The Design Council’s Leading Business by Design report offers some valuable strategic advice (which I have abridged and added to here) on how design thinking is managed.

Much of the implementation of design thinking is relevant to the challenges of digital transformation (see my previous article – Why is design thinking suddenly so important?).

So, what should marketers bear in mind?

Understand where design can be applied

Much as design can be owned at different levels of the business hierarchy (depending on the design maturity of a business), design can also be applied with differing degrees of perspective.

That means design thinking is just as likely to influence branding as it is market-expanding innovation or product differentiation.

In the aforementioned Design Council report, understandably a correlation is made between a more strategic business use of design, and a greater business benefit.

The context of design need not be limited – it can apply to working practices, as much as a physical product.

Be customer-centred

We’ve already heard about companies with customer officers or representatives. Design and marketing should work together to solve customer problems, which in turn should generate revenue.

A focus on the aesthetics, functionality and usability of products and services should always be through the lens of the customer.

Design requires empathy, which demands a real understanding of customer pain points, needs, expectations, language and knowledge.

A great design means nothing if the customer doesn’t need, want or understand it.

Collaborate internally and externally

Design thinking requires collaboration between traditional teams or departments, as well as collaboration with the customer.

Internal dialogue and teamwork is a conduit for creativity, allowing colleagues with different skillsets to work on a problem together, rather than in isolation.

The same goes for customers. Though we’ve already discussed customer-centricity, it’s important that customers are involved in the validation of ideas.

Creating your own personas and simply ‘putting yourself in their shoes’ is not good enough, if you want to craft marketing messages that resonate.

Create a structure for design thinking

Providing a more structured and consistent approach to product and service development is what the Fjord methodology is about.

There are other considerations, most notably about how to enshrine a cross-functional approach.

Bringing together designers, developers and marketers will inspire greater creativity, sparked by better articulation of a project’s parameters and goals.

IBM defines the process as ‘observe, reflect, make’, with teams aligned to meaningful user outcomes and exchanging regular feedback.

Marketing should be involved in the prototyping and testing phases, to ensure that they have the right information ahead of go-to-market.

Ultimately, design should be an equal partner with technology and strategy.

Design should echo branding

Design should reinforce the brand. The two can sometimes be indistinguishable.

Using Airbnb again as an example, its 2014 rebrand was so successful because it sought to manifest the spirit of its community, which in turn fuels the design process.

Design thinking must be culturally embedded

Support for design must be forthcoming from senior management and the wider organisation.

To embed design at the strategic level, shaping business strategy and influencing product and service development from beginning to end, there should be a sponsor on the board.

A design manager should ideally report into this sponsor and oversee documentation and review of design success. Design has to be championed internally and externally.

Another aspect of culture to be considered is the physical office space, which should aid the working practices of design thinking and reflect the brand.

This isn’t a cure-all, of course, but it’s a common theme of design-led businesses. Airbnb, for example, has meeting rooms fitted out as replicas of rooms from host homes.

Paul Boag’s Econsultancy article on digital-friendly workplaces is a very relevant summary of the office’s impact on problem solving.

Give designers a longer leash

Design should not be seen as limited to brand guidelines and visual design, as it is to many marketers.

The role of designer has the scope to influence the business at a strategic level, and there may therefore be a need for businesses to create new roles.

Those companies lacking a design director may think about employing one. Others may need to empower their design directors in order to reap full benefit.

In summary

As a science graduate, I can’t pretend to have fully got my head around design thinking (hence beginning to write about it). In fact, a commenter on a previous article – What is design thinking? – makes the point that term itself may be a red herring.

It’s a conceptual bar of soap that is perhaps best understood by looking at companies that are applying it. From Airbnb to the Co-op, there are plenty of people shouting about design-led business and implementing their own clearcut methods.

Reading Co-op’s digital blog, I encountered a link to GCHQ’s Boling Frogs report, which is subtitled ‘Technology organisations need to change radically to survive increasing technical and business disruption.’

Though the document isn’t about the broad theme of design, there are lots of recommendations for technical design that feel pertinent for marketers (particularly in digital). The table below is a fantastic example.

As businesses become tech-led, they necessarily have to be design-led.

changes to tech led businesses