Australia’s top tertiary institutions have produced our country’s cream of the business crop; however, has the institutional style of teaching nurtured an environment that breeds best business practice?

Fourteen of Australia’s leading educators and business leaders recently gathered at a Hargraves Institute round table to discuss the importance of design-led thinking in today’s rapidly changing corporate world.

Today’s consumer craves a personalised experience. The outcome nowadays is less about the key internal business stakeholders and more about the end user. Barbara Wozniak from Selleys Yates is a believer in starting with the end in sight, “We have to be doing something better all the time otherwise we won’t stay competitive. It’s about understanding your end user and what they want.”

Allan Ryan from the Hargraves Institute feels that businesses aren’t asking the right questions to determine what end users want.

“Businesses are not taught to determine the real needs of customers, that is left to the designers and, if the business and designers aren’t communicating effectively, they have a problem on their hands,” he said.

Through teaching a design-led thinking business model at university, educators believe consumers and the Australian economy will benefit. Selena Griffith, senior lecturer and coordinator of the Design Management, Practice and Innovation courses at UNSW’s College of Fine Arts provided a real-world example to substantiate this claim.

“We found that designers were creating too complex products to be manufactured. This created an untenable level of faulty product, a great cost on the company. When we got designers talking to the workers and manufacturers in order to understand what made the products difficult to make, we solved this and increased revenue by $7 million. The more profitable company was sold; they took out the designers and their income dropped by half.”

So what is design-led thinking?

It is generally considered a whole systems approach providing the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyse and fit solutions to the context.

Traditionally, senior management have started with the initial problem and worked with internal stakeholders to find a solution to that particular problem. However, this style of thought starts with exactly what the consumer wants and works back to achieve a business solution.

Steve Jobs pioneered a design-led style of thinking at Apple. He took a simple concept, the Walkman, and designed a fully integrated device that consumers could never have imagined they needed, the iPhone. By challenging the paradigm and allowing his thinking to be design-led, he single-handedly revolutionised the consumer music experience (and very much for the better).

Adopting design-led thinking

Harry Fine, head of new product development at Selleys Yates, feels that in order for design-led thinking to be taken seriously by senior management, it needs to become relevant to all levels of management.

“Design-led thinking needs to rebrand itself – the concept of designers verses non-designers is not helpful, organisations need to work out what everyone’s roles are in relation to design. For example, the CEO must design the organisation. If we rebrand design thinking, Australia will be one step ahead of the rest of world,” said Fine.

Professor Sam Bucolo, chair of design and innovation at Queensland University of Technology, and about to take up a post at UTS, has been a key supporter of design-led thinking. He agrees corporate Australia needs to break down barriers between designers and non-designers.

“Labelling people in the innovation space ‘designers’ created barriers we don’t need,” said Bucolo.

Professor Roy Green, dean of the business school at UTS, acknowledges the importance of an interactive environment in education today to drive the capabilities of tomorrow’s business leaders.

“We need to create an interactive environment for students where they can also learn and understand the broader business skills.”

It is not just the ‘Apples’ of the world that have employed this style of thinking to drive business objectives. Other leading global organisations such as P&G and GE are acknowledging design-led thinking as the way forward.

Morningstar, a leading provider of independent investment research in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia has modelled its business on design-led thinking since its launch in the 1970s. Well ahead of the game, CEO Joe Manfueto has grown the firm to a $3.2 billion business with offices in 27 countries around the world.

Morningstar attributes a portion of its business success to the use of infographics – an output of design-led thinking. With people increasingly time-poor, infographics allow the end user to digest information relevant to them in an easy-to-read format.
Maintaining good judgement

Eric Folger, design principal at AMP, has dedicated his career to solving problems in business through design. He believes the secret to business success is to combine design-led thinking with good judgement.

“Design is about judgement – and good judgement relies on a foundation that’s built from broad experiences. Over time, our approach to education in both design and business has contributed to our judgement becoming flawed due to over-specialisation,” commented Folger.

“Design-led thinking promotes good judgement at the right levels of an organisation, otherwise we inadvertently limit our aspirations and end up with de-risked and mediocre solutions,” concluded Mr Folger.

Design-led thinking has a genuine role to play in corporate Australia, however finding a balance between this style of thinking and traditional linear thinking is key to business success.

Sarah-Jane Sherwood and Anna Longley are from the Hargraves Institute for Innovation.

The full Leading Company article can be viewed here.