08 November 2006
Pat Matson Knapp
Pat Matson Knapp

Target, Starbucks and FedEx top the growing list of Companies That Get It. Steve Jobs of Apple, Anita Roddick of The Body Shop and Norio Ogha of Sony are among its disciples. Researchers try to tally its dollar value. And some of the country's top business schools are offering courses on how to manage its process.

The business world has discovered design.
While there are no handy spreadsheets that prove design's value to the bottom line, there are effective ways to communicate design's key role in business. Peter Phillips, a brand-strategy consultant based in Marblehead, MA, and Darrel Rhea, principal with Cheskin Research, a Redwood Shores, CA, research and design consultancy, offer these real-world tips on communicating with clients about design.

4 Secrets of Selling Design

1. Be a strategic partner, not a service organization.
"The biggest mistake designers make is to try to sell design," notes Phillips, former creative director for Gillette and consultant to numerous Fortune 500 companies. "When you're a service organization, you're a servant and you're not in charge," he says. "Many design firms categorize themselves this way, then they wonder why their clients won't listen to them."

Rhea agrees: "Your real leverage with a client comes when you show up as a strategic partner. That kind of relationship implies that you have an informed point of view on the customer, the product or service and the business model. To have your recommendations on allocating resources for design taken seriously, you cannot be perceived as a 'design vendor' or 'order taker.'"

2. Speak the language of business, not design.
Structure your conversations with clients around business situations, not the less-tangible realm of design. Remember that design is a problem-solving discipline, not an art, Phillips says. "Don't talk about typefaces and how a certain color looks good. Talk about return on investments and market share."

"Few clients want good design," Rhea contends. "They want growth or profits, or both. The way to persuade them to spend more on design isn't to talk about design at all, it's to talk to them about their business model or cementing relationships with their customers."

3. Arm yourself with information.
Business publications increasingly cover the importance of design to strategic success. Read the same periodicals your clients do - Harvard Business Review, Inc., Fast Company, Business Week, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal among them - and use that media coverage as an objective and impressive selling tool. Share these articles with your clients. Send periodic emails alerting them to recent design-related articles in the business press or mainstream media.

The Corporate Design Foundation ( ) and Design Management Institute ( ) Web sites are excellent sources for case studies. Build a library of business books on branding, corporate identity and design cite these sources whenever you pitch to a new client. (See "Additional Resources" below.)

4. Identify the problem. Through initial contact with the client, supplemented by preliminary research (through the Web, interviews with customers, etc.), develop an informed point of view about his business, his competition and other factors that impact success. He'll appreciate your approaching the project from his perspective.

Rhea suggests talking to your client's customers, industry experts and competitors if possible, "or use your eyes and audit what is happening visually in the market." And read, he stresses. "There's so much out there on the Internet that's easy to get fast."

About this article

The above article by Pat Matson Knapp originally appeared in the February, 2001 issue of HOW Magazine and appears here with permission. 2001 HOW Magazine.

About How
HOW is a leading U.S. publication for the graphic design profession, offering a comprehensive mix of business advice, creative inspiration, design insights and personal profiles.