Why business should make better of use of design post-Covid-19

As more businesses prepare to reopen after the pandemic, could a more strategic use of design help to revitalise company performance in the UK?

The need to emerge competitively from the Covid-19 crisis should make companies of every size in every sector look to design. Designers will energise the recovery by coming up with novel solutions, creating improvements and process enhancements, developing new products, services and experiences – including workplace experiences. Designers will help companies start thinking about a future beyond the ‘new normal’.

Whether working in-house, as a consultant or as part of an external practice, a designer is equipped with skills and techniques that dramatically increase the likelihood of innovative solutions to problems being found, implemented and brought to fruition as new products, services and environments. Designers use research, curiosity, questioning and imagination to reach creative solutions to the fundamental, ambiguous, complex and open problems that are intrinsic to the innovation process and ensure companies remain competitive. The question that arises is how well equipped are UK companies to use design?

‘Designers use research, curiosity, questioning and imagination to reach creative solutions…’

Once it was accepted that growing businesses needed to use design in all its forms. Regardless of size, industry or sector, companies are more competitive when they use design well. The UK Design Council’s Designing Demand programme, which ran from 2007 until 2012, made a compelling case by delivering consistently strong returns. Independent evaluation showed that for every £1 invested in design, companies could expect over £20 in increased revenue, over £4 increase in net operating profit and over £5 in increased exports. This was in addition to reported boosts to confidence, strategic thinking, brand and business identity. Further work by the Design Council showed design to have a significant and measurable impact on the performance of leading UK businesses. Design Index demonstrated that design-led businesses outperformed the FTSE 100 by more than 200 per cent over a 10-year period. Meanwhile, the 2018 McKinsey Design Index study demonstrated that the best design performers increase revenue and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts.

Missing from the boardroom

Despite the evidence, the fundamental role that design can play in driving value and economic growth is no longer understood, let alone championed; design is not respected in – and represented on – many company boards. The UK’s two shining knights of design are always cited as proof that design is secure in the c-suite. While Sir James Dyson has built his soon-to-be Singapore headquartered business on design, and there was endless coverage about the transformational impact of Sir Jony Ive’s tenure as Chief Design Officer at Apple, few other designers are lauded by the business community.

Just like big boardrooms, the response to design amongst the six million small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), which make up the ‘powerhouse’ that dominates the UK economy, is also less than enthusiastic. Perhaps the fundamental problem lies with these companies in particular and the way in which they drive growth by introducing new products and services?

Compelling narrative needed

However, more enlightened business leaders do use design in every aspect of their business rather than simply inviting designers in to polish and finesse towards the end of any development. There is an urgent need for greater understanding amongst business owners about the impact of design on company performance. Design professionals must communicate a compelling narrative of cases that demonstrate the earnings that resulted.

Limited understanding of the impact of design is also endemic in the public sector. Again, driving home the benefits in terms of effectiveness and improved efficiencies that well-designed systems, processes and services can deliver, should be something the design community – and national government – do on a continuous basis. Larger public organisations, including Innovate UK and NESTA, perform better in their use and understanding of design but are remote and disconnected from the small companies that make up the UK economy.

Four areas of focus

The Design Index highlights four areas for companies to focus on. Firstly, they are encouraged to take an analytical approach to design and measure design performance with the same rigour they devote to measuring revenues and costs. Secondly, user experience needs to be at the heart of their company culture. Thirdly, companies are recommended to nurture their top design people and empower them in cross-functional teams that take collective accountability for improving user experience. Finally, companies are encouraged to iterate, test, and learn rapidly, incorporating user insights from the first idea until long after the final launch.

McKinsey found that companies that successfully tackled these four priorities were highly likely to become more creative organisations that consistently design great products, services and experiences. Now, more than ever, when businesses need to understand how to get the best from design, companies need support and assistance to navigate through the complexities and achieve exceptional outcomes.

Who is making the case to the UK Government that investment in design at all levels results in better economic performance? Who is actively engaging with the UK’s six million SMEs and making the argument for investment in design repeatedly, accessibly, consistently and forcefully?

Making an immediate impact

There are at least five things that organisations can do that will make a significant and immediate impact. First, get a designer to run a workshop and to help learn and prepare innovation for improving performance post Covid-19. Second, get a designer to review internal and external branding. Third, get a designer to help with everything from internal culture to product development. Fourth, get a designer to help to identify how well your workplace is configured for the throughput of work and suggest efficiencies and improvements that can be made. And finally, get a designer to investigate what the experience of your customers is like.

As we become more dependent on digital technologies and connectivity, the design sector needs to ensure that the use of design becomes a central component of accepted best practice in business with a value commensurate with that of other professions. The sector urgently needs to establish design as a business discipline, helping institutional investors and shareholders to interrogate corporate boards about how effectively companies are using design.

The end of lockdown will see massive changes. Companies will be desperate for creative support, not only in their product, service and business development but also in their green transformation. Where businesses are operating with disrupted supply chains, it may be time to think about more local production; this could prompt a shift in which urban areas once again become the framework for production, only on a smaller and greener scale.

Designers should actively champion these new and more responsible approaches. By addressing companies and all types of public sector organisations, from councils, to healthcare providers, to emergency services, designers can play an increasingly important role in ensuring organisations are genuine participants in their local communities, less concerned about shareholders and more accountable to their stakeholders.

There is a chance to help the UK’s SMEs to power the economy back to growth and, at the same time, drive a greener and more sustainable approach to a circular economy for all of our futures. Let’s ensure we are all equipped to make it happen.

Philip Johnson has worked at the Design Council, Patent Office, PERA Innovation and Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has a background in design, marketing and design promotion, and is now encouraging business growth in the south east of England as part of Locate East Sussex.
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