20 Lessons Of Design

Once upon a time, design was considered unimportant among most top business leaders, a secondary realm prowled by precious egotists and aesthetes.

20 Lessons Of Design
Funny bone: Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield designed his workplace communication platform to have a personality–his. [Photo: Clayton Cotterell; Styling: Lacey-June Berry; Grooming: Sonia Leal-Serafim; Sweater: Ralph Lauren; Shirt: J.Lindeberg]

At best, design was an afterthought, like slapping a coat of paint on an already-built house or adding a cool tail fin to a finished product.


No more. CEOs and strategists alike now appreciate the fundamental advantages that sophisticated design can provide. Fast Company’s fourth annual Innovation by Design awards competition drew more than 1,500 submissions from across the economy and around the globe, and the finalists—whose achievements inform the content of this month’s magazine—reflect the most exciting new directions in business today. Here, in recognition of Fast Company’s 20th anniversary year, are 20 lessons of design drawn from this issue.

1. Design is innovation; innovation is design.

In a world of flux, where an authentic connection with the consumer is more vital than ever, businesses need to identify a worthy mission and address it in an intuitive, human way. Special things happen when they do, whether that’s at Apple or Uber, or even an enterprise-software outfit like Slack.

2. Design inspires.

When a service is adeptly tuned to meet a need, it can spread like wildfire. Uber became a worldwide phenomenon through the word-of-mouth that its product generated. And that impact can ex­­tend beyond customers to other businesses. By designing a complete end-to-end experience, Uber has inspired a new kind of one-tap economy across the globe.


3. Emotion is as important as utility.

This runs counter to traditional business analysis. But consumers need to feel the benefit of a product or service, even as they intellectually value what it does for them. All design-driven enterprises obsess about this, from Apple to Warby Parker. Airbnb, with its well-designed app and deftly conceived TV campaign, has blossomed by consistently tapping into the emotional impact it provides both guests and hosts.

4. Good design overcomes discomfort.

Carpooling feels déclassé, but the ease of the new UberPool service has trumped that societal prejudice, just as Airbnb has upended assumptions about the appeal of sleeping in someone else’s bed. Virtual reality may seem like an experience from the future, but Google Cardboard has used clever design to create a low-cost experience for all.

5. Simple design isn’t simple.

As senior writer Austin Carr explains, Amazon’s foray into voice-activated interface has made waves precisely because it doesn’t try to do too much—something CEO Jeff Bezos is relentlessly pressing.


6. The first mover doesn’t always have an advantage.

All things being equal, it’s best to be first to market. But all things are not equal. And in the trade-off between timing and execution, getting it right matters more. That’s why Facebook outlasted MySpace, and why Uber is trouncing other ride-share services. Sir James Dyson’s company has grown to $2.1 billion in annual sales by making it a priority to “get it exactly right,” as one of his engineers puts it.

7. One insight can unlock the next one.

Dyson set out to build a better vacuum, and in the process used what it learned to expand into fans, hand dryers, and more. Now it is poised to become a full-fledged technology company, taking those lessons one step further. Uber is a global enterprise that operates locally, with each market A/B testing ideas that others can then adopt.

Power source: Dyson, a company founded on transparency–and some very cool motors–believes design and technology are tightly linked.Photo: Kate Peters

8. Design needs protection.

Unlocking insights doesn’t happen in a straight line. Innovation is too messy for that, which is why design breakthroughs only come when there is room to explore. This is one reason Sir James has no intention of taking Dyson public; he ­does­n’t trust shareholders to embrace a long-term ­mission—which, ­paradoxically, is what allows the enterprise to generate value.


9. The mundane can be liberating.

Where others see only dull gray, designers see opportunity. Who gets excited about the future of email? Stewart Butterfield did, and now Slack is valued at $2.8 billion. What about . . . socks? Breathing life into this overlooked area has helped Stance build a booming brand.

10. Frustration can breed inspiration.

Butterfield launched Slack after he’d been annoyed by his experiences with corporate software at Yahoo. The head of Lea­ther­man tools was denied entry to Disneyland because he was carrying his own ­product—so he came up with a wearable version that has even broader applica­tions.

11. Teamwork feeds on itself.

An ad agency, a not-for-profit, and a scientist joined forces to create a drinkable book that can save lives. At Nike, a collaborative, design-friendly culture continually bears fruit, from new shoes like the Flyease to new experiences like the Zoom City basketball court.


12. Design is healthy.

Medical care is not always intuitive, but devices like the Cue Tracker can help all of us—and our ­doctors—pay attention to the things that matter most.

13. Design has a conscience.

A 21-year-old has launched a wild bid to clean up ocean trash, and two designers inside ­Facebook—half a world apart—have helped provide safety and services to those in need.

14. Design is efficient.

When a terminal for ­budget airlines was built at Tokyo’s Narita airport, the funds weren’t there for all the usual amenities. Those constraints led to a “two into one” approach that delivered utility at a fraction of the cost.


15. Design can be big and small.

From a new Ebola-­protection suit to Virgin Hotels’ new bed, design can have impact at every scale.

16. Data can be ignored . . .

When Dyson did market research around its first vacuum, consumers supposedly hated the clear plastic bins that allowed them to see the dirt inside. The engineers, though, loved it—and that signature element has helped define Dyson products ever since.

17 . . . And data can be uplifting.

IBM has used data visualization to create music from tennis matches, while Emotient promises a new way to understand the hidden emotions of groups.


18. Design is full of surprises.

Uber didn’t start out trying to redesign cities, but its success has given it the ability to think bigger about how a marketplace of shared (and even driverless) cars can alter our urban experience.

19. Design isn’t going away.

The more than 1,500 entrants to our design awards this year represent the broadest pool ever.

20. We are all designers.

New tools like Squarespace 7 allow any of us to build our own creations in both the virtual world and the tangible one. Where we go from here is up to us.


About the author

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian oversaw Fast Company’s print, digital and live-events content, as well as its brand management and business operations