08 November 2006
Raymond Turner
Raymond Turner

Who calls the shots?
Raymond Turner says that design and business need to find new ways of working together.

No one would argue with the need for a closer relationship between design and business, but in order for that to happen, they must first understand each other. Although a shared vocabulary is a good starting point, today's management-speak does little to foster an understanding of where business is going. Hand on heart, how many of us really understand the difference between a mission and a vision, a corporate strategy and a business plan, let alone how both should relate to a design strategy?

Equally, design does little to foster a positive understanding of its role in business. It still presents itself as an elitist, arts-based activity that deals with the 'higher' things in life and is not to be sullied by commercial constraints and considerations. Not surprisingly, therefore, most businesspeople perceive design as superficial, irrelevant, and expensive. As is often the case, the perception is at odds with the reality. Design is none of the above.

Throughout my career, and particularly as group design director of BAA, the world's largest privately owned airport company, I have had ample opportunity to experience the relationship between business and design. I've taken the liberty of sprinkling a few examples throughout this article - projects I've worked on that may help to contribute a better understanding of design's role in corporate strategy.

In order for business to understand the true nature and value of design, I believe design must radically redefine its relationship with business - not in terms of design strategy versus business strategy, but at a much more fundamental level. In order to get into the business mainstream, design needs to radically rethink its role in the relationship.

Design should stop trying to fight its way to the top of the business agenda. We have to accept that issues such as market share, turnover and profit margins will always be more pressing. We also have to resist the temptation to oversell design as some kind of magic bullet. Handled properly, design can certainly increase the likelihood of business success and, handled badly, it can lead business into a blind alley from which escape might be hard, if not impossible. But design, in most cases, isn't the life-or-death issue it is sometimes made out to be.

Design should not force its way in and try to make its mark as the new kid on the block; rather, it should plan to gradually infect and influence everyone in the business. Design must climb down from its pedestal and adopt the radically different stance of coordinator, facilitator, and interpreter, rather than that of leader.

In a successful relationship, you will often find a dominant partner and a quiet one - a leader and a supportive follower. In the business/design relationship, business must always be the leader, and design the supportive follower. If the reverse were the case, we would constantly be designing products and services that no one would want or use! By counselling this more self-effacing role, I am not saying design has a lesser part to play - in fact, quite the opposite. It is often the quieter partner who actually wields the most power, exerting a very strong but subtle influence over the course of events. Design has that same quiet capability to contribute significantly to business success.

Because design touches so many parts of a business, it is probably the only glue universal enough to join corporate intent with day-by-day delivery. It can bridge the gap between a company's ambitions and the things that go on every day in the factory, the showroom, or the office in a way a mission statement never can.

If design is to realize its full potential as a unifying agent, it must be able to operate as effectively from the top down as from the bottom up. Getting design accepted at the top isn't too difficult to achieve. Design should simply stop haranguing the board with its importance and concentrate on establishing its context for that particular business - those places in which design is carried out and where it touches customers and staff. In fact, the context for design is usually much wider than the company board might first imagine, and it will be spread across many departments and down through the management ranks. The typical scenario, as Wally Olins describes it, is to find " product design run by engineers, communications by public relations and marketing people, and the environments run by the janitor!" Incidentally, what great argument is needed to ensure that design in business is both coordinated and given strong, clear direction?

Because of the dispersed nature of the activity, the full extent of an investment in design will be understood by only a few, if anyone at all. In fact, of all the large line items on a corporate budget, design is usually the one that company boards know the least about! The problem is that responsibility for design spend is spread across departments, as well as down through the organization. Couple that with the fact that every pound or dollar spent on design says something about the business: if you spend a lot, you say a lot. Then the issue becomes one of accountability for design's effect and impact on the company's reputation. Once the true cost is pointed out, the trick is to make sure the board does not see it as an avoidable cost, but rather as a value-adding activity that can, if properly managed, create an all-important point of differentiation in a world in which most things are becoming commodities. It can influence the way customers view a company's products and services and the way staff view their employer. Design can make clear what a company stands for and what makes it different from the rest. Although price can certainly be a differentiating factor, as Rodney Fitch once said to me, "Only one company can be the cheapest - the others have to use design."

By using such compelling commercial arguments, it is fairly easy to sell the strategic importance of design and convince the chief executive it is an asset that needs to be managed, and reported, at board level. This often leads to the response that the management of design should be placed at the centre of the organization as a corporate resource, along with finance, personnel, R&D, and so on. It then follows naturally to appoint a design boss to ensure that design direction is clear and local design activity is coordinated.

The positive side of creating this sort of formal place for design in an organisation is that it often generates support from chief executives; it spawns approval groups that give access to corporate design opinion and understanding; and it sometimes even allows management systems to develop that provide a framework in which teams can work and budgets can be determined. Unfortunately, there is also a downside. By themselves, independent corporate design functions have little long term effect. The creation of a separate function works counter to the all-pervasive nature of the activity and, in any case, there will always be more design decisions to be made, or monitored, than any one person can possibly handle. The flood of design-related issues will always be bigger than can be contained by any organisational barrier.

The only way a company can be certain of maximising the wealth-creating potential of design is to ensure that it becomes part of the DNA of the whole business. It must become unexceptional in its use - simply, 'the way we do things'. The role and value of design must be clearly understood by everyone who is in a position to make or mar the end result. This is particularly important as the shift from manufacturing-based to service-based industry continues. Employees who are far from the top of the corporate organisation will be in a position to undo plenty of good design work with a careless word or action. Everyone who works with customers will need to be made aware of their importance in maintaining design integrity and through that, contribute to maintaining and building a company's reputation. Raising design awareness throughout the business is going to be the biggest challenge for the design world!

For this increasingly important group of people, it is even more important for design to climb down from its pedestal. The lower down the organisation, the lower the understanding of the true nature and value of design, and the less tolerant people are of 'arty' pretensions and aesthetic arguments. To get these people on-side, design has to become self-effacing to the point of being almost invisible. Certainly, the word design should be avoided if it is likely to have the wrong connotations.

In order to create a truly unified effort, a rallying flag needs to be planted (call it a design policy or a design vision, if you like) to help clarify the strategic objectives of the business for everyone and provide a touchstone for their everyday actions. It may be a positioning statement, a phrase reflecting the company's strategic intent, a video, or a presentation explaining the organisation's values and the role design has in realising them. It will certainly not be a suite of corporate identity manuals or design guidelines, because design by dictate simply does not work. It is not flexible, nor can it easily accommodate change. No amount of legislation, rule writing, bureaucratic system building, or indeed the installation of someone with absolute authority will make design come to life in a company. Design effectiveness comes from beliefs and attitudes, not laws and corporate policemen. Design must stop trying to dictate to business and learn how to operate as the strong but silent partner.

It is not always possible for design to help define a company's strategic ambition. However, for it to be of any long-term value, design must bridge the gap between this ambition and its practical delivery. This will involve specific design-led actions, such as developing the right products to manufacture or the right environment for a service, and providing simple guiding principles to help staff and 'nondesign' managers carry out their day-to-day tasks in an appropriate and co-ordinated way. Those tools need not necessarily be presented as design activities - indeed, to do so can be counterproductive. They simply need to communicate what needs to be done and give the base logic for why it needs to be done in a certain way, so that each activity contributes to a coherent whole. There is no need to send everyone on a crash course in design and design management. The objective is to bring design to the business rather than bring the business to design.

The management responsibility is to show staff how the strategic proposition of a company can be manifest in different ways - through the design of its products and services, through the way it talks about itself, and through the way staff behave toward each other, suppliers, and customers. Most of these manifestations are influenced by design, and they must all be coordinated so that each one contributes to building the strategic proposition. Business clearly leads this whole process, but without a focused and coordinated design response, that leadership is impotent in delivery.

I believe the design effort must be expressly targeted at tangibly manifesting business objectives. If it fails to do this, the company leaders will fall short of maximising value for their shareholders. In other words, the context for design is determined by the business proposition of the company. And this brings me to my fundamental message. Design must provide a clear and practical link between the strategic intent of a business and its day-to-day activities.

However, this works only if designers and design managers learn how to communicate effectively with the rank and file of the business. That means dropping any pretensions of superiority. Because design touches so many parts of the business, a design manager also has to touch many parts of the business, and there is no place on the factory floor, or in the general office, for designer posing and design-speak.

Design should have no problem with the fact that business 'calls the shots', because at the end of the day, design is the principal means by which business manifests its strategic intent - and that's what really counts.

About this article
This article is reprinted from the latest issue of New Design, with permission.
The unedited version of this article was first published in the Design Management Journal, Volume 11, number 4, Fall 2000.

About the author
Raymond Turner is group design director of airport company BAA. A longer version of this article was given as a keynote speech at the Design Management Institute's 5th European International Design Management Conference in Amsterdam in March 2001.

About New Design
New Design is the new product and industrial design magazine from the UK that explores the key internal and external design issues facing designers and management today, from new technologies and materials to consumer and environmental trends. It also looks at the role design can play at the heart of business operations in areas such as manufacturing, branding and product development, with interviews and case studies providing ideas and inspiration for management, innovation and best practice.

Regular sections cover design education and design management, in addition to workplace issues, international events and recruitment. The articles are informative and thought-provoking providing combined with high quality product images.