Brands that employ design thinking are perhaps easier to spot than they used to be.

That’s because we interact with many fast-growing digital businesses primarily through our screens.

So, for a service like Deliveroo (which delivers somebody else’s product), aside from meeting the delivery person at the door, we know the brand purely as an app experience (and from noting the colourful riders in the street).

Of course, there are plenty of design-led brands that don’t interact with their customers via an interface, only through a product. The famous ones are easy to call to mind – Dyson, for example.

Then, most interestingly, there are brands that are trying to digitally transform their businesses, such as in financial services. In many of these rapidly changing businesses design is starting to gain greater influence over business strategy.

Having already tried to get the bottom of the theory around design thinking (see previous articles), I thought I’d round up some examples of brands that employ design thinking. Here are 10 of them…

1. Capital One

Capital One raised eyebrows back in 2014 when it acquired San Francisco design and UX consultancy Adaptive Path. This was (fairly obviously) Capital One’s attempt to quickly bolster an internal digital design consultancy.

Adaptive Path co-founder Jesse James Garrett wrote of the buyout, “You can see where this is going, right? Somebody came along who finally, truly, seemed to get it.”

He continued, “A company with a great culture that shares and values our intellectual curiosity and design sensibilities, that wants us to continue doing great work inside their organization, but also continue helping others do great work too, by fostering dialogue and teaching what we have learned.”

The following year, Capital One acquired another digital design firm, Monsoon, which specialises in product development. Techcrunch reported that this was partly an attempt at influencing culture.

Sandeep Sood, co-founder of Monsoon, describes the company as an intentionally small team where individual ownership is the norm. “There’s very little centralized management…we let developers make design decisions on a daily basis. We expect it from them, in fact.”

So, over the past few years, Capital One has invested considerably in its design chops. View the company’s Labs website and you’ll see plenty of evidence of design-led culture, including the obligatory Medium blog posts that transparently discuss the brands appraoch to design and development.

In 2013, Capital One appointed Scott Zimmer as its first head of design, and in 2016 the brand appointed a head of design in the UK team, Aline Baeck, who moved from eBay’s design team.

We can get a good idea of Capital One’s burgeoning design culture through InVision’s Clair Byrd and her interview with Ryan Page, Capital One’s head of design for card partnerships.

Ryan says “Designing with a human perspective is key to developing a human strategy. To develop a strategy in the absence of a strong human need or a perspective on how real people see the world, well, that’s a strategy that won’t be as powerful as it might be if it’s created in collaboration with design.”

He continues, “We’re not saying design should create strategy by itself—we think design should be a co-creation between design, engineering, and the business. You can’t move forward without business value, but if the business value doesn’t prioritize human desirability, then we’d certainly feel like that strategy isn’t going to be as successful as it could long term.”

capitalone labs

2. Airbnb

Airbnb was founded by two designers (Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky) and there has been lots of coverage of its community focused approach.

Age of Design, a recent series by Design Week, includes a documentary shot in the Airbnb offices in which Joe Gebbia discusses the creation of a design-led business (watch below).

Each project team at Airbnb incudes a project manager whose explicit role is to represent the customer.

Though customer focus may seem like a banality, its value has been proven by digital unicorns. Writing eloquently for the Age of Design series, Amanda Gosling describes how digital disruption has provided ‘the digital capability to match an individual who needs a service with another individual who can provide one.’

This means, she continues, that ‘organisations are shifting away from focusing on products and services to instead focus on the what the consumer needs holistically’. This is why design must now impact on business strategy.

3. Square

Square offers products that are easy to use and understand; this focus on simplified functionality comes squarely (ahem) from design thinking.

In a talk at Stanford on the role of CEO as editor, Square founder and CEO Jack Dorsey puts it thus: “We have all these inputs, we have all these places that we could go…but we need to present one cohesive story to the world.”

Square has improved the hardware and software that small businesses use for payment processing, as well as the entire user experience.

Predictably, other companies followed, producing similarly focused products that better satisfy user needs.

Square Cash app

square cash  square cash

4. GE

GE has been transforming into a digital industrial company for the past four to five years.

There’s a slide in a 2013 presentation by Greg Petroff, chief experience officer at GE, that neatly encapsulates the role of design for any company that brings products to market.


GE’s transformation has seen it move from selling industrial engineering to packaging it together with wraparound services, using its Predix data platform.

This transition to services means the company has had to focus more on customer needs than ever. To that end, GE set up its own design and UX studio.

“The demand for user experience (UX) and design within GE is growing,” says Greg Petroff.

“UX is a profession that’s really about understanding how people work – understanding their context and finding out what they’re trying to accomplish. Gaining this empathy for our users helps us develop novel solutions that enable them to accomplish their goals more quickly.”

Designers and developers work side-by-side, building and testing to help bring clarity to the data and analytics now available to customers.

5. Netflix

According to Forbes, even as far back as 2001, Netflix founder Reed Hastings was spending $10m a year on research into streaming.

That is as good a fact as any to show just how design driven and customer driven Netflix is. The same article puts Netflix’s design-led approach down to four rules:

  • Think Big – Netflix wasn’t afraid of disrupting its existing DVD delivery business
  • Start Small – The company didn’t rush headlong into a new product, until the time was right
  • Fail Quickly – Early attempts at streaming were abandoned. Know when to fold your hand
  • Scale Fast – Netflix has done this by quickyl moving into original content, putting pressure on networks

We’re all familiar with the excellence of Netflix’s platform – card design, AI-led recommendations, great UX – but Netflix’s design-led approach is more than digital design. It encompasses partnerships across the entire customer audio-visual journey.

A post on LinkedIn by Haydn Sallmann demonstrates this, highlighting the way a friend was turned from DVDs to Netflix after discovering the Netflix button on the remote for his new internet-enabled DVD player.

There is even evidence of Netflix’s focus on customer experience in their more fun and gimmicky marcomms. For the release of the new Gilmore Girls series, Netflix produced a binge candle, which releases a different scent every 90 minutes to coincide with each episode.

6. Virgin Atlantic 

Virgin Atlantic has a reputation for value and for a brand that comes with a certain nod and a wink, a vibrancy that you don’t see from other airlines.

As Lee Coomber puts it, ‘a committment to having fun and absolutely knowing its customer.’

‘This can be seen in the end-to-end customer experience: from the way the cabin crew chats with customers to the on-board bar, designed purely to facilitate that conversation; or from seat design and the edgy safety film to advertising and airline lounges.’

Luke Miles is head of design, leading a multidisciplinary team that covers service design, industrial design and brand design.

Back in 2012, he told Design Week ”The team has two critical roles. The first is to finely craft the customers’ end-to-end experience through the physical, digital and service realms. This spans multiple touch-points, from the experience of one of our global clubhouses to a glass on-board.”

“The design team are not only responsible for all project work, but are also tasked with ensuring the overall experience is joined up and well-curated. This involves taking projects right from inception, through to final launch and also to review the product life cycle.”

“The second concerns brand guardianship. Importantly this element is both internal and externally facing and focuses on the culture of the organisation and how this links to the external experience of our customers.”

A pretty succinct definition of the function of a design team, I think you’ll agree.

Another Virgin airline, Virgin America produced arguably the most noteworthy website and booking service of 2014. The site included fun imagery and animation, streamlined user experience, and a bold look – this made booking tickets not only easier (fewer mistakes) but also less painful.

Virgin America

virgin america

7. O2

O2 has a Customer Centred Design (CCD) team, set up in 2013 to provide a structure and process for service design.

The CCD team brings together different departments in visioning, crystallising and prove-it stages, before full product development is embarked upon.

As described by O2’s CMO (in the Design Council’s Leading by Design report), design at the company “is not about the look and feel. It is about being deliberate.”

Collaboration and iteration are important tenets of the CCD approach, which extends to finding the simplest commercial models for new products and services.

Fruit borne by the CCD includes the My O2 app, shown below.

my o2 app

8. IBM

“There’s no longer any real distinction between business strategy and the design of the user experience.”

That’s what Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services, has previously stated in the press and it’s a fantastic quote.

As IBM has a history of design (‘good design is good business’), provides design services, and is investing $100m in building a design-led organisation, you’d expect it to be eating its own dog food, and indeed it is.

Phil Gilbert, general manager of design at IBM, has discussed the company’s approach on his blog, saying that ‘Design is everyone’s job. Not everyone is a designer, but everybody has to have the user as their north star.’

This focus is evident in IBM’s training of its staff, with 100,000 taking part by the end of 2016. Designers have been tripled since 2013, now numbering 1,300.

As Quartz points out in an article on the brand’s restructuring, IBM now also employs design researchers – ‘formally trained ethnographers with MFA degrees to probe how their solutions are working in the real world’.

A collaborative and group meeting-based culture has been forged, with an emphasis on transparency. Gilbert has also stated that IBM had to revamp its internal systems, moving to collaborative platforms such as GitHub, Slack, and MURAL.


9. Barclays

Though banks haven’t traditionally been associated with design culture, they have adapted quickly to changes in the media habits of their customers.

Barclays, alongside some digital-first startup banks like Mint, is arguably recognised as one of the leaders of digital transformation in retail banking.

Barclays mobile banking has a net promoter score of +62, with a banking app and a transfer app (Pingit) that have garnered considerable praise.

For some time now, the bank has had a chief design officer and an in-house design department that brings together business, technology and control to focus on customer needs. In a post on Medium, Daniel Santos highlights how circumstances have dictated this focus:

“The financial crisis and the increased tight regulation keep challenging the banking sector. This forced banks to think more out of the box and being more creative about their services and products.”

“Barclays reframed these circumstances as opportunities to connect with customers and their needs.”



10. PepsiCo

In 2012, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi appointed Mauro Porcini (formerly 3M) as Pepsi’s first chief design officer, with a growing team based in Soho, New York.

Nooyi told the Harvard Business Review last year that design thinking is now driving innovation within the company and is ensuring that “products look like they’re tailored to the right cohort groups.”

This means rethinking snacks for women, for example, including a stacked crisp that comes in a plastic tray so they can be eaten easily and cleanly and don’t have to be consumed in one visit. They’re also less noisy to eat.

Pepsico has also been pushing a test and learn approach in the Japanese and Chinese markets. In Japan, the Pepsi brand has introduced new versions and flavours (such as cucumber), which, if they don’t sell well, can be withdrawn after three months – an approach that may be brough to the US market.

Nooyi speaks to HBR about the challenge of creating a culture of design across such a large organisation:

“In the past, being decentralized was our strength, but also our weakness. It’s a fine approach when the whole world is growing and life is peachy. But it doesn’t work when things are volatile globally and you need coordination.”

“We’ve given our people 24 to 36 months to adapt. I told everyone that if they don’t change, I’d be happy to attend their retirement parties.”