There’s a quote by Jules Feiffer, the acclaimed American cartoonist and author, asserting that “Design is important because chaos is so hard.” To my mind, this may be the quote of the century. Design is an integral part of our lives. It shapes the way we move through public and private spaces, how we interact with each other, and (more and more importantly) how we interact with technology. Yet design is often taken for granted by the user.
Those of us who are not designers ourselves sometimes think of design as ornamentation – a purely visual pursuit that may or may not impact our lived experience. However, design is more often an invisible force that guides and impacts us without calling attention to its presence. From clothing design to urban design to user experience, unseen designers bring order to the chaos of living in almost every aspect of our lives.
Design plays a vital role in branding and marketing, of course, but one that goes beyond the development of a logo and the choice of font and color. A recent series from McKinsey & Company provides valuable insight into the impact of design in the business world. Let’s take a closer look.
Good Design is Good Business
In a fascinating interview with designer John Maeda, McKinsey reveals the importance of design in business, beginning with the fact that “Design was once largely about making products more attractive. Today, it’s a way of thinking: a creative process that spans entire organizations, driven by the desire to better understand and meet consumer needs.” Modern ideas about design are largely driven by the proliferation of new technology, which both requires greater attention to user adoption and retention and enables big-picture thinking through data collection and increased connectivity.
Maeda cites as design pioneers both T.J. Watson Jr., who coined the phrase “good design is good business” while at IBM in the 1960’s, and Steve Jobs, whose design-forward approach to new technology altered the consumer landscape forever.
In internal applications, Maeda says, “Certain kinds of design have strategic value. It has a multiplier effect. It is design that can be instrumented, and then design where the process is changing because you are now saving time. And saving time is saving money.” By designing streamlined processes within the organization, businesses can increase productivity, creativity, and ultimately profit. When they acknowledge design’s human implications, they also make the workplace a happier and healthier environment.
On the consumer side, Maeda notes that “Moore’s law’s efficacy is dwindling. We have enough processing power, therefore we aren’t driven to buy (a product) because it’s faster or has more memory. So now we have to buy it because of how it makes us feel.” This is the legacy of Steve Jobs – design as a selling point for users who seek an experience that goes beyond functionality. A well-designed customer experience is now a baseline requirement for a successful product or business. But how do we quantify the impact of design on business?
Design as Differentiator
We see (and feel) the results of good design in both intuitive, addictive products and celebrated, successful corporate cultures. But what is the financial impact of good design? Significant, McKinsey says.
A study by the Design Management Institute and Motiv Strategies examined the payoff of a $10,000 investment in design over the course of a decade. It found that companies that made significant design investments in 2004 outperformed those that did not by 219% in 2014. An initial $10,000 investment in design ultimately contributed nearly $40,000 in value a decade later.
While these numbers don’t indicate the precise areas of investment in design, they demonstrate a compelling advantage for companies that value the design process both internally and externally. As the companies that invest in design continue to outperform their competitors, more and more business leaders are waking up to the power of a design mindset.
Maeda relays a story about a client who had a design awakening during their time together. “I remember John saying, ‘Oh, so design isn’t about this pixels thing. It’s about systems thinking… it isn’t just about the appearance.’”
This re-shaping of our ideas about design is fundamental to recognizing its importance and embracing it as a creative tool. As our understanding about the nature of design expands, instead of reducing design to a simple, everyday reality, we must lift up the innovative design process and give it its due. From the chaos of our lives, design creates order. The end result? Better experiences, better products, and a better bottom line.