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Why It is Time to Reclaim the Power of Design

By: Alex Barclay, Strategy and Innovation Director, Big Radical

There’s no denying that in the right hands design has power. But for many years now, that power and potential has been diluted. While ‘design thinking,’ ‘agile’ and ‘lean’ get bandied around the boardroom; the real meaning of design has been misappropriated by businesses that don’t really care about end user outcomes. They put profit margins before great experiences for people, and skip understanding who their users are, or what needs must be met. The result is high failure rates for whatever they create. Either that or they simply don’t know what they are doing.

A quick look around testifies to this. For example, the iPhone app store has more than 2 million apps available but 4.4% of these account for 90% of app downloads worldwide. The low success rate of apps is reflected in findings by the ‘Meaningful Brands’ survey run by Havas, which suggests that people wouldn’t care if 74% of brands disappeared — i.e. what most brands make and do doesn’t actually matter that much, and is substitutable.

This happens because the firms making these apps and other products and services don’t really ‘do’ design well. They don’t adhere to the notion that because design is the practice of connecting to what people value and need in order to create behavior change and a set of desired outcomes for the user, for the client or the business, and for society as a whole. They don’t truly believe that you always have to know more about who you are designing for and their various contexts of use. They don’t spend time or money exploring the questions that arise and generating real insight about the people and market they are designing for. Instead they cut to the solution prematurely with the result that they fail, and goodwill and energy is lost.

Design done different: a new model 

At Big Radical, we decided to do things differently, and design with honor. We hold that design is in the service of people, both inside and outside our organisation. We are being bold and saying “enough is enough” — we’ve had enough of ‘bad’ design, and of pointless design like the many apps cited above.

More radically, we’re also saying we’ve had enough of being in businesses that prioritize profit over purpose. We think we can have and create both purpose and profit, but in a better way. So we are busy creating a business in which we focus on creating humanly satisfying experiences. Experiences, products and services with purpose, which deliver use-value, and are beautiful, create delight and make people’s lives better.

We are doing it in a way that demands and enables us to be the best we can be as designers and as people who are learning something new everyday and sharing it across our community. We are doing it because we think there is more to design and because we believe that if what we make is adopted by users and used repeatedly it will create value — use-value, profit, the whole shebang. We are doing it because we think the industry models we have need to be re-thought — re-imagined in much more compelling, interesting and yes, meaningful, ways.

Practical examples of how we are doing this include a project designed to help people who have cancer but have difficulties sleeping, and another on helping young people with depression. We involve end users and other specialists right from the start and all the way through the design process. Our partners include Cancer Research UK and The National Centre for Universities and Business plus a host of others. They ‘get it,’ and they want change too. They want deeper, much more satisfying, helpful products and services for the people they help. 

‘Good’ design creates edge and sustainability

This might also sound a bit of a ‘nice to have’ or ‘daisies in your hair-ish,’ but we’ve done our research. Aside from the ‘Meaningful Brands Index’ we know that brands that use design well and who activate and deliver their vision in an emotionally compelling way will outperform those that don’t. For example, Co-collective founder Ty Montague’s ‘Storydoing Research’ shows that Disney, Apple and IBM — brands that use design doing and not just design thinking — enjoy faster growth in revenue and share price. Brands that use design to activate and deliver their vision in an emotionally compelling way will outperform those that don’t.

With this in mind we’re taking the road less traveled and clearing the way for others too so we can bring the honor back to design and doing, and make more meaningful products for people to use, enjoy and get something good from.

We’re doing it because that’s how we get the outcomes we and our clients and partners want; outcomes that deliver positive upsides to the individuals who interact with what we make, as well as social, cultural and financial benefits for clients, our network and our partners. By ourselves and with others we’re reclaiming what design really is.

Finally, it’s my view that in order to remain relevant and help deliver a better world for us to live in, the design sector must rise to the challenge of balancing the creation of humanly satisfying, emotionally gratifying products and services with the drive towards higher profit margins. Less greed and more good design will help us maintain a sustainable, value-creating and richly diverse industrial sector.

About the Author: Alex Barclay is the Strategy and Innovation director at rapid product development studio, Big Radical. He finds joy in creating meaningful experiences for human beings. Alex has previously worked at Accenture, Havas and OgilvyOne.

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