This post is part of HBR’s special issue on failure.
As much as the business world seems to admire design innovation these days, very few companies are doing it well.
As the founder of a firm that helps businesses innovate, I’ve watched approvingly as design has gone from a niche topic to the covers of mainstream publications and the keynotes at business conferences.
And yet, in 28 years of creative consulting, I have seen far more corporate design efforts fail than succeed.
The arguments in favour of these efforts have been solid: commercial markets are saturated with adequate offerings, consumers are more aware of alternatives and more discerning in their choices, and innovative design is an effective way to differentiate and communicate a brand. But while there are plenty of familiar examples of design-driven market success — Oxo, Apple, Umpqua Bank, Virgin Atlantic and Netflix, to name a few — they are the exceptions, not the rule.
It’s common to hear of companies hiring a creative consultancy, applying its recommendations, and yet at the end of the contract, seeing little or no return on investment. The majority of engagements that end this way have resulted in solutions that were never implemented, or were not implemented to their full potential. The design failed, in other words. My observations of attempts at design innovation in the business world suggest that this track record is typical. It can lead thoughtful executives to view design hype with scepticism, and suspect a case of winner’s bias: magazines run cover stories about the rare design-driven superstar, but ignore the more numerous losers.
But there are strong similarities among companies that use design effectively, and it’s not that they hired the “right” consultancy or believed in the power of design more than their competitors. Design failures are rarely the result of a bad concept or an unwilling client — the companies mentioned above have used a variety of consultancies at crucial junctures in their growth, and most of them still do. What sets them apart is an alignment of expectations. These companies go into the design process with a clear understanding of the role they must play, and a willingness to let their business be transformed by it.
The truth is there’s only so much designers can do on their own to make a company successfully innovative. Companies that misalign their expectations — and many do ignore their own part in becoming more innovative — generally fail. They genuinely want good design, and they want it to impact their bottom line, but they want it to take place externally. Their vision of design as a purely third-party service is doomed.
This misalignment expresses itself in many forms. Here are five of the most common ways to fail at design:
- Refuse to change any other part of your business. Treating design as an add-on can work when a company commissions a “designer series” of products to briefly boost the brand’s appeal, but this is hardly what we mean when we talk about innovation saving your business. The smartest companies foster an internal culture of innovation, which creative consultants can support, but only if other aspects of the business — management, development, manufacturing, marketing — are open to change. More immediately, requiring a design team to propose only solutions that can be realised with your current process ensures more of the same.
- Design outside of your innovation space. Designers don’t implement solutions, companies do. For that reason, the most innovative solution on earth won’t work if it’s pursued by a company that can’t properly execute it. At Ziba we call this capability the client’s “innovation space” — the arena in which they’ve already proven themselves willing and able to lead the pack. Some companies are technology innovators, others are product innovators or experience innovators. Learning which you are in order to direct later efforts is a crucial first step that most companies skip.
- Try to design for everybody. Design works as a differentiator because it responds to human needs, both functional and emotional. Most of us agree that a Ferrari is beautifully designed, but nobody would say it’s for everyone. The same could be true of a minivan. Each succeeds in its market because it delivers to a tightly defined group of users. In a landscape where consumers increasingly demand tailored experiences, failing to identify a clear strategic target is designing to fail. The most useful tool a client can give a consultancy is a well-considered, focused profile of who they’re designing for. The least useful is a mandate to create something that appeals to everyone.
- Insist on replicating another company’s success. “We want to be the Apple of [insert industry]” might be the single most common request clients make of creative consultancies, and it’s certainly one of the most damaging. Good design does more than just serve the needs of its audience, it does so in a way that’s true to the company’s purpose and values. An Apple-like experience delivered by a company that isn’t Apple can’t be sustained, because it’s not backed up by Apple’s culture and resources. The result is an inconsistent experience that feels disingenuous to customers, and shatters their loyalty. This is why “me too” innovation almost never works. Not only does it make you look like a copycat, it shows you don’t care about your own brand enough to express it in your user experience.
- compartmentalise design into isolated tasks. It’s tempting to treat design as a menu of services, applying it here and there on bits of a project that need sprucing up. To a sceptical client this can feel economical and controlled, but it cripples the design effort by fragmentation. The best user experiences are integrative; they make sure that every touch point is consistent and logical, building trust from the user, and reinforcing the brand’s character. Piecemeal design work creates an incoherent experience that users will ultimately reject.
Good design can indeed lift a company’s performance from lackluster to outstanding, but it’s still just one element in the overall system. The key to getting what you need from design is letting it influence, and be influenced by, the other elements in that system. Only when design considerations are integrated into your company’s culture as thoroughly as quality, schedule and budget are, will you start moving down the path of design-driven success.
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