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Design Council, February 2014

This article was written 7 years ago.

I won an Ideas Tap brief to cover the Design Council Leading Business by Design Summit. This is the report I wrote, which appeared on both the Design Council and Ideas Tap websites.
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People ignore design that ignores people.

Digital Designer and author of The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero said, “People ignore design that ignores people”. The Design Council research and summit, Leading Business by Design, set out to explore not just whether design makes a difference in business, but how it makes a difference. Asked to sum up the findings in six words, those would be the words I’d choose – people ignore design that ignores people. Luckily I’ve got 600, so I’ll elaborate.

There is plenty of evidence that design makes a difference. During the summit Jeremy Lindley, Diageo, said, “The redesign of Johnny Walker Blue Label, [led to] sales growth of over 25%” Nigel Oseland, Workplace Unlimited, said, “There is clear evidence that workplace design impacts performance and productivity.” So this research, in collaboration with Warwick Business School, looked at 12 businesses, large and small, in services and manufacturing, that use design successfully, in order to see how they do it.

When you think of good design you tend to think of products and perhaps branding. You might think of designers like Jonathan Ive. You probably don’t think of the CEO, the end-user or the finance department. Yet the most interesting insights were about the role ordinary people play in successful design. As Arren Roberts, Shropshire Council, put it, “What I’m going to talk about is people, because that’s what it’s really about.”

Good design puts the user at the centre. Talking about gov.uk, the Design Museum’s 2013 Design of the Year, Martha Lane Fox said “The impact… is most strong when you look at how it puts users at the heart of services. There’s been a quiet revolution in government to see the citizen at the heart of what’s done.” Matt Web, Berg, said, “You need to have empathy with the people who are going to using what you’ve made. Understanding customers should be something people swim in while they’re having ideas.” Taking that further he said, “By leaving ‘the wires hanging out of the back,’ we discovered what people would use Little Printer for… that’s the bit we’re commercialising.” Mel Exon, BBH, echoed this: “Our mantra used to be ‘Good is the enemy of great,’ but getting something [good] out into the wild and then optimising it based on how people react is becoming the norm.” Arren Roberts said, “We’re using co-design principles – with people, for people. Services people don’t want to use are a waste of public money.”

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Leadership support is also crucial. Martha Lane Fox attributed founder-company success to strong design leadership, saying, “I can’t think of a founder who isn’t absolutely obsessed with design.” Jonathan Ball, Design Council, talked about not just creating time and space for design, but also giving permission. Pietro Micheli, Warwick Business School, said, “Understand that to some extent we need to trust designers and measure the effect afterwards.”

The importance of design in working environments was another theme. Luke Miles, Virgin Atlantic said, “Our product isn’t the aircraft, it’s the journey. At the heart of that are people – how they feel when they come to work is infinitely tied to our customers’ experience. So we’re redesigning spaces for crew. Psychologist and neuroscientist Molly Crocket talked about the importance of removing barriers to wellbeing, citing fellow speaker Richard Baldwin’s Derwent examples of a running track on the roof of the White Collar Factory and simple steps such as not hiding the stairs.

Finally, the role of designers themselves was discussed. Pietro Micheli said, “Are they just good designers? No. They try to make people aware of the benefits of design.” Jonathan Ball, emphasised the importance of the team – not just original thinkers, but also ‘do-ers’, ‘motivators’ and ‘completer-finishers’. Arren Roberts, said, “Why designers? I think [More Independent Liverpool] wanted people who could be a bit disruptive, bring energy and enthusiasm, and hold up an honest mirror.” Because good design it seems is more about people than it is about things.

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