Why are designers gaining seats at corporate boardroom tables?

In 2014, Forbes carried an article about the large corporations giving designers a seat at the board room table. At that time big names like Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and Philip Electronics NV had all recently appointed Chief Design Officers. In the ensuing years many other organisations have followed.  Tiffany’s, Vanguards, Ericsson and many others have appointed Chief Brand Executives to their C-suite.

So why have branding and design become C-suite activities?

This comment from John Mathers, Chief Executive of the Design Council, from the introduction to their ‘Design Buyers Guide’, sheds some light on the matter:

“Used effectively, design can help you anticipate what customers need, develop the right offering, get it to market fast and improve your bottom line. There’s evidence to prove it. A recent survey showed that for every £100 design-led businesses spend on design, their turnover goes up by £225.  But getting full return on your design investment can mean having to find new ways of thinking and working”.

The key is in the practice of design thinking and the advancement it can bring. At it’s core Design thinking embraces the idea of change. There are different versions espoused by different people, varying from 4 – 10 or more steps, but the essence is always constant – focusing on learning new insights and adapting accordingly.

This is the core structure no matter how many steps each exponent likes to add in.

1.     Research

Conduct research to understand the problem. Gain empathy with the customer/users experience. Define the issues identified.

2.     Explore

Generate numerous creative solutions to address the defined issue.

3.     Prototype

Whether creating a website, a logo, a user-interface or a new car everything should be prototyped.  By this we simply mean creating a minimum viable option to be able to move to the next phase and test the solutions proposed.

4.     Test

The whole point of the prototype is so you can test the solution that has been created. So at this point we circle back to No 1 to again get real understanding of how our proposed solution is received by our target audience.

5.     Iterate

The test and iterate phase of the process is a continuum. Once you settle on a solution that is viable you have to ‘push the button’ and launch it.

6.     Implement

If it appears to work then place it into the world – and watch!

7.     Monitor

Is it working as intended/expected? Are some elements not working? Are there further tweaks that can improve it?

Designers are usually by nature people who embrace change. Which is heightened by their training.

They are generally looking to see how things can be improved, looking to identify problems and created credible solutions. They embrace the process and know that taking action will give additional insight.

Sometimes the design process leads to great strides forward. More often, like the Olympic Cycling Teams theory of ‘marginal gains’ –  progress and success is based in lots of small improvements and striving for ‘better’.

Not every organisation is large enough to need a CDO or CBO. But any business that does not implement design thinking at a management level is destined to be left behind.

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