4 Design Mistakes Corporations Should Avoid

Organizations worldwide are increasingly using design to drive growth and innovation. For the most part, this is good news: the influence of design has made products, services, software, and environments better, both for the customer and the bottom line. But there are still plenty of  companies that are getting design completely wrong, or at best, only partially right when it comes to making it an integrated business function. Here are four of the biggest, most common mistakes I’ve seen that sabotage efforts to integrate design into the corporation.

Tug of war management. When companies decide to add to their design headcount, particularly in management positions, there’s often an unintended consequence: A battle between the new hires and the non-designers who have gotten used to making de facto design decisions. This is particularly common in brand, supply chain, and R&D departments in large consumer packaged goods companies. This tug-of-war within the ranks is because the former decision-makers are reluctant to cede control — intentionally or because of deep-rooted norms and processes — undermining the point of hiring and involving designers in the first place. Corporate culture and design integrity, as well as brand equity, are often compromised in the process.

A notable example I witnessed was when a VP of R&D was bent on using a new machine technology that made ingredients inside a package look twisted like a chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream. Even though a design executive said the look was “wrong, wrong, wrong” for the beauty care brand equity she was trying to drive, her opinion was overridden and the product went to market anyway — no doubt at enormous expense.  The product subsequently underperformed and was taken off the shelf.

Leaving an empty seat at the table.  Some companies, like Microsoft, have hundreds of talented designers who have little influence over the company’s strategic direction for two major reasons: They are either incorrectly positioned in the organizational structure, or they are performing functions that don’t add the most value. In Microsoft’s case, design has never been at parity with other important business functions such as engineering and marketing. Consequently, the voice and influence of its designers has been muffled, leaving its business stakeholders as well as its customers scratching their heads why such a well-resourced and “smart” company can make such frustrating and unintuitive software, missing market windows time after time.

For design to be most effective in complex corporate environments, having a seat at the executive decision making table is critical. Strategic direction and its implications must be able to be discussed directly, and in real time, with the design leader who is responsible for bringing that direction to life. Sure, there is always a great deal of tactical design execution work in any large business, but keeping designers solely in the trenches as a service function erodes much of the value they can bring to a company.

The “toe in the water” phenomenon.  Some companies stop at second base when it comes to design. GE, for example, is making progress through greater investments in design. But its efforts have primarily focused on consumer-facing divisions such as health care and appliances, rather than fully embracing design as key business function across the entire firm. Most of the time equipment, control panels, and software in their industrial B2B divisions are still designed by engineers.

As user expectations for simple, intuitive interfaces are increasingly set by savvy consumer companies like Google and Apple, the view that design matters in some places but not in others isn’t going to cut it. By now, all types of customers have come to expect thoughtful design wherever they turn, and companies that don’t recognize this new reality are going to lose big time. Dr. Ralf Speth, CEO of Jaguar, captures the implication perfectly in his recent quote, “If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.”

Yo-yo commitment. Becoming a design-centric company requires constant attention to driving a culture and environment that will support design, team building, and processes to accommodate design content. Due to design’s creative nature and special functional requirements, this takes time. A design executive I know who is reengineering his company’s design capability told his board recently he was embarking on “a marathon, not a sprint,” setting expectations that excellence in design does not happen overnight.

One of the worst things I’ve seen happen is that, for whatever reason, senior management gets excited about design and then suddenly reneges on its commitment, eliminating resources, killing momentum, scattering difficult-to-assemble talent and know-how in the process. HP, for example, drove a concerted effort at design capabilities development under ex-CEO Carly Fiorino, hiring design leadership, reengineering development processes, driving new brand standards, and developing tailored performance metrics. These efforts were decimated after several subsequent CEOs pulled the plug.

You can’t be a good design leader if you have to start from scratch every few years. Further, once a company has established a reputation for yo-yo commitment to design, it becomes increasingly difficult to hire talent who don’t want to chance having their efforts squandered, no matter how much they’re paid.

My prediction is that it will soon become clear to everyone, including Wall Street, that companies must have a grip on design to compete successfully. Imagine if, during a call, an analyst surprised your CEO by asking, “And what are you doing about design?” Your company can’t afford to have that question met with silence.

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