Nobody doubts that design can be powerful. But while words and phrases like ‘design thinking,’ ‘agile’ and ‘lean’ may be officially welcome in the boardrooms of Deloitte, Accenture, PWc, McKinsey and similar firms, I believe that the full potential of design has been neglected and these terms misappropriated.

Many businesses are using these concepts as window dressing or hot marketing buzzwords and skating over what they really mean or involve. Nowhere is this more obvious then when one looks at where the money for projects actually gets spent. For example, all design processes should focus on understanding the problems end users face, and what a positive outcome for them (and for the business creating the solution) might look like. At this point there is space for creativity and play; room to experiment and test. This is important because it’s all part of the de-risking process; saving expensive blushes and shame later.

However, many businesses that use the terms ‘design thinking’ and ‘human centric design process’ actually skip this bit. It’s time consuming and can be costly, especially if you use traditional research models. They don’t spend time and money at the front end building real insight about the problem they are trying to solve. Instead — and because bigger margins can be made from outsourcing the later build phases to cheaper offshore workforces — they speed through this and cut to the solution delivery prematurely, often with dire results.

Design done dumb

One example of the failure to focus on the front end and ‘do design right’ includes the National Programme for Information Technology (NPfIT) project, in which the NHS contracted with a variety of firms including Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to deliver a better patient record management system. It was a complex project with many moving parts, but tellingly it lacked serious and ongoing dialogue with the people who would be using and managing its outputs — the doctors, nurses and other technology and healthcare professionals who would use what it created. These end users repeatedly warned of problems but were ignored. In the end, the whole project careened out of control and crashed, costing the taxpayer over £10 billion. There are many other projects like this too, some smaller and some similarly spectacular in the size of their fail, and they’re giving ‘design thinking’ and design generally a bad name. Bad for design, bad for business and definitely bad for our industry as a whole.

But the news is not all grim. I believe we’re at an unprecedented moment in history. While we are able to access technology and skills to build businesses at lightning speed, we’re also starting to see a reaction against this kind of ‘shallow’ use of design. Witness the increased churn rates and disconnection between highly skilled employees and the businesses they are involved in. Or the explosion in startup culture: people who are brave enough to get out and go for it.

My interpretation is that the game is up. People who know what design really is — or who at least are tired of over-promising and under-delivering — are leaving companies that dishonour design principles and potential. They have a bigger vision and one where they can play a more direct part in producing more meaningful and humanly satisfying work; where they can do design ‘right’. They see the opportunities presented by the confluence of technology, talent and capital and they are going for it, big time. Proof of this is a recent report from StartUp Britain, which showed that entrepreneurs are setting up 80 startups per hour. For them, (in fact, for us, because I’m included in this number) they are deciding to take the road less travelled, to be bold and take direct action to create a more meaningful life for themselves and the people they design for. 

People, purpose, profit

I believe design works best only when it is used in the service of creating positive outcomes for people. If our purpose as designers is to make things more meaningful to humans, then it will drive increased adoption, behavioural change, ongoing use, and as a result, cash flow. For example, at Big Radical and with The XDs I’m currently working on solutions to help people with cancer who have difficulties sleeping, and on another project around young people and depression. We involve end users and other specialists right from the start and all the way through the design process. Partners include Cancer Research UK and The National Centre for Universities and Business.

The point is that we are spending time with the people we are designing for. We are looking at needs and then using our design acumen and inspiration to create better solutions — solutions that enable people to feel less alone, more connected, less ashamed and ultimately, a little better about their situation. The end user decides whether what we make has value and meaning, not the person running the profit and loss sheet. It’s the real deal. And it works: 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. 

More of the bad stuff

So if you’re looking for nothing more than immediate income (as distinct from profit), you’re probably going to design for eyeballs and clicks and that’s all. What you’ll do is design to the shallowest of human senses. People (including your clients) will pick up the new, bright shiny thing you’ve created but they won’t stay loyal or continue to interact with it for long, and they probably won’t do much of what you want them to. Income will dry up fast and profit will be minimal and unsustained. You will have wasted your time and your money, and the goodwill that might have come with getting agreement to run the project in the first place.

Why do I say this? What evidence do I have? Take a look at Hailo, Google Wave and Pebble, SpoonRocket or Paper from Facebook. They all had funding and access to a decent team but they all failed because they didn’t cover off basic design questions like: Who am I designing for? What do they need? What else is out there already? Will what I create change how people behave? How will it deliver functional value and delight?

But there is another way to design for users: changing how we encounter the world. How we think about and respond to things in a deeper, much more satisfying way has too often been neglected in the use of design in an industrial context.

On top of this, the way that traditional industry and business structures are put together can stifle design-led innovation. The structures of businesses themselves are often not organised around delivering a customer experience or delivering to people’s needs. There is a focus on short-term metrics.

The misappropriation of an age-old discipline is also cultural. It’s the result of the way businesses and industries are structured, managed and incentivised — silo-ed, rigid and slow — when it should be fast, adaptive and lean. Organisations or businesses that have reshaped the world such as Amazon, Uber or Google — love them or hate them — have taken risks and use processes that are about being bold and experimenting at speed.

And finally there’s an outpacing of consultants by clients and many are buying in their innovation capability and design thinking. You can see that this is true in M&A activity: they are basically buying speed, agility and organisations that have a focus on the end user.

Design for humans and towards creating behavioural change

Good design is the practice of changing people’s behaviour and delivering a range of different types of upside, for users, for the business or client, and for society too. This is true whether you’re working on a commercial or charitable project, product or service.

If you want people to do what you want them to do, you have to create things that will get their attention that will connect to their values and needs, generate use value, usefulness, and delight. Everything – impact on society, or impact bottom line, or helping people culturally rethink or reappraise something: it all comes through that initial act of design and spending time at the front end with the people you are designing for. Then comes your own talent and inspiration as a designer — deciding where you could create a behaviour-changing experience.

At Big Radical we are being bold. We are putting our money, brains, talent, skills and passion where our mouths are. We’re taking the road less travelled and clearing the way as we go, so we and the other folks we work with can design 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.

We’re also doing it because we want to be ourselves. We want to be the best we can be as human beings. As such we’re attempting to reclaim the honourable discipline of design, and to create a more purposeful, people-centred industrial culture as we do it.

By Alex Barclay, Strategy and Innovation Director, Big Radical

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.