Last month we wrote about how the finance industry had become more design-focused in recent years, but they aren’t the only ones. Almost any business – especially those with a strong digital presence – can benefit from design-led innovation.

Design-led innovation refers to the philosophy that businesses should be forward-thinking and problem-solving. It takes the principles of design and applies them to the running of a company. The popularity of design-led innovation is growing as its success becomes evident. In 2013, the Design Council’s research showed that for every £1 spent on design, over £20 is produced in revenue, with a £4 increase in profit.

Why has this innovation become so sought after?

On the surface, it would appear that everyone using a mobile phone is the reason for this success. Having access to a smartphone gives us all the information we could want, literally at our fingertips, so we can afford to only consider the easiest, most informative, and most efficient phone apps worthy of our phones. Any apps that haven’t given serious consideration to design and user experience will not survive against their competition. Like we said, it’s easy to point at mobile phones and portable internet and say ‘that’s the reason for innovation and change’, but there is more to it than that.

The general assumption is that design is only about making things look pretty, or make a better user experience. While these are undeniably important elements of design, being a design-driven business doesn’t just mean you’re good at drawing. It’s also about a state of mind, how you approach problems, and the company culture.

What is a design state of mind?

What we refer to as a ‘design state of mind’ is partly about perspective, partly about empathy. When you step back and consider every angle, you will be able to better appreciate all the individual elements, rather than just the design as a whole.

Having a design state of mind means incorporating empathy and understanding in order to appreciate your goal and work towards it. It means considering the impact of a decision and being prepared for any consequences that might arise. Designers work up theories and test several options thoroughly to help generate ideas and options not previously considered. In a nutshell, a designer is required to use empathetic and calculated reasoning to find tangible solutions. Applying this manner of thinking to all areas of business is what is meant by design-led innovation.

You can’t rely on traditional sciences to solve problems

Take AirBnB, for example, one of the biggest advocates for design-led innovation. AirBnB was founded by designers, and the application of their expertise in running the business is what made it successful. In a video by Design Week, the founders talk about how they started their business in the way they thought they were supposed to run it – with ‘Silicon Valley values’ where ‘everything has to be solved with code’. But this didn’t work for AirBnB and they rethought how to run their company based on what they knew: design. As Joe Gebbia, co-founder of AirBnB, put it:

“Design is used to create a culture… where people are conditioned [to] be their most creative. Because, in my mind, I believe that’s the only way we’ll overcome challenges that are ahead of us. The best way to prepare for that is to design a culture and an environment where people can be their most creative.”

What can you do to become design-led?

So perhaps you’ve decided you need to orient your business around design based on the data and information you’ve received? Or maybe you’ve already made that decision, but are yet to see any results? You need to look inside your company and ask yourself if you are encouraging a culture of design and creativity. Step number one would be to bring in some designers (obviously), but step two is a little less prescriptive.

All businesses treat design differently so it is in sync with their brand identity. There is no set formula for design. As Nathan Sinsabaugh wrote in his Wired article, “Design is about understanding people in the context and culture they live in to develop genuine empathy, and testing and iterating solutions with customers to explore the validity of decisions.” This way of thinking doesn’t suit the mathematical mindset of traditional business innovation, so you’ll need innovative people working in a creative environment that encourages out-of-the-box ideas and intuition.

Design is about creating solutions and providing what users need. That’s the essence of design-led innovation: being user-friendly. If your clients and customers like engaging with you, that’s good news for everyone. So if you’re interested in the advantages of design-led innovation, then perhaps it’s time to change the way your company thinks.


Have any questions about design, or wondering if a design-led philosophy would benefit your business? Feel free to contact us via our website or give us an @ on Twitter or Facebook!