Design Exchange: An open conversation on bring design the core of business with Google, Peppermint Hotels, Adobe, SAP and Honeywell

My last Idiom engagement involved hosting and facilitating an evening event that we called ‘Design Exchange’, held on December 14th 2012. The intent was to have a reflective space for open dialogue with large corporates on the use of design in organizations.

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I asked individuals from the executive, management and design teams of Adobe, Honeywell, Peppermint Hotels, Google and SAP to talk for five minutes on the questions below:
1. If design were an animal in your organization, what would it be?
2. If you were to name 3 search words about design organisations, what would they be and why?
3. Where would you like to develop design capabilities in your organization?

When putting together these questions, I was especially interested to find out what animals people would suggest, and the results were as follows:
• For Adobe it was a dragon. To have a mythical animal like a dragon in the room is quite magical, but you need to tame it and ally it. It is something that is bigger than the company, and they are unsure what to do with it.
• For Honeywell an engineering and IT-driven company, design was an elephant. Always there and loyal, but with over 10,000 engineers in the company there were unsure of what to do with their elephant.
• For Peppermint Hotels it was a chameleon, as hospitality requires a total design experience around products and services. It is adaptable, working on the micro level while being within the DNA of the business.
• For Google a mostly engineer-driven company, it was a foal. Google is young, and design helps it go beyond function towards joy, and with user experience being very important it will carry the company into the future of web inventions.
• For SAP a software company who are bringing design into their core, design was a tiger. It is dangerous but cute. The process is untenable because it’s experimental. It has a negative side, in that it is fuzzy, elusive and scary; and a positive side that is organic and beautiful.

These companies suggested the following search words about where you will find design in their organisations:
• New products and innovation,
• User centric and idea generation,
• Problem solving,
• Ability to figure out needs in local context,
• End to end experience,
• Future environments,
• Adaptability,
• Holistic design,
• Timeless,
• How to delight and meet unrecognized need (beyond usability),
• Blue sky concepts,
• Research insights,
• Facilitation and hands on experience,
• Design finds the real problems, engineers solve problems.

In response to the 3rd question of ‘Where would you like to develop design capabilities in your organization?’ the companies suggested the following:
• Strategic thinking for business,
• More then just ‘brand and identity as a nice add on’, but actually influencing the products made,
• Move design into business transformation,
• Getting design thinking into the business, beyond the pitching of ideas and towards realising them,
• Develop facilitation skills and craftmaking mindset in our employees.

After each company had shared their responses to the questions, it was really interesting to then hear their response to our next question: ‘If design in your organization died, what would happen?’:
• Engineers would cheer, customers would be pissed off and there would be job losses,
• There will be a two minute silence,
• We would be like everyone else in our market,
• The company will not stand, everything is design,
• No one will miss it, but the company would never know how thought out their product could have been.

Following these exchanges with the invited speakers, the exchange was opened up to the floor which led to conversations around how we might put design into the core of business by:
• Taking a top down approach, organically or by empowering people from the bottom up.
• Using design to develop company strategy.
• Design approaches used from the very start of strategy, to development and then the delivery of the final products.
• Design being driven by results and time is key, and it should not be fuzzy in it’s approach. But on the other hand design is disruptive, has scary goals and is not so rational. But the bottom line is money in, then money out.
• An understanding of design culture is not something you can buy.

It was great to get the opportunity to hear all of these people sharing their use of design in their business. From these conversations I got the clear sense that there is a lack of direction and/or cases to draw from when using design in high level strategy and innovation spaces to help a business grow. When parts of design practice are brought into other areas of the business to help innovation:
• It needs to be kept simple in its approach and processes.
• The practices should be adopted and led by a person from an area of the business where design is being applied
• The company’s WHY, HOW and WHAT design will do for them has to be made transparent to all parties.
• A clear articulation of WHY design makes business sense is needed – and the reason may not be money, but the development of the customer experience.

In summary, I think as design practices are moved into the core of business, and designers start to play in new spaces, they need to articulate their process and identify the elements of value they bring into different contexts – it can no longer be a magical process which leads to confusion about what is going to happen and more guidance will be required.

Just a note: Following this event Jay Dutta from Adobe reflected on his journey and the development of design in his blog post: ‘An Unexpected Journey: To the heart of design influence’. Well worth a read!

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