This article explores the transformative role of design in business.

According to 99 Design the term “graphic design” was first used in 1922, in the article “New Kind of Printing  Calls for New Design”, published in the Boston Evening Transcript. Then, in “Thoughts on Design”, the legendary Paul Rand, who shaped the design industry, writes about the ”functional-aesthetic perfection” role of design. A good logo has to immediately communicate the benefits of a brand. It was Rand who created the famous logo of NEXT. In a rare interview about Rand, Steve Jobs describes him as “an intertwining of a pure artist and someone who is very astute at solving business problems.”

If we analyse how it emerged as a discipline, we can argue that from the beginning, design wasn’t only about creating aesthetically pleasing objects. It has always had strategic value. Design is for something, to reach a purpose, to solve a problem.

The famous quote of T.J. Watson Jr., “Good design is good business” who, in 1966, sent it in a memo to the entire team of IBM was meant to reinforce the role of design in the organisation.  The observation that certain kinds of design have strategic value and a multiplier effect that can be instrumented leads to saving time and money.

In a quest for authenticity, Dieter Rams, the German industrial designer responsible for the conception of Braun consumer products, developed the ten principles of good design. Two of them are particularly relevant in business:

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“Good design is unobtrusive”. A website has to serve a purpose. It has to have a clear structure, relevant, up to date information, clear communication with users, so they get a clear understanding of how your business provides value. A well-designed product speaks for itself. It is a medium. The purpose is not to build a great website, but a website that sells, connects, fulfils its role.

The second principle is “Good design is as little design as possible”. Well-designed customer service, for instance, has to be invisible. Clients don’t have to feel “helped”, they have to simply enjoy the service requested.

Design increases revenue and shareholder return

A recently published McKinsey study analysed the design practice of 300 publicly listed companies over a five-year period in multiple countries and industries. The study is based on surveys and interviews of senior business and design leaders and more than two million pieces of financial data and more than 100,000 design actions. The results are revealing. Across all industries analysed, medical technology, consumer goods and retail banking, companies who incorporated design into their operations registered 32% higher revenue growth and 56% TRS growth.

The report highlights four key areas of action companies must take to join the top echelon of design performers:

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  1. Adopt an analytical approach to design. Lead and measure the performance of the design function in your organisation with the same rigour you measure revenue and costs;
  2. Create a company culture that is customer oriented, no matter what you sell: physical products, services or digital interactions;

  3. Nurture top design talent in your organisation and empower them to perform across interdisciplinary teams. Break down silos and bring together designers, engineers, marketing teams to take part in the design process. T-shaped hybrid designers that can work cross-disciplinary but retain focus on their area of expertise are the ones that impact your organisation in the most tangible way;

  4. Iterate, test and learn rapidly. Great ideas flourish in environments where learning and creative experimentation are common practice.

Good design matters. Make sure you incorporate design in your organisation. It will help you increase revenue and shareholder return rates, but more importantly, you’ll encourage cross-disciplinary work, creativity and cooperation.