Editor’s note: Today we open a new report in Business Impact at Technology Review: Design as a Business Strategy. We are exploring how successful products, services, and customer experiences are designed, and how technology is changing the way design is carried out.
From running shoes to car seats, from buildings to smart phones, from blockbuster movies to MRI machines, we live in a world that somebody imagined, designed, and created.
In recent years, the word “design” has entered the popular business lexicon. Major magazines feature design on their covers, some awarding yearly prizes and others providing daily blogs. No fewer than 40 books on design thinking have been published in North America in the past 18 months.
The reason: design can help businesses distinguish between new ideas that matter and ones that don’t. It can transform and shape them to fit into people’s lives in the most meaningful, stirring way. As such, design is a bridge between invention and innovation.
But “design” means remarkably different things to different people. It can be the way an object looks and performs. It can be a plan for action. It can be a finished product. Though these multiple meanings serve different functions, they can also confuse. While many managers claim to incorporate a design practice into their business, they often apply only one or two aspects. As a result, they exploit only a small portion of design’s deep potential.
This month’s package in Business Impact will explore design fundamentals. By understanding the fundamental processes of design while taking advantage of evolving design tools, companies can create better products, smarter services, more elegant solutions, and, ultimately, better businesses.
It’s natural for most managers to think of “design” as a noun. They focus on a product’s surface properties: the shape of the chair or the elements of a Web page. Traditionally, business schools have treated design as a static quality—the beautiful, functional, and sustainable aspects of a product that feel just right.
But think of “design” as a verb and instantly it takes on movement and purpose. To design is to envision, to plan, to clarify, to build, to enrich. As we shift our focus from noun to verb, design becomes dynamic—a vigorous approach to solving problems, identifying new opportunities, and creating great solutions.
Ask a designer to describe the steps it took to arrive at a winning solution and you’ll hear some core principles: conduct research to generate insight; envision solutions that embody unifying concepts, ideas, or stories; build prototypes, endless numbers of prototypes, while continually testing, refining, and improving them; clarify meaningful experiences people will have with the product; consider larger ecosystems and complete life cycles. Design is not a single activity; it is an organic collection of interconnected practices that create value.
Framing “design” as both a noun and a verb offers useful ways to apply design within the workplace. The noun provides teams with clear targets for success. And the verb propels individuals to coordinate their work in fresh ways. Good design-as an end as well as a means-can be taught. Individuals, teams, and organizations improve with shared vocabularies and activities.
Technology is transforming design in both senses of the word. As tools become cheaper, more accessible, and more sophisticated, they change how people work and what they can possibly create.