization, and are gaining footing.

    Above research also show that 45% of danish companies integrate design into their developmental processes.
    These companies could benefit enormously from a heavy dose of strategic design that could work across departmental dividing lines and address the needs of the consumer in new and/or improved ways.

    But design are facing hard odds in the established hierarchies where design is utilized at the functional level thru the use of all kinds of specialized design: Product, Online, User Experience, Graphic, etc, etc, etc. These designations work well within the established ways of working but often get in the way of using design in the broader context envisioned almost 440 years ago by renaissance master Giorgio Vasari:

    'Design is cognizant of the proportion of the whole to the parts and of the parts to each other and to the whole, from this knowledge there arises a certain conception and judgement.'

    Soren Nielsen

    Powerline 6 Worldwide
    "We create lasting pathways to the mind of the consumer".

    Greater Europe

  • I'm the Cold Wiz

    Mark---This is an interesting look at designs that work as "standards" (i.e., is it possible to build a better Q-Tip?) versus designs that are related to fast-changing trends, technologies, and consumer desires. The Lamy pens (just like some other lesser expensive--but designs that have had longevity, a la the Bic "crystal") may just very well be a ever-lasting (dare I say "perfect") design that withstands generations and other modernizing influences. Cell phones, computers, etc.--as you know--are forever being updated, upgraded, upscaled, etc. In fact, as I type this, my own computer is becoming obsolete!!!

    Would love to know your feeling on Branding in the same regard. How can a company lime Coca-Cola keep its' logo forever...yet Pepsi changes theirs with frequency of 3-5 years. Diet Coke is the number one seller among all soft-drinks, yet Pepsi is number 1 among non-diet drinks. Who is right as far as logo change? Something to consider.......keep up the blog!