The Challenge to Design Business

By Arne Brekenfeld

If you talk about design in Germany, you’ll find a very one-dimensional way of seeing things. To put it crudely, the general perception is still that design is about “making things look nice“ or “polishing the surface.“ Using design to impact innovation and transformation processes, as well as brand development, is not yet widely recognized. Even though the quality of German design is exceptionally high and there’s a strong design tradition dating back to the Bauhaus school almost a century ago, Germans often underestimate the potential of design.

In other countries, especially the US and the UK, people increasingly use design to solve business challenges. The concept of design, especially its impact on corporate strategy, business processes, and the methodological competence of companies, is broader and more fully developed. It’s not a coincidence that approaches like design thinking were invented at Stanford and then adapted by American innovation consultants for application in organizations. The perception of design as a holistic creation method (team, space, process) is deeply anchored in the American economy and society.

Design Transforms Business

Take, for example, the digital transformation, an essential topic for companies today. What are the implications for people and employees? How can one calm their fears of eventually being at the losing end of this development? Here design can help. It can play a key role in the creation of those transformational processes. It can create a positive vision for the future. It can help inspire people, reassure them, and thereby set free a forward-thinking spirit and motivation.

Going forward, design companies will be the enablers of future visions and new product and services. They will be the facilitators of the transformations that secure the future viability of companies. They will involve people and organizations to prepare them for change.

As a result of this new role for design, German design firms have to transform themselves. There will still be corporate design studios working with the “classic“ positioning + visual identity + guidelines approach.

But to provide the holistic creation method, design firms of the future will require totally different capabilities.

New Skills for a New World

The skillsets of strategists, architects, and UX and graphic designers need to go far beyond brand positioning or visual identity. Design companies today have to take the business realities of their clients into account, understand user needs on all levels, collaborate more closely with clients to affect real change, and be able to design products, services, and experiences in great detail. It means being close to the client by working on site and using agile, interactive processes with the help of methods like design thinking. It also means that design companies have to deliver greater creative excellence to cover all touchpoints from digital to analog.

New Cooperation Models

As the role of design in changing processes within companies gradually gains importance, the offerings of design firms and traditional management consulting firms converge.

Today, management consultancies establish their own creative units, either through the establishment of their innovation and design divisions or through acquisitions of design or innovation firms.

Going forward, design will be part of, or a even driver of, process change at the executive level. Whereas management consultancies initiate these kinds of changes through broad restructuring projects, design firms use their collaborative methods and innovation competencies to drive the realignment and thus the future viability of the company. With this new way of collaborating, the classic management consultancies get access to creative, inventive competencies that they could hardly recruit or credibly perform by themselves. Thus, all stakeholders — corporations, consultancies, and design firms — benefit from this development.

Coming back to my opening statement about design being underestimated in Germany. The developments described above show that this has started to change. But the transformation is still at an early stage compared to the US and the UK, which lead the way.

Arne Brekenfeld is CEO of MetaDesign. 

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