In the past decade, we’ve witnessed a sea change in the way the business world regards design. But even as leading brands embrace the “good design is good business” mantra, neither designers nor business leaders in the U.S. have been able to produce a measurement for calculating how investment in design actually translates into profits.
Design professionals in the U.K., however, are taking steps to connect the dots between design and profitability. The London-based Design Business Association is leading the way with its annual Design Effectiveness Awards, which recognize design work not on its visual merits, but on how it meets the client’s business objectives.
Deborah Dawton, DBA’s chief executive (and HOW MYOB speaker), took some time to talk with HOW about how her organization promotes good design as a business strategy and what creative professionals—not just in the U.K. but in the States, as well—can do to convince clients of design’s bottom-line value.
How does DBA connect the two disciplines in its name: design and business? What is its primary mission?
The Design Business Association was founded in 1986 to recognize, communicate and reward the integral role design plays in commercial success. DBA’s role is to promote professional excellence in the design industry. We do that by fostering productive relationships between commerce and the design industry to champion effective design, which improves the quality of people’s lives. The association’s big focus for the past two years has been on “bringing business to design,” building the performance and prosperity of design agencies. To that end, we’ve done salary surveys, established a business helpline and provided legal advice to design professionals. We’ve also added training courses and workshops. We’ve repositioned our Design Effectiveness Awards to be more business-focused, and we’re putting a lot more emphasis on outward communications about the value of design.
Tell us about the Design Effectiveness Awards and how they help reinforce the relationship between design and business results. What are the criteria for judging the awards, and what type of commercial data do you use to evaluate the entries?
The Design Effectiveness Awards recognize projects that can demonstrate the design’s tangible effect on the client’s business. We’re the only awards scheme to use commercial data as a key judging criteria. We ask entrants to present proof beyond any doubt that the client’s business problem was solved by the design solution. Were sales targets outperformed? If so, by how much? Was company turnover affected? Did the company’s share price go up after the design was complete? Did the new design cut print and production costs or otherwise impact profit margins? What are the numbers? Did the design have social implications? What are they? How long did it take for the design work to deliver a return on investment?
We reviewed our criteria about three years ago because the entries were becoming increasingly difficult to judge. We were getting some entries that were up to 40 pages long. We decided there’s a real discipline in being able to summarize a project succinctly. So we set about designing a way to deliver the project information so that the entries were uniform and easier to review. It still allows the agencies to put their footprint on it, but they’re presenting the information in a way that considers that judges may have to read 30 or 40 case studies and draw comparisons from them. We don’t dictate the style of the entry, we just ask them to present the information in a particular order. Also, we really encourage design agencies to work with their business clients in putting the submission together. They really need the client’s help to gather all the data they need to make a convincing case. And the entries are jointly submitted by the agencies and their clients.
So the Design Effectiveness Awards are not your typical “beauty contest.” How much consideration goes to the aesthetics of an entry?
Sometimes the most effective design is also the most beautiful, but not always. You may find a creative agency designing for a particular audience such that a particular look and feel is required. So it’s massively effective, but not that great-looking. That’s a debate that does come up, where a piece of work has been effective in achieving client goals, but the design industry doesn’t see it as a beautiful piece of work.
For the last five years, we’ve had design management specialists chairing our panel of judges. In other words, our judges are the clients, not the designers. We ask for very few images of the work. So the look of an entry doesn’t actually affect the judging all that much. Our judges have commissioned a lot of design work, so they know whether a particular project is a good one or not.
You mentioned that you encourage designers to consult with clients when submitting work to the Design Effectiveness Awards. What are other ways to improve that designer/client collaboration?
Ah, this speaks to my biggest hobby horse, which is that the design industry in general lacks the confidence to articulate the value they add to their clients. We’re a predominately right-brained industry selling our services to left-brained clients. Given that that’s what designers have to do in order to run a profitable business, it surprises me that they don’t spend a bit more time getting it right.
When designers start understanding the meaning of things like gross margin, net margin and return on investment, they also understand the impact they’re having on their client’s business. Partly due to a lack of training in business management, designers often don’t appreciate their clients’ business issues, and this in turn hampers their ability to create effective design. If you can talk to business people in their own language, the partnership will be much more productive.
Where we find a lot of design/business partnerships trip up is in basic communication—if you go back to the brief the client sent to the designer, it doesn’t specify the problem to be solved, let alone any parameters for measuring success. That makes it very difficult for the designer to develop an effective solution.
So a lot of what we do is educating clients about how to challenge their designers to solve their business problems. The focus is on outcomes: What are the targets the designers need to deliver on? If we put the focus there, it works for both partners, because we’ll see a lot less concern from the clients about whether the designer used green or blue, or whatever. You don’t want the conversations dropping down to that level, where you have someone who isn’t qualified entering into the domain of the expert designer. If you keep the conversation on business goals, you can stay away from that conversation.
Why is it so important for designers to quantify the impact of design?
They don’t have to, of course. There are two types of design businesses: first, there are those designers who set out to do the best creative work they can, and business issues come second. Their motivation is creative, and they’re looking for the right clients to work with and the right kinds of projects to work on. It’s possible to run a very successful design firm that way.
But the majority of design firms don’t operate at that level creatively, and many designers put the business end first. Their view is, there’s no point in trying to sell our wares as designers unless we have a business foundation beneath us. You can be a good designer, but unless you can interface with business and sell yourself, it won’t work.
If the design firm is primarily driven by creative intent, it’s possible to grow to 10 or 20 people—but chances are also high that the firm will not survive beyond the working life of the founders.
The flip side is that a firm that’s in business to solve clients’ problems knows that if they’re going to survive in an increasingly competitive market, their business plan needs to be very clear and they need to be driven by business objectives. That will make the business more secure in the long term.
What tools or methods can individual design firms use to measure the effects of their design on clients’ business goals? Should they mirror the same metrics client use to measure their own success?
Most businesses measure everything, down to the last sheet of paper. Different business sectors measure their success in different ways. The issue here is that designers need to understand the measurements that are meaningful to their clients, and work with those. This also requires that designers be prepared to deep-dive and become knowledgeable about their clients’ businesses. Again, it takes sophisticated communication from the client side. What does the design brief say about measurable goals? How do they talk about outcomes? If the two partners don’t communicate about what effectiveness looks like, how can excellent design happen?
Different measures are used depending on the business and the design platform. There’s a fantastic case study where EMI Group moved into new offices and immediately saw their rate of absenteeism drop substantially, despite the fact that the weather that summer had been much warmer than normal. So, technically, they should have seen an increase in absenteeism. In this instance, the designers were hired to create an environment people really wanted to be in. They designed a new cafeteria in the building that was so nice, workers started having their meetings in-house instead of going out. They began to bring clients and suppliers into the building more. As a result, the company also saw a big drop in staff expense claims. So now the designer has solid numbers—the decrease in absenteeism and in staff expenses, both of which affect the company’s bottom line directly.
Here’s another case study: Mann Investments saw a share price rise following the launch of hedge funds because the design of their communications materials was so clear that it made the topic more understandable to the market. In this case it’s not about recycled paper or saving money on printing; it’s about knowing what the client wants the takeaway to be. This requires design agencies to really understand their clients’ needs and design to generate whatever outcomes the clients want.