The Design Capable Company

Sean O’Connor

Design is going to change the face of your business, no matter what business you are in. As category after category gets disrupted by smarter, nimbler players that prioritize the customer experience and have the ability to improve it, companies have brought creative talent into their organization with intent — to become Design Capable.

But what’s the right way to go about it? Smart has had the good fortune to work with some of the world’s most design-led companies, in industries ranging from finance to pharma to consumer goods, and we’ve learned from all of them. Recently, we gathered together these design champions for a Smart Salon panel discussion at the Museum of London.

  • Catalina Cernica, Head of LEO Innovation, LEO Pharma
  • Clive Grinyer, Process Improvement Director, Barclays
  • Angus Montgomery, Creative Writer, Government Digital Service
  • Darren Morgan, Senior Global Design Manager, Reckitt Benckiser
  • Marianna Wickman, Global Head of UX and Design, BBVA

Moderated by Sean O’Connor, Partner and head of the London studio, this hour-long conversation looked at the challenges faced and lessons learned as these industry leaders worked to bring design-savvy into daily practice, and use it to make a difference for their customers and their organization. Here are four of the most resonant themes from the evening’s talk:

The shift to digital will push your organization to be Design Capable

Creating a digital presence is essentially requisite now, whether you’re a bank, a retailer or a government agency. But building out your digital side effectively means bringing in a wide array of new capabilities, and often a new mindset. The smartest organizations see this for what it is: an opportunity to let that new mindset infuse the rest of their organization with greater design sensitivity.

Digital interactions tend to bring design into daily conversation. Digital’s quick pace of change can foster a culture of prototyping and innovation, and the mere fact of moving into a new medium often kickstarts fresh thinking in a way that few other organization-wide initiatives do. The key is to invite this new thinking in, rather than trying to compartmentalize it.

You will see your customers in a whole new light

Good design is all about being thoughtful and doing things better than before, so it’s crucial to start with a clear understanding of what your customers actually require from you. Beyond sales numbers and engagement metrics, being customer-centric means actively collaborating with the people who use your product or service. Acting on the insights they reveal is one of the things that defines a Design Capable company.

Often, the first thing a newly minted design department or just-hired agency will propose is a user/stakeholder research process, which may be heavily qualitative in nature. Regardless of the context or the program’s objectives, our panelists found research and user engagement to be unparalleled at setting a clear vision for innovation.

You’ll need design expertise from both inside and out

While executives have debated for years whether it’s better to bring design in-house or to hire an agency, most of the panelists’ companies employ a mixture of both — and plan to continue doing so. This collaborative, hybrid model allows them to take advantage of the unique, multidisciplinary resources and fresh perspective that an outside agency often brings, while leveraging the category-specific skills and knowledge of an internally created “Center of Excellence” that can evangelize design solutions throughout the organization.

The trick to getting this right is empowering the internal team by giving them a seat at the executive table, and partnering them closely with the right outside agencies, so they can run with externally-developed solution when the time is right.

Building a design-led culture will help to prove the value of design to your evolving organization

Is successful innovation a result of good design or good engineering? It’s both, of course, and in a Design Capable organization, there’s little point in fretting over the line between them. The ultimate goal of developing your design capability isn’t to create a walled-off creative space from which concepts emerge, fully formed, but to instill a sense of good design throughout.

Over the last 10 years, design-led companies have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 228%.

DMI Design Value Index

This is a fact many a designer has used to push the case for the positive impact their discipline can create. Measuring the value of design is hard – it’s embedded into everything and typical business measurement tools don’t really single out the role design plays.

Our panelists agreed that while it’s crucial to create room for designers and support them in their unique resource needs, it’s even more important to link them to the rest of your organization. Ask any seasoned creative what they really want, and the top answer is always influence — they want to see great work make it to the real world, and they’re happy to work with non-designers to make this happen. Give them the right connections, and they’ll bring the whole team along for the ride.