Design IS Business
“Design IS Business.” That’s the theme for this year’s Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA)’s annual International Design Conference, which takes place in Atlanta August 16-19.
At first glance, this pithy theme might be derived from the symbiotic relationship between Industrial Design (ID) and business. Industrial Design emerged as a profession during the early stages of industrialization roughly 100 years ago, playing a leading role in the creation of highly desirable, mass-produced commercial products. This relationship wedded design to business and industry forever. A secondary glance at the theme might indicate how Industrial Design continues to be a reliable business partner, regardless of the various technological upheavals. From the mechanization era, to the age of electronics and miniaturization, followed by the digitization of nearly everything, to today’s world of network-connected and semi-autonomous “things,” the underlying design process the industrial designer employs has proven to be timeless, with the designer’s ethos as creative problem solver transcending revolutions in technology. Such cursory looks at Design IS Business risks missing a larger message. To quote a former president of the United States, “it depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” In this case, Design IS entering into a new relationship with business, and one worth considering for your own business.
Design’s initial job was primarily form giving for any type of product. Over time, Design would become the visual means to communicate a business and its values to a broad audience of customers, employees and shareholders. Employing a coordinated set of guidelines and standards encompassing product appearance, human-machine interface elements, product packaging and graphics, merchandising, marketing and communications materials, as well as architecture and interior spaces, a business could clearly define and differentiate their products and services from their competition. One of the best and most admired practitioners of this approach is Apple. Today, well-designed products and end-user experiences are an important foundation for any company interested in building a long-term product and services strategy.
From these beginnings in the industrialization era and its attendant focus on aesthetics, Design’s relationship to business has evolved significantly, becoming a driver of innovation within an organization. The era of meaningful design-led innovation began roughly 25 years ago, with the clever adaptation of a collection of existing design tools and techniques traditionally employed by industrial designers in the product development process. Instead of using these methods as intended—to incrementally improve or refine the current business offer—these bundled design-based tools were deployed to identify entirely new business opportunities. Now referred to as user-centered design or human-centered design, this process of uncovering innovative product or service offers enables a business to expand beyond their current portfolio or grow into new markets.
It is important to note that with this new approach to innovation, the design team effectively left the design studio and entered into a new collaborative work environment, interacting with colleagues in business planning, finance, and IT. This method of innovation transforms the design organization from a down-stream, reactive function to an up-stream, strategic planning asset.
Which leads us to the state of the Industrial Design profession today, and puts the conference theme in context. While the business arena may be new, the same underlying design processes, tools and techniques used historically to drive new products, services, and more recently, growth initiatives, are the same as those used in strategic planning. And, just as ID has historically helped guide business through prior technological upheavals, it can serve as a valuable partner in the era of disruption driven by augmented intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing and connected objects.
It might sound like the design practices and organizational principles described might only benefit larger firms. That’s not necessarily true. The National Endowment of the Arts published a report in April titled “Industrial Design, a Competitive Edge for U.S. Manufacturing Success in the Global Economy.” They make the business case for integrating ID into small and medium size businesses and outline interesting funding models for Design within these firms. It’s a free report and definitely worth the read.