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At Design Network North’s recent national conference, there was an interesting debate on the status of design in business.  The general view was that we are now in the post ‘Design Thinking’ era. Gone are the days when design was a niche cult, created for and enjoyed by fashionistas and the elite. Pioneers like Apple have turned design into something you buy on the high street.  It’s all around us; everyone now owns a product that features aspects of good design and increasingly consumers expect these benefits as a default.

‘Design’ has infiltrated everywhere from the school curriculum to the boardrooms of big business.  Many consumer facing companies have appointed Chief Design Officers (CDOs) to ensure that design ideas permeate through the whole business.  This has been driven by the realisation that the pace of technology change is such that unless a company is exploiting their opportunities fully, then smaller new entrants to a market sector can rapidly displace the incumbents.  If you look at a list of the 10 largest technology companies a decade ago and compare it with today, you can see how quickly fortunes can change.  This has not been led by technology alone, but by the imaginative exploitation of the opportunities that technology provides.

We are moving out of an age when products and services compete solely on their features or price, into one where the holistic product experience counts most.  It’s about the customer’s journey from first touch point with the brand, through purchase, use and recycling.  Market leaders have realised that getting this right can change consumer allegiances quickly in today’s highly connected and savvy world, adding significant value and driving long term loyalty.

The next steps

Brands need to get even closer to consumers by bringing together profile information from their online activities and product use, to build a clearer picture of the consumer’s needs and preferences. Building upon the advanced consumer knowledge and product targeting of companies such as Amazon and Tesco, a new level of customised product and service delivery can be achieved.  By developing brand relationships through multiple channels, and in new and engaging ways, market leaders are able to offer their customers more tailored products. The role design plays in creating these new services, experiences and technologies is central.

How have designers adapted to the ‘Grown Up’ era?

If you view design in its broadest sense as a process of creative problem solving, intentional planning and realisation, to some extent everyone is a designer.  However, professional designers have learnt to embrace ‘change’ that often is perceived as a threat in many organisations.  They develop the skills to see things as they could be, in a way that resonates with consumers in a cultural context. This includes methods of researching and understanding consumer groups, identifying and predicting trends, with the ability to consolidate and communicate ideas and inspire organisations across a range of business disciplines.

That said, the design profession has matured partly through a realisation that designers don’t have a monopoly on creativity. The products they design need to be influenced by business environments and must work within the constraints that inevitably exist.

Design in the real world

The great challenge for product designers is that the majority of the effort and skill needed to bring a new product to market is focused on technical and business challenges. To develop new technology based products you need an extensive team of talented scientists, engineers and other specialists. And while the design team is likely to be in the minority, their ability to extract meaningful insights from consumer research, cultural nous and to visualise what a product or user experience could be, informs the broader team and enables them to develop creative solutions. Working together in this way, the optimum environment for creating truly breakthrough products is generated.

Cambridge Design Partnership was founded on the belief that technology development should be led by consumers. For 17 years we have proved that the most valuable innovation occurs at the intersection of unmet consumer needs and what is technically possible.  That’s why our company culture embraces, and values, broad-based design skills alongside in-depth technology capability. What makes us different is our ability to make this synthesis work creatively. Getting designers, researchers, scientists, engineers and business specialists working creatively together is a hugely exciting experience. Yes, Design is maturing nicely!

By Mike Cane, Founder, Cambridge Design Partnership

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