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Three experts on redefining the role of design in your organization

Richard Watson

By Richard Watson

Innovation Leader

22 July 2021

This article first appeared on full Innovation Leader

Great design can help drive an organization’s growth — not to mention generate buzz in the market and strengthen customer loyalty. 

But finding a common language between designers and non-designers, and spurring strong collaborations, can be tough. That’s especially true if a company’s traditional approach to turning new ideas into new offerings doesn’t get designers involved at the crucial early stages.

As part of our most recent research initiative, “Design as a Competitive Advantage,” three experts from PA Consulting share advice and best practices on reinvigorating a company’s approach to design. Each expert shared what design means to them and their clients, and how others can rethink how they weave design into their innovation work. 

Design is a Strategic Point of View

Brett Lovelady, consumer design expert at PA Consulting and Founder of Astro Studios, says: “As designers, we think of ourselves as innovators. We conceive of products on a daily basis, and we often create Intellectual Property (IP) on almost every project that we work on. One of the bigger problems that we run into with less experienced corporate clients is they often invite design into the process after they’ve attempted to identify the opportunities, define the program, what or even whom they want to pursue in the marketplace. Design should be involved early to help strategize with the other disciplines at the table. And at the core of that effort is developing a design point of view."

Brett adds: "So, accepting that design is a point of view… You have to take time to develop it. You can’t just say, ‘Jump into some Agile process, or this sprint to just sketch up stuff.’ You’ve got to spend some time doing some homework, collecting some insights, becoming immersed in the landscape… If you just start designing, you’re going to likely design things that are just for yourself or other designers. You’re not going to come up with valuable opportunities that inspire your target audience, that move the market, solves a big problem, or creates IP. The foremost thing is that impactful design is based on having a developed, strategic point of view, and giving it time to marinate. It’s just not automatic like drive-thru fast food.”

Design must be embedded into each project from the start. Rather than thinking of design as an add-on, leaders must consider it a core tenet of growth and innovation. Don’t wait until a project is fully scoped and then ask a designer to bring it to life — give them the ability to define the life of a product from the start. Designers bring in a humanistic element that advocates for the end user throughout the entire project. The number one reason new products fail is something is created that no one wants or needs. Design uncovers that.

Compromise is Not a Dirty Word

Gerhard Pawelka, engineering expert at PA Consulting and co-founder of Cooper Perkins, says: "Design is another word for compromise — and compromise is a dirty word to a lot of industries. It’s not a very elegant thing to admit that you do. In design, it’s a necessary thing. There are so many factors that go into design — not just thinking about the user, but cost, manufacturability, design, risk, weight, regulatory compliance, sustainability… Design is compromise, understanding how to evolve and evaluate what those priorities are, and what flexibility you have.

Gerhard continues: “Generally, the way we think about our work is, we’re tool builders. Everything we do is somehow extending or amplifying our own natural capabilities — just like architects and engineers build infrastructure, where they amplify and extend natural environments. So, it’s a good filter for us when we’re thinking about our products, or things that we’re designing. Is this a good tool? Is this really amplifying or extending our capabilities?”

While many people see design as purely aesthetic, Gerhard notes that function is just as important as form. To truly redefine the role of design in your organization, remember the many facets that it encompasses. Great designers understand and incorporate technical specifications and ensure that the final product makes people’s lives better in some way.

Connecting Human Insight to Technology

Richard Watson, design expert at PA Consulting and co-founder of Essential Design, says: “I’ve always talked about design and innovation as one and the same, in the sense that, holistically, design is part of that end-to-end innovation process. That builds onto this idea that as designers, our mindset is based around this combination of systems thinking, capabilities, creative problem solving, and also being able to connect the dots, through helping clients navigate structured decision making. We’ve always thought of ourselves as being almost connective tissue that helps clients think differently and brings people together around solving complex problems… That’s been the cornerstone of how we’ve thought about where design plays a role. It’s not about creating an object, it’s about understanding human insight, it’s about connecting that to technology. In today’s world, it’s about designing products, services, physical and digital solutions, right down to the impact that designers have on helping organizations structure themselves more creatively.

Richard continues: “Design for the organizations that understand the holistic connection, and the historical connection between design and innovation, I’ve always felt those organizations stand out… As design has evolved, it’s very broad. It’s very holistic. It’s very hybrid. When I think about leading design teams and organizations, there are a real mixture of people who have traditional design training, they may have technological training, they may have come from a number of different backgrounds that make up what design is today.”

As Richard asserts, design is the critical link between understanding human behavior and building intuitive products around it. Designers need to understand the psychology and motivations of audiences to conceive products and services that speak to and solve their challenges.

Practical Steps to Redefine Design

Great design puts people at the center of innovation and keeps them there. To launch effective products and services, include design from the start. Ensure designers have a seat at every table so that all strategies moving forward include design thinking.

Leaders should also be flexible. Experts from different teams need to be able to work together and iterate based on others’ ideas and criticisms. While the look and feel of a product is important, its usability is paramount. Embrace humility and be willing to compromise.

And lastly, design for people. What challenges will a particular design solve, and how will it make people’s lives better? Other parameters don’t matter if people won’t use it. By following this guidance, leaders can reframe how they think about design and what role it plays within the organization. Design is a fundamental ingredient for growth, innovation, and overall operations. Ultimately, leaders must center design around the audiences that will be served by it. By putting users first and solving their challenges, designers can unlock ingenious solutions to real problems.


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