In 1994, Kun-Hee Lee took Samsung back to the drawing board, launching a six-year effort to focus the Seoul, South Korea-based company on a new competitive advantage: design innovation. Lee committed $126 million to develop a global-design program by the end of the decade. He enlisted the help of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to establish his company's first-ever in-house design school. Before long, the company's top designers, and in later years, marketers and engineers, were taking full-time classes six days a week in fundamentals such as mechanical engineering and marketing. Since Lee embarked on what he calls a "design revolution," the company has more than doubled the number of designers in top-level management positions. That's not the only impressive change. Samsung reported record revenue of $36.9 billion for last year, and its products have won countless design awards. "An enterprise's most vital assets lie in its design and other creative capabilities," Lee said in a recent speech, identifying design as the single most critical factor in determining the "ultimate winner of the 21st century." Now that's top-level commitment.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.