My first car, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala, was a triumph of function over form. It got me where I had to go (and it got there pretty fast), but it was hardly elegant. Just a big, boxy hunk of iron. Even then, I understood its aesthetic shortcomings: This was no Mustang or Thunderbird.
I've been thinking about that old Impala, and about how far we've come since. Back then, of course, design was mostly about the look of a product: Tail fins or no? Scooped hood? Design wasn't a word you associated with experiences, services, or communication. More important, it wasn't something you inevitably linked to innovation and competitive advantage.
Today, we're in the midst of a design revolution in business, a revolution led by the 20 Masters of Design whom we profile in this month's issue. Their big ideas are helping create a world of new products and services. But this report is not merely about design. This is about how "design thinking" can help all of us reimagine the day-to-day practices of business.
Welcome to this revolution. Meet its leaders. J Mays of Ford Motor Co. views design as the heart of Ford's effort to differentiate itself. Since Ford does no more than match the competition on price, quality, technology, and safety, it has no choice but to embrace design as a way to gain a distinctive edge. That is exactly what Mays is doing to help CEO Bill Ford reinvent his great-grandfather's company.
Yves Behar, who works with Nike and Toshiba, believes that design can be used to strike an all-important emotional connection with customers. Only then, he argues, can you assure their loyalty to your products. BMW Group DesignworksUSA president Adrian van Hooydonk teaches us that making talented people confront the unfamiliar often fuels innovation. That is why he mixes design engineers, graphic artists, color experts, ergonomic specialists, computer wizards, and fashion designers with BMW's car-design gurus: to spur maximum creativity from everyone.
Elsewhere in this issue, design keeps popping up as a core driver of competitive advantage and innovation. Keith Yamashita, one of today's hottest consultants, uses design to differentiate his practice. Marketing guru Seth Godin believes design is the "single highest-leverage investment" any business leader can make. As Godin writes in an adaptation from his new book, "Of all the edges I know, embracing amazing design is the easiest, the fastest, and the one with the most assured return on investment."
An essential part of this revolution is the idea of design as a metaphor for the future of work. We don't need to understand designers better, writes Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, in a recent essay. We need to be designers ourselves. We "need to think and work like designers, have attitudes like designers, and learn to evaluate each other as designers do," says Martin. "Most companies' managers will tell you that they have spent the bulk of their time over the past decade on improvement. Now it's no longer enough to get better, you have to 'get different.' "
What does he mean? We can't accept the notion that our dreams are constrained by our budgets. We have to believe, as designers often do, that nothing can't be done, that constraints merely increase the challenge and excitement. We can't be governed by narrow roles that limit our participation in creative work. We must be collaborative and iterative. And we can't derive our status from empire building, or managing a big staff or a big budget. Status is won by meaningful contribution, by personal fulfillment and growth.
That's what the design revolution is about—a new way of thinking that informs the way we will lead, manage, and create. That old Impala? It's looking awfully rusty.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.