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The business of design

Design can no longer be consigned to just the visual layer – or in the inimitable words of a number of our clients and technical partners over the years, the colouring in stuff! 

Grenville Main DNA

Design has always been about more than that. However, stereotypes can become defining.

Whether it’s digital, retail, identity, communications, product or service design, every part of what is done is designed.  Not all people on a project consider themselves designers but the design process includes them and often design thinking is what they are contributing. This means our clients design, non-designers design and customers design things alongside us.

Design is no longer the domain of a select few. Instead, it is an approach to solve problems creatively that works best when it is inclusive and openly collaborative. This is something that has by and large crept up on designers, but it's not a bad thing. Listening and observing are things we've been known for, brainstorming and the vagaries of the creative process have always relied on a range of external inputs and a dash of serendipity.

When more people are contributing to design, the challenge is never to lose sight of what you are using design to do. The trick is to remember that design is about thinking your way to a solution by observing, ideating, testing and prototyping, not by dictating what you want it to deliver at the outset.

Sticking to these rules is definitely required in a collaborative forum. As design professionals our role is as the guardians of the process as much as creative provocateurs or even the party accountable for executing the solution.  This means we need to share our ability to focus on the gap, the challenge and the opportunity and design a solution that is differentiated, feasible and viable. It also means we need to be adept at proving the likely impact of that solution before we embark on building it.

But going a step further and having 'customers' help you design is a challenging notion for some. It means identifying and then engaging intimately with your consumers and being open to having the solution be determined by others. It requires openness, but also some rigor so you are guided by deep seated goals and needs and in order to not be sidetracked by grinches, gripes and unrealistic, un-commercial or unfounded desire.

It's challenging, for sure – but it seems it’s here to stay.

So if design is a more collaborative endeavour now, are consumers better off? The customer-centricity, relevance and intimacy evident in the design of everything from airline travel to banking certainly suggests so.

Is design better off? A diversity of perspectives, a balance between  the voice of the consumer and the will of the guys down in IT and finance can't hurt. Having the customer or user at the centre of a solution is fundamental, best practice for the design process and becoming indicative of the power of the likely outcome. A few notable local examples are TradeMe, Air New Zealand and Powershop – so that should prove it has some worth.

And finally, is our industry better off? It will be when more of the profession adopts and adapts to these new methods. Collaboration, co-creation and co-location are common in the projects we do now, while business imperatives, customer needs and goals direct what we deliver. The new way of designing is here to stay.

Grenville Main is managing director of customer experience design consultancy DNA, a rabid collector and proud owner of the most obscenely messy desk in each of DNA's offices