Why Design?

Design remains the most underutilized and misunderstood tool at the disposal of business.

Building competitive advantage in our increasingly fast-moving, information-rich world of global access is not easy. For a while, technology was the answer. Engineers developed new technologies, whether a chip or chemistry, that did something wonderful, at least in the eyes of those who came up with it, and their companies rushed it to market and, often, to initial success. But technology alone is not enough. Take, for example, an electronic product laden with features, most of which are never used by the customer. By comparison, today’s biggest winners, such as the Palm V or the iPod, went beyond the raw technology; they used design to simplify technology, delivering it to consumers in a way that’s meaningful, engaging, and easy to use. The exceptional sales results speak for themselves, in these cases as well:

  • OXO is the leader in the commodity marketplace of kitchen utensils because its commitment to the design process led to products that literally redefined this category.
  • Whirlpool went from no market share in the front-end loading washer/dryer category to a 40% market share in one year through an extensive user-research and design effort that redefined the category and the money that could be made in it.
  • Lenovo, which acquired IBM’s PC division, already had the largest market share of computers in China, in part because of its use of design to truly address the needs of the Chinese market.
  • Proctor & Gamble continues to build new billion-dollar brands by using design to redefine existing technology. This effort is led by a vice president who reports to the chairman and CEO and whose mission is to “build design into the DNA of P&G.”

As these examples suggest, successful products and services result from joint efforts among marketing, engineering, research, design, and other disciplines. Design is intrinsically linked to a company’s ability to meet its business goals and achieve its mission. Done well, design can become a strategic resource to produce the kind of innovative customer experience that strengthens global brands. Yet design remains the most underutilized and misunderstood of all of the essential resources to achieve innovation and brand leadership.

What is design?

Let’s start with the basics. Just what is design? Design is a user-focused, prototype-based development process that simplifies complexity and achieves success through collaboration.

Design is user-focused, not just because it incorporates research on what customers say they want, but because it is grounded in observing potential users in their own environments and from that observation developing ideas that will improve their lives and provide an enjoyable experience.

Design is prototype-based because it involves continuously making models. Making even crude representations of some future product or idea provides a means to think about the idea. Both two- and three-dimensional models provide a common language to everyone on the development team. Prototypes make ideas real, identify problems and suggest improvements. Prototyping is an iterative process that continues throughout the development process.

One way to think of a designer is as somebody who has learned to speak a language that everyone understands but that the designer has been trained to speak. This modeling language is essential to an effective innovation process precisely because it gives everyone, from every discipline, a common ground and keeps them on the same page. With even a crude model sitting on the table, there are no words to misinterpret. Prototypes are a very important part of the discovery and development process, providing a tool to explore and expand an idea.

This is the good news. The bad news, as it were, is that the process is often chaotic and unpredictable. Business-school textbooks like to talk about a’phase gate process’ for product development, and yet, as we are told repeatedly, the most successful products do not result from the standard process; they are always “different.” So, although design is a process, it is one that thrives on complexity and is not necessarily linear. However, it can translate this complexity into something understandable.


This is very right brain, while we live in a predominantly left-brain, often engineering-led business world. This may explain to some extent why design is underutilized. The same complexity and chaos that disables many managers, stimulates designers and their way of thinking. The designer is inclusive, never having enough information or enough options, always looking for more possibilities and for opportunities to combine them in unexpected ways. One of design’s important contributions is to simplify complexity.

Finally, design succeeds because of collaboration. The input from different disciplines is critical to creating a well-informed product or service; design takes this input and translates into a common modeling language, the glue that brings common understanding to the many disciplines, enabling the development process to move forward more quickly and more successfully.

What design is not

It is also important to understand what design is not. Design is not art, it is not aesthetics, and it is not engineering. It’s not the work of one person and it is not the solution to all of your problems.

Although design is not art, it is still written about in the Arts & Leisure section of most major newspapers in the U.S. and abroad, and, to many executives, design is more about art than it is about business. But the truth is that design is “applied art” in the sense that it is applied to solve a particular problem or address a new opportunity.

Design is not aesthetics. Aesthetics is one of the many results of a successful design process, but design is the way you get there. Design is not engineering. In many meetings with executives and with business school students they’re nodding their heads, “Yes, I understand design, we do design in our company,” but they’re thinking about their engineering group. One way to appreciate the difference between engineering and design is to look at the required courses from a major engineering school for mechanical engineering and then look at the required courses for industrial design. There is no overlap at all. They are very different courses of study, taken by different people and both make a major contribution to the success of many businesses.

Design is not the work of one individual. Unfortunately there is a tendency by some to think that they will bring design into their organization by having an internationally known designer work for them. It’s not that easy. As discussed above, design is a process, not just good looking apparel to be draped over an existing product. The understanding and use of design must be part of the way the company does business. The company must practice design leadership by incorporating design into the company in many different ways.


And finally, design is not the solution to all of your problems. Design in a silo cannot achieve great results. Successful design exists as part of a multidisciplinary, collaborative process that can produce true innovation.

Why design is so Important today

The examples at the beginning demonstrate the important role design can play. It works for companies of any size, and it offers tremendous opportunity precisely because it is so underutilized and misunderstood. Those who harness this resource may well see their business thrive and grow without the need for the acquisition of new technology or other companies.

Peter Lawrence is the chairman of the Corporate Design Foundation.