A Design for Discovery

The design process can lead to powerful and unexpected insights if you abandon preconceived notions and focus on questions rather than answers

Several years ago we were selected to work a new global identity project for Coca-Cola. The main objective and challenge was to inspire a new generation of consumers to connect with the brand. Given that Coca-Cola (KO) is a global presence, we involved designers from our European and Asian offices, and we developed some 200 design ideas.

Our typical process was to then judge initial ideas against criteria set out in the brief, sometimes aided by our clients' knowledge of their consumers. Following this process, we selected a number of designs that we felt responded best to the proposed strategy.

Yet reviewing our selections, it seemed to me that we were limiting ourselves by selecting designs based on such strategic criteria. Because when I looked at the body of work as a whole, the designs conveyed interesting messages that had little to do with the brief.

Searching for Graphic Cues

The world of the Coca-Cola brand as interpreted by those designers was charismatic, sensory, emotional, rich, and inspiring. We began to search for recurring graphic patterns or cues that would reflect this sensory appeal, and show this iconic brand in a different light.

The exercise taught us a lot more about the Coca-Cola brand than we could have imagined, and laid the foundation for a second design brief that ultimately led to the launch of Coke's new identity. The experience also underscored a larger truth about design.

Typically understood at best as a way of problem-solving and at worst as a mere styling exercise, a way of making products or packaging prettier, design in fact has just as much relevance for earlier and later stages of a development. If you accept that the creation process is one of discovery, of asking questions rather than finding answers, you have a new powerful insight into the life of your brand and its potential. As in the Coke example, the design process actually serves as research, uncovering core elements of the brand.

Examples from Scandinavia

And Coke isn't a rare example. I recently attended a design symposium at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) entitled "Innovation by Design." Sponsored by the consulates of Sweden and Finland, the event brought speakers from the top design management of corporations such as Electrolux, Ericsson, and Kronecranes.

At the event, Hans Stråberg, president and chief executive officer of Electrolux, claimed that design has been the driving force behind the evolution of the company for the past 90 years. I asked him point blank if design is the new research. His response: "Our best products came from the industrial [design] department."

Design also has a role to play at the other end of the process: It works at the front end, as research, as much as it does at the back end, in creating tangible products. And design becomes the primary, and most believable, way in which those elements are communicated to consumers. It sends a subliminal or holistic message about a brand's potential and its human connection. In short, designers can be the ambassadors of a brand's potential.

Design Is the Message

This point was driven home by Stig Gustavson, the chairman of the Finnish industrial-equipment maker Konecranes, at the MoMA event. He argued that design was the crucial differentiating agent for companies such as his. "Striving for competitive advantage in an industry with margins as low as 1% to 2% requires skills and imagination," he said. "Design is the message. It helps us communicate our strong point of difference. What you say is not as believable as what you show."

BMW design chief Chris Bangle also sees design as an emotional message, conveying the values of the brand to consumers. You can scream about your brand in advertisements all you want. But "in a post-modern world," he says, "people need to feel your conviction in the design that you create."

What has changed in the business world that has allowed design to extend beyond its styling ghetto into once distinct disciplines? Many things. There's the heightened competition noted by Gustavson, and the related need for a more creative, more inspired development process. There's also the well-documented failure of traditional research methods to lead to products that reflect underlying consumer needs and values.

Many of furniture giant Herman Miller's great products became iconic designs based on little or no traditional research. The designs of Absolut and Red Bull were both initially rejected by focus groups. Designers, instead, use the tools of ethnographic research as well as their own intuition to come up with deeper customer insights. As we found out in our Coca-Cola project, brands can also learn from the emotions that emerge from the design process itself.

Tool Tips

As these examples show, there's more to design than the look and the feel of a product. Design is a discovery process that understands people's emotions and translates that into products and brands that are beautiful, yes, but also appealing, authentic, and ultimately irresistible.

Here are three recommendations to expand the role of design to become a research tool. They encapsulate a message that will help move brands away from commodity toward innovation:

• Use design as a source of insight. Design isn't simply an aesthetic exercise. Designers are consumers, too.

• Ask your designers to design with and against trends, not just against the specifics of a brief that might limit imagination.

• Create a visual brief. Think about your brand in terms of imagery to convey your sense of passion for consumers to designers.

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