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The Secret Sauce Of Business Success

Though it is often misunderstood, good design can help a company thrive.

Twitter comes into focus: CEO Jack Dorsey is trying to reposition his company around news and live events, instead of social networking.

[Photo: ioulex]

Several weeks ago my sister, Judy, introduced me to a podcast called Presidential, and I’ve become addicted to it. It’s a week-by-week exploration of each American president, with a playful spirit and provocative leadership insights. The most recent episode I listened to focused on FDR’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote a book called Tomorrow Is Now. What could be more modern than that?

There’s much discussion in the current election season about what makes America great. A less-discussed corollary: What makes American business great? For several months, our editors have been poring over thousands of submissions for our Innovation by Design Awards, which, in aggregate, reveal what animates economic success today. Whether it’s the intuitive ease of Airbnb’s new app or the clever underwater server farms of Microsoft’s Project Natick, the drive for change is palpable. What unifies these efforts has little to do with billionaires and CEOs. Instead, there is an optimistic and hopeful embrace of disruption, anchored by creative problem solving.

The discipline of design ties all of this together. Design is so frequently misunderstood, yet it is critical in a world that is constantly in flux, and where each new challenge requires a uniquely tailored solution. Combining hard-science arenas like computing with the more intuitive realms of art and psychology can be tricky, but that melding is where the magic happens. Even things that may not seem like design—Google’s and Apple’s exciting advances in the ed-tech market (see "Getting Schooled") or beer maker Samuel Adams’s quest for new tastes in the face of rising craft breweries (see "Honing Her Craft")—have design principles at their core.

Design requires us to focus on what really matters most. Architect David Adjaye’s vision for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (see "A Bold Monument to the Black Experience") in Washington, D.C., uses physical space to evoke emotion and deliver information, all in service of a larger, empathetic goal. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is tapping his design roots in trying to reenergize the promise of a platform still avidly used by millions of the world’s most influential people (see "Live From Twitter HQ").

Eleanor Roosevelt was not trained as a designer, and she would not have recognized that label as a description of her efforts. But as each change came, she adapted, through the Great Depression, World War II, and beyond. And each adaptation revealed new, richer elements of her potential, just as the competitive stresses of today are unleashing the best of what American business can be.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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