How far has the economic case for design come?

Your business case for investing in design will include both qualitative and quantitative evidence. This blog focuses on the economics of innovation so we won’t spend to much time on qualitative arguments like case studies, war stories and theoretical arguments. Instead the focus is on ways that you can make a compelling financial and economic business case for design.

Design Thinking in business
The business value of design thinking is being more and more widely recognised.

That said, you’ll still need to balance both by including examples along with your analysis and there’s a great post from back in 2007 by Brian Gillespie who had just attended the DMI Conference “Improving and Measuring Design’s Role in Business Performance“ which cried out for more case studies and more qualitative examples. In short, he wanted to see more effort put into articulating the role of design in:

  • Influence on the purchasing decisions
  • Enabling strategy (new markets)
  • Enabling product and service innovation
  • Reputation/awareness/brand value
  • Time to market/process improvement
  • Customer experiences
  • Cost savings/ROI
  • Developing communities of customers
  • Good design is good for all: triple bottom line accounting for social, environmental, and business impact

Since 2007 a lot of evidence has emerged on each of these and we’ll be reviewing them in turn over the next couple of weeks and including a few new areas where design can add value. Paste any of your favorite micro-examples of end user centred design and design thinking adding practical economic value in the comments below and we’ll include them as we go.

Accounting for innovation

It’s surprisingly easy to use accounting to measure the impact of design. In accounting terms, the impact of your design project will be similar to the “economic” impact we discussed last time, but the language you use to articulate the impact will be very different.

From a design perspective, you’ll need to apply some empathy to your use of terminology. It might not be fun, but like driving a car on a windy road, you’ll need to treat your accountant the way they want to be treated. If you’re going to get the best from them.

Accounting gives us a language to measure the results of innovation.

Wherever you are from in the world the technical accounting terms might differ but, your finanical controller, Chief Financial Officer and accountant will be interested in any project that can:

  1. Increase your revenue
  2. Lower your cost of goods sold
  3. Deliver a higher contribution margin (and gross margin)
  4. Lower your overheads from capital costs
  5. Create more earnings before interest in tax (EBIT)
  6. Ensure ongoing positive cash-flow

Each of these areas are important to design and innovation. What you might notice is missing is the word “profit”. This is because in today’s business climate:

Profit is an opinion, cash is a fact.

Designing the business case for a new product is an integral part of bringing something new to life. For an idea to be sustainable it needs to fit into the company’s aspirations, investment profile and business model.

Top 5 videos to help you build the case for design

The Technology, Entertainment and Design conferences are an amazing collection of speakers, attendees and energy. What really makes them special for me is the arbitrary 18 minute format that forces every speaker into a high-energy summary of their best material.

These summaries make the TED talks ideal ways for you to expose people in your organisation to new ideas in an easy, punchy and quick way.

Picking a top five is a hard task but I’d suggest that you do make the time to watch a couple of these and send the links to your colleagues.

Sir Ken Robinson on why schools kill creativity:

Tim Brown on creativity and play:

Paul Bennett on design in the details:

William McDonough on cradle to cradle:

David Kelly on human centered design:

You can download mp3 versions or save these videos to your ipod by visiting www.ted.com. I’ve found the best way to foward them on is to copy and paste the links to the page for each particular talk that you want to send to someone. Then they can choose the format to watch or download. For example:

1. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

2. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/tim_brown_on_creativity_and_play

3. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/paul_bennett_finds_design_in_the_details

4. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/william_mcdonough_on_cradle_to_cradle_design

5. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/david_kelley_on_human_centered_design

Statistics on design investment

The best defence in your business case for investment in design is the impact of design on the long-term financial value of the business. There are several reputable organisations that have spend quite some time and money to analyse how spending on design creates impact on the bottom line.

Design Innovation Ireland
Design Innovation Ireland has some great stats on business and design.

Interbrand have some fantastic international analysis on the Best Global Brands 2008 and they discuss how to value your brand based on future earnings using:

  1. Forecast financials
  2. Economic analysis
  3. How your brand influences ongoing consumer demand

The Design Council UK found in 2001 that a basket of companies using design grew by around 10% faster than the market. The Danish Design Centre found in 2006 that out of 800 companies (staff from 35-200) those that use design had growth in gross result (gross profit discussed above) of 250% compared with companies that did not.

In 1993 Roy R. and Potter S. (of the Open University in the UK) found in a study called Winning by Design that 94% of projects using design that were implemented achieved a positive net return. On average the payback period was 14.5 months. Interestingly, product design projects took 15.9 months to pay for themselves and graphics/packaging projects took 11.5 months.

The Irish Center for Design Innovation gets design and innovation in a big way and it’s worth pointing your finance team towards them to check out the financial models for assessing an investment in design.

Armed with your economic levers, your accounting impacts, the specific forecasts and some aggregate data to support your assumptions you are now ready to face your CFO.

Business case for design

This post analyses the business case for design using the fundamentals of micro-economics and financial accounting.

Let’s run through how you (as a product development professional) can use the language of economics and finance to articulate the return on investment of design expenditure. In particular, in the areas of brand, product and process. You can also look at how to articulate the business wide impact of incorporating design thinking into your company’s vision, culture and strategy.

We can use a USD$100,000 engagement with an external product design and innovation firm as an example. The aim of this project will be to develop a product that anticipates latent needs, delights end-users and delivers an integrated holistic experience. However before you or your external product designers get to any of that you’ll need to get past your CEO, senior management team, CFO and their corporate finance team. We’ll address the CEO first.

Economic returns from investing in design

The key levers available to your firm’s senior management include the price, quantity, variable costs and fixed costs of your business. To convince the CEO and senior management team of the benefit of the project you’ll want to address the real life impact of the project in each of these areas. You will need to convince them that with the aid of a disciplined approach to NPD and an empathetic approach to design, your project will create a product that:

  1. Commands a higher price because it is differentiated from your competition.
  2. Sells a higher quantity because it provides more utility to the customer.
  3. Can be produced with lower variable cost.
  4. Is designed to allow for lower fixed costs.

Each of these economic levers contributes to the ultimate goal of your CEO which is usually some variation on creating a sustained and differentiated high margin revenue stream.

You will need to have command of the above financial terms and be able to structure your business case accordingly. The attention span of senior management teams is shortening and a good summary (in terms they understand) is important.

The internal finance team will have their own requirements for your project so speaking their language can help increase you chances of getting a project approved.

Why design?

Everyone had a dream as a child. A fireman, a police officer, a pilot or a doctor. Every so often you meet someone who says their dream was to be a stockbroker or company executive. It throws you off balance because it’s so seemingly mundane, but it’s usually true. Some people just knew what they wanted to do from a young age and make it happen.

Peter Thomson Design Strategy
I love the discipline of design because it brings ideas to life as tangible products.

My dream was always to be a management consultant. Mainly because I always noticed bad customer experiences and believed we can do better. My first adult book (at age 11) was Iacocca. It was a ridiculously nerdy book for a kid to read but I was inspired by the journey of turning around a distressed business. Reading it subtly changed the course of my life.

Continue reading Why design?

Resume tips for a career in innovation

I get asked a lot for advice about how to get a job in advertising, design or PR. Most of the people that ask me are looking for jobs as a strategist, planner, consultant or account manager. It’s not easy to get started in brand strategy and innovation.

CV Advice for strategy jobs
Brand strategy, design thinking and social media are fascinating careers but you’ve got to build your business credibility early on.

Over the years, I’ve compiled the most important things to check in your resume when applying for jobs in innovation, design and business strategy. I’ve also kept track of the best career advice that I’ve been given…

Continue reading Resume tips for a career in innovation