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The most successful companies infuse their business with design. Now they need to think bigger

Read Debbie Millman’s exclusive foreword to our new book ‘Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform The Way We Live and Work,’ available now for pre-order.

The most successful companies infuse their business with design. Now they need to think bigger
[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
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Listen to Co.Design editor Suzanne LaBarre discuss the book on the Fast Company podcast Creative Conversation

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We should not underestimate the crucial importance of leadership and design joining forces. Our global future depends on it. We will either design our way through the deadly challenges of this century, or we won’t make it. For our institutions—in truth, for our civilization—to survive and prosper, we must solve extremely complex problems and cope with many bewildering dilemmas. We cannot assume that, following our present path, we will simply evolve toward a better world. But we can design that better world. That is why designers need to become leaders, and why leaders need to become designers.—Richard Farson, “Management by Design,” 2000

The year was 1997. Looking back now, it seems like prehistoric times: pre-YouTube, pre-Facebook, 10 years before Apple’s launch of the iPhone. It was there—in a conference room of one of my corporate clients—that I first saw a publication titled Fast Company. That particular issue featured clever cover art mimicking the iconic Tide laundry detergent. As I inched over, I saw that the headline “The Brand Called You” took the place of the classic P&G nomenclature. I was intrigued. I riffled through to Tom Peters’s cover story and read his declaration that a new construction of our corporate selves was required in the modern marketplace. As sexy as it seemed at the time, I’m not sure anyone understood the gravity of Peters’s proclamation. In hindsight, this became the entry point to living our lives publicly, punctuated with a constant barrage of personal pixels. And Fast Company had the scoop.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
By then the magazine was nearly two years old. I was newly minted in the branding business, and the first sentence of Peters’s article—”It’s a new brand world”—became my mantra. I adopted Fast Company as my business bible, as it identified and revealed the cultural concepts that have continued to define the zeitgeist. My growing knowledge was further influenced by another early Fast Company writer, Roger Martin, then dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. His pronouncement, “Business people don’t just need to understand designers better—they need to become designers,” became my rallying cry.

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It’s hard to imagine that Martin knew the extent to which business would ultimately embrace design, but 25 years later our entire culture is now immersed in a universe fueled by creativity. Behemoth corporations including P&G, Kraft, and Coca-Cola have shown us that scale alone is not nearly enough to thrive in a world where markets are rapidly globalizing and have proven that incremental improvement on its own can’t deliver a robust return on investment. Companies, such as Apple, Nike, and Target, have proven that to succeed, prosper, and make a meaningful difference in today’s world the most valuable contribution comes from using the designer’s foremost competitive weapon: innovation.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
We are living in a time where business skills and design skills have now converged in ways even Roger Martin couldn’t have anticipated. And the stock market agrees: A Design Management Institute study showed that companies that put design at the core of their business strategy outperformed the market by a significant margin. Fifteen rigorously selected companies institutionally using design as a strategic tool beat the S&P by 228% from 2004 to 2014. And in 2018, McKinsey & Company reported that companies using design increased their revenues and total returns to shareholders substantially faster than industry counterparts that did not.

Now, if you are developing a marketing strategy, or streamlining a manufacturing operation, or building a new system for distribution—if you work almost anywhere in the world of business today—you must be engaged in the discipline of design. This bilingual ability has resulted in companies creating superior and elegantly refined products that not only taste different, feel different, and look different; these products are also attempting to make a difference in people’s lives.

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[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
The biggest, boldest, most innovative products being created today come from companies that respond to compelling needs to redesign, improve, and change the way we live—how we travel, eat, enjoy music, or support causes we believe in. In addition, for the first time in our history as a modern civilization, design has become democratized. Motivated citizens are designing their own messages and creating brands to signify their beliefs. The Black Lives Matter movement, the Pussyhat Project, and the Extinction Rebellion are non-consumer-based initiatives to redesign society to reflect the type of world like-minded individuals want to live in. The condition of branding is beginning to reflect the condition of our culture.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
But it is still not enough. Democratized movements and superior products are beneficial but can only do so much. In order to survive and, more importantly, to thrive, the global economy must transform itself radically. Our institutions, organizations, and communities are facing complex challenges while coping with a global pandemic, climate crisis, blatant racism, financial volatility and inequality, and political unrest. We are facing a water shortage of epic proportions and unprecedented weather disruptions. Design and business must become inextricably linked to the way in which society, culture, the environment, and politics interact. The very fate of humanity is at stake. We can no longer assume that if we follow our present path, the world will simply evolve into a better place. The way toward that better place must be carefully considered and navigated by business leaders and designers alike. We must redesign the way we think, collaborate, and innovate. We must redesign the way we live and what we value.

This essay was excerpted from the book Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform The Way We Live and Work on sale September 21. Pre-order a copy here

About the author

Debbie Millman is a writer, designer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and host of the podcast Design Matters. She was named “one of the most creative people in business” by Fast Company, and “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA

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