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How to Put Design in the Driver’s Seat


In my work I get to experience a lot of companies. Big and small, new and old, tech and craft, domestic and international. All over the place. And more often than not, people come to us wanting to understand and learn about how to be "design-driven." Apparently somewhere along the line they have heard/read/been told that this is important, and now they want the secret sauce. I am happy to oblige. It is really very simple (but actually very hard to do). Here it is. Ready?  

Make great design everybody’s job. Done.

Most companies look at design as a single step in the process to deliver a product. The better ones also view it as a corporate identity or brand function to control their outward image. But typical management thinking puts these functions into vertical buckets, and/or as a police function to ensure consistency and rule-keeping. Design it please, then get the hell out of the way!

But here’s the trick. The relatively few companies in the world that are really design-driven know the secret: That design is, in fact, everybody’s job. Rather than making design a single step in the process where requirements flow in and ideas flow out, they see design as a constant topic of discussion across all disciplines and steps in the process. It is not a vertical stripe in the horizontal process flow, but a horizontal one that extends from inception through customer service and end of life.

We’ve referred to this as the "customer experience supply chain." Makes it sound important and business-like, eh?.  But what it really means is that everybody who contributes to a product experience in any way is aware of the design idea/strategy, and what their role is in making it great. From the executive discussion of the opportunity, to defining marketing requirements, to the mechanical engineer making it feel just right, to the person on the line building it. And well beyond that into how the idea is communicated to the world, and how company reps explain it, and so on, and so on…..

In a recent debate here at Ammunition, we concluded that all activities around conception, development, delivery and communication of a product are,in fact, human interface. It’s all about how you as a company communicate with your constituents, which in turn defines what your relationship is with them. Design is ultimately what defines this relationship. Most companies know their most valuable asset is their brand. So defining and implementing the brand needs to be everybody’s job.

Like I said, this is a simple concept that is a challenge to make happen. The best companies have it embedded in their culture. But cultural norms take a long time to build.  

So if you really want design to be in the driver’s seat, better start giving everyone the keys.

What are some design-driven companies that you think take this advice to heart?

Read more of Robert Brunner's Design Matters blog

After graduating in industrial design from San Jose State University in 1981, Robert co-founded the design consultancy Lunar. Subsequently, he was hired as Director of Industrial Design for Apple Computer where he served for seven years. In 1996, he was appointed partner in the international firm Pentagram, helping lead the San Francisco office. In 2006, Brunner and entrepreneur Alex Siow launched the start-up Fuego, a new concept in outdoor grilling. In 2007, Robert founded Ammunition, focusing on the overlap between product design, brand and experience. He continues to lead Ammunition and Fuego concurrently.

In 2008, Robert co-authored the book Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company with Success Built to Last author Stewart Emery. He also teaches advanced product design at Stanford University.