The Role(s) of Design in Business

What does the term design mean to you and your business? And why should you care?

Ross Haddow
24/05/2019

Why is Design Important?

One thing is certain - the link between strong financial performance and design focus is becoming ever clearer and more compelling. As a result, the stock of design is on the rise.

Great design is now a central tenant for many of the largest and fastest growing companies on the planet (Google, Apple etc.). Large management consultancies such as McKinsey and Accenture have spent millions acquiring and developing their design capabilities.

As a result of such changes, the line between what a management consultant and a design consultant can and should advise on is becoming blurred.

However, despite most people having an innate understanding of what good design feels like, and of how bad design can make life worse, the value of design and the ways it can improve the customer experience are still not as well understood as they might be by many business owners.

Defining Design

This lack of understanding is partly the fault of designers themselves. This is down to the fact that designers have trouble agreeing and coalescing around a definition of what design is.

Among the numerous definitions in use are those that focus on design’s output, its process, the skill itself or its capabilities. Design can also be defined by the problems it solves, the constraints it works within, or the time or age in which a specific design discipline hit its stride.

However, here's one definition that seems pretty straight forward and which, as you’ll see, has really stood the test of time:

"Design is the human power of conceiving, planning and making products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of their individual and collective purposes."

Aristotle

There are many good bits to take from the philosopher’s words:

  • Human power – design is a skill and talent that can be nurtured and improved upon.

  • Conceiving, planning and making – it is a process and sequence of events.

  • Accomplishment of individual and collective purposes – its scope is wide ranging, as is its great potential value.

The Four Orders of Design

So, with Aristotle’s words in mind, how should you consider design when thinking about applying it to your own business? In the 1990’s, Richard Buchanan (a design academic and researcher) put forward the idea that there are four orders of design.

Based loosely around product type and ordered around complexity levels and scope of influence, Buchanan’s model gives a good overview of the places in which design can have an influence on the way a company does business:

Buchanan's Four Orders of Design
First Order: Communications

This first order primarily deals with 'things talking to people'. This type of design communicates meaning through symbols and information. It’s the world of Information Design, Graphic Design and Visual Design.

Second Order: Objects

The second order deals with 'things people interact with'. This type of design creates useful, usable and desirable products for people to use. It’s the world of Product Design, Engineering, Architecture and Technology Design.

Third Order: Interactions

The third order deals with 'groups of people and things in interaction’. This type of designs delivers experiences. It’s the world of Service Design, UX design and Process Design

Fourth Order: Systems

The fourth order deals with 'how groups of people and things interact with other groups of people and things'. This type of design delivers orchestrating systems, environments, ideas and values. It’s the world of Strategy design, Business design and Organisation Design.

So What Does This Mean for Your Business?

It’s fair to say that Orders One and Two are seen for many as the normal domain of the designer. However, it’s as things get more complex in Orders Three and Four that design can bring a whole raft of additional benefits to a business.

That’s why many of the most innovative management consultants working today are borrowing ideas from their design counterparts to improve the systems and services of some of the world’s leading companies. Or, to put it in Aristotelian terms, they are employing the ‘human power’ of designers and design teams.

The take home message from all this is that those companies that make design an integral part of their business – rather than viewing it as an add-on decoration - have the opportunity to accelerate change and differentiate themselves in the market by providing superior services and better experiences.

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