Driven by Design
A growing number of companies are realizing the true benefits of good design to their bottom-line. Design is so much more than just making things look good, as Ruth Le Pla reports.
’ve always had a soft spot for designers. The smart ones anyway. Because good design looks like someone whipped it up on the back of an envelope. Clever thinking. Immediate and relevant. The highest compliment is for some boorish person to say their five year old could have done it. In my book, that’s great design.
Wellington-based natural skin- and hair-care company Trilogy Products knows what it’s all about. For the past five years Trilogy has been turning out elegantly simple products. Managing director Sarah Gibbs says her company uses its trademark ‘slightly clinical feel’, amber bottles and easy lines to portray a combination of functionality and an enjoyable experience.
"We’re selling the product’s performance and an aspiration," she says. "We’re selling how it makes you feel as much as how it makes your skin feel."
Gibbs and work partner Catherine de Groot intrinsically ‘get’ what design does for their business. For them, design is about how the customer experiences their product or service.
They are part of a growing wave of small companies clicking on to the benefits of design. But not design as many companies have traditionally seen it. We’re not talking about making things pretty here. These companies have gone way beyond ‘Now, shall we make this pink or blue?’ slap-on after thoughts.
For them, design is squarely centre-stage and back in its rightful place. It’s the central rallying point for what they do. And, most importantly, it means they can charge bigger bucks.
For New Zealand companies eyeing overseas markets, that makes lots of sense. Longtime marketer Steve Bridges nails it when he says, "We can’t compete on price overseas so, by definition, we have to compete on non-price attributes. And that’s where design ties in. We need superbly designed products with superb packaging and everything else around them to compete well as niche players."
Bridges runs his own company, Bridges Marketing Consultancy, and through a series of university courses has instilled a solid understanding of marketing into a generation of business folk. He tells students on his marketing courses an eye-popping (and true) story about a smart New Zealand inventor who couldn’t figure out why people didn’t want his product.
"The biggest stumbling block for innovators is marketing," the inventor complained. "It’s easy to make a product: the hard part is selling the damned thing."
That, says Bridges, is a classic quote about the problem we have in New Zealand.
"An inventor comes up with an idea and they focus on the mechanics of it – the engineering aspects – and not the rest of it. That’s the whole point. Marketing and design should come at the start of the whole process, not at the end. It’s all about being customer centric."
There’s been lots of talk about the big companies that ‘get’ it. The Better by Design initiative, which kicked off three years ago, has made great headway among larger companies. By now, many of its tales of design heroism have been well aired. Furniture designer Formway went out on a limb when it vowed: "If you’re designing a product for the human body, start with the body, not the product." It then went on to produce chairs of stunning originality.
Fisher & Paykel Appliances revolutionised kitchens from having dishwashers to having drawers that wash dishes. The Dish Drawer, according to the Better by Design case study, "made considerably better use of space, gave easier access, allowed for smaller loads, used less water and detergent, was easier to open and had greater visibility".
42 Below’s ‘chief vodka bloke’ Geoff Ross built a compelling story around New Zealand’s purity and creativity: and sold truckloads of vodka along the way.
But which small to medium sized companies are making a go of it? And, to be frank, isn’t being design-led, a tad pretentious?
Not if it meets a genuine market need, it isn’t. Especially not if it brings in the dollars.
You can’t get much more specialised than OBO. Simon Barnett, the team captain of this tiny company, spotted that field hockey goalies were having to make do with equipment designed for other sports codes: ice hockey in particular. Wearing such stuff made it hard for goalies to move around. The equipment wore out fast. And it looked kind of strange too.
By paying close attention to what these people need, OBO has captured 60 percent of the world’s field hockey goalie equipment market.
Or take Foot Science International, the Christchurch company behind the Formthotics range of soft insoles that mould to the individual shape of a foot. From small beginnings this company is now exporting to more than 30 countries.
Want more examples? Try Tio, a three-man Wellington-based company embracing the notion of ‘conscious design’ and which lets consumers pick and change the coverings on their furniture. Or how about Epic Beer? Grenville Main, managing director of DNA, the design company behind the brand, describes it as ‘the ultimate niche beer’.
"You could call it passion or insanity to build a beer this strong," he says, "but we see it as designing a solution to a market that needed a superhero."
Then there’s Hold (another DNA client) which operates in the shelving and display products space. After generations as a commodity producer, Hold decided to play to its strengths and transformed itself into a product design and marketing entity.
Design and business
Better by Design director Judith Thompson emphasises that design is not just about what the customer sees and purchases. "It’s about all aspects of the business," she says. "Design plays a really important role in how a business is structured in terms of its vision, the culture within that business and how to develop the strategy in order to be successful."
There is, however, still a fair whack of tangled thinking about the role of design in business. Many business owners still see it as a ‘nice to have’: presumably they’ll get round to it once they’ve sorted out other more ‘sensible’ business activities like doing the banking or answering emails.
Dr John Varcoe, director of branding for graphic design company Scenario Communications recalls being lectured on the high cost of design – which after all was just a ‘discretionary’ activity. "I was once told that," he says, "by a senior partner in a leading professional services firm who was charging her time out at $800-plus an hour."
Guy Whateley, director of Auckland’s creative brand and design agency Velocity Limited, says companies’ difficulties in forecasting ROI to justify specific projects have tended to put brand-oriented design initiatives down the list of priorities. Companies are looking first to sharpen what they think of as their fundamentals.
"Faced with this," he says, "design and other creative businesses may have to respond by discussing alternative funding arrangements, and by promoting the role of design and branding as a fundamental business driver, not a nice thing to have when the sun’s shining."
Brian Slade is creative director at Wellington-based print, graphic and brand communication company Origin Design. He believes design is becoming more embedded in business. He sees signs that designers are increasingly looking at their work not just as ‘design’ but as communications in a far broader context.
"Concept-driven design is highly important," he says. "Designers need to find and understand the communications messages and deliver these as cut-through ideas. Design cannot be about pushing graphics around on a page."
In the online space, at least the tussle between web trekkies and traditional graphic designers has been resolved. Dr Varcoe says it was "regrettable but understandable that the propeller heads were given initial control of the web design space". Thankfully, he says, that is no longer the case.
"Designing for the web is a graphic design and communications effectiveness issue. It’s not simply an opportunity to throw as much animation, sound and technology into each and every website just because you can."
Over at Trilogy Products, where Catherine de Groot handles the company’s online branding, they clearly ‘get’ web design too. Online imagery and messages are aligned to the same pared back design elements used in the offline world.
"We ask ourselves ‘what do people want? What do they want to hear? What don’t they want to hear?’" explains Sarah Gibbs. "So we don’t bother them with things they don’t want or need."
On a practical level, how does being design-led fit into the daily doings of small business? Nigel Sharplin is managing director of high-tech product design services company InFact. His team has helped numerous companies of varying sizes rethink their approach to design – and reap the benefits.
InFact espouses the concept of ‘design thinking’ – an idea fostered by Silicon Valley-based company IDEO and which identifies opportunities for growth by revealing people’s latent needs, behaviours and desires.
Sharplin agrees that design thinking can be a difficult proposition for an SME.
"They see the process and think it’s going to be longwinded and expensive. They think ‘there’s no guarantee I’m going to get value out of it, maybe it’s best I carry on making assumptions and just struggle along’."
At its most basic, says Sharplin, design thinking is about "going in and asking some commonsense questions about very practical things and observing the responses to those questions".
InFact and its design thinking approach have already worked wonders for Auckland-based Cash Handling Systems whose pay and display parking meter, the Metro Parking System, is pulling in good sales after a major overhaul.
"We don’t have to do strategic thinking and have fanciful ideas about what we might do in the future," says Sharplin. "What’s really important is focusing on understanding what the hell’s going on now. My experience has been that design strategy is more about understanding where you are at now than it is about trying to write some pretty picture about where you should be going."
According to Steve Bridges, the good news is that SMEs can easily take some small affordable steps towards focusing more on what customers want. What’s more, these changes can have a big (and positive) impact on the business bottom line.
Bridges suggests two simple steps.
"Firstly," he says, "try to put yourselves in your customers’ shoes. Look at every aspect of your business from the customer’s viewpoint. Look at everything you communicate. How the phone is answered? How does it feel to enter the reception area? Go and be your own customer. Ask yourselves ‘what messages are we sending with this?’ Then go and change things if they’re not right. Even small companies can change their reception area."
"Secondly," says Bridges, "go out and talk to your customers."
Finally, bear in mind this advice from Brian Slade: "Design is increasingly seen as a competitive advantage and so it needs to be well integrated across all media. Interestingly, we are not just talking print, web and TV. We are also talking about office environments and signage. So there’s no room for thinking about a narrow design horizon.
"When you design you have to think about the total experience available to your market and consider how you are going to get your concept across intact. And this is what marketers are asking of designers – think more broadly and more strategically. Making things look good is no longer enough."