Differentiate Through Design: Standing Out In A Competitive Market — by Emin Tatosian, CTO & Co-founder

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January 12, 2023

First published on Forbes.

Design plays a crucial role in shaping the world that we live in, from the objects around us to the services that we consume daily.

With increasing competition for mindshare, design is often a crucial differentiator for elevating a product or service from an otherwise crowded market. Small wonder, then, why many companies are turning to design in their ongoing quest for relevance and growth. Some companies have even created the chief design officer role, an influential C-suite position that Jony Ive, the legendary industrial designer of Apple, once held.

However, design and creativity don’t always sit comfortably with traditional business doctrine. The unpredictable discovery process that precedes breakthrough design is full of trials and errors, which can seem wasteful rather than a byproduct of healthy experimentation. Companies with this mindset often treat design as an afterthought, only applying a last-minute veneer on an essentially complete product, thereby shortcutting an otherwise fruitful process.

By contrast, adopting design earnestly can shape an entire company, not just a single product. This holistic approach goes beyond cosmetic characteristics to influence every aspect of a company, evoking a deep emotional connection and establishing strong brand loyalty.

For example, consider how Apple has crafted a polished end-to-end experience that exudes quality and desirability: inviting physical stores that respect local sensibilities, slick packaging that’s become synonymous with the Cupertino giant, and seamless interoperability between its devices that delight a broad demographic of users. Indeed, design has been crucial in helping Apple climb to and remain at the top of a fiercely competitive global market.

Weaving design into every part of a company can be an immensely potent differentiator. However, making it work requires the right company culture, talent, tools, techniques, and guiding principles. Here are three tips on how to get started.

1. Build a design capability

While most people tend to have a design opinion, only some have the training or taste to be professional designers. An experienced practitioner will use tools, techniques, and guiding principles to drive the process. Invest in a design capability if you’re serious about the function; it’s no different from having a finance or engineering team.

Other than directly hiring or outsourcing, engaging a consultancy is another way to kick-start your design efforts. This approach can help inject know-how into your organization while giving you time to build your in-house capability. If you opt for this route, push for a fixed-cost statement of work engagement and a plan to taper consultant involvement as you build your own team.

2. Cultivate a design-friendly culture

A design-friendly culture values design as a critical driver of business success and integrates the process into all aspects of the organization. Focus on the following areas to cultivate the right culture:

  • Seek buy-in from leadership by helping them see the value of design and get their commitment to incorporate it into decision-making at all levels
  • Empower designers by giving them authority and tools for user research, prototyping, and testing
  • Encourage cross-functional collaboration between designers and other teams, such as product managers, developers, and marketing.
  • Create a safe space for experimentation by accepting failure as a feature of the road to meaningful breakthroughs
  • Create a positive and supportive environment by celebrating individuals across the organization who help drive good design outcomes

3. Be patient

Design is often a drawn-out process of creatively and systematically solving complex problems. It involves showing deep empathy for users, carefully defining a problem, coming up with potential solutions, prototyping, and testing. Therefore, it’s important to remember that design isn’t a tap you turn on to see immediate results. It takes time for the process to become an integral part of your culture and deliver desirable outcomes.

Ultimately, design is a form of expression your company can use to convey ideas, emotions, and vision. Good design can help attract customers and build brand loyalty, leading to a competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded market.

As Tom Watson Jr., the second president of IBM, said, “Good design is good business.”

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