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Suited up at the CEO Summit

I didn’t see that many personalised t-shirts at day two of the Better by Design CEO summit, despite MC Sean Plunket’s exhortations yesterday. But there are lots of suits. Hard to pick how many are management, and how many are designer (suits with sneakers). My guess is about 60/40 in favour of management—which is probably good news for New Zealand!

Some of yesterday’s strongest themes continue: working with global teams, organisational design and, perhaps most importantly, making money out of this stuff.

Some things don’t sound like design issues at all—customer service, IT infrastructure and PR. But that’s the beauty of true design thinking. It goes beyond the controlled environment of the design studio into the real world of employees, business partners, distributors, retailers and customers.

Ikea’s former design director, Lars Engman, talked about his chief aim upon joining Ikea: to irritate the company and show them they could do things better. How? By hiring freelance designers to compete with the in-house design team.

Interbrand’s global CEO, Jez Frampton, spoke of the birth of UK online grocer Ocado. Instead of trying to beat giants like Tesco and Sainsbury’s at their own game, they created a high-touch, service-oriented, well-designed grocery experience. How’d they do it? Observation, experimentation and lots of trips back to the drawing board. Easy? No. Expensive? Oh yes. Worth it? You bet.

Bendon CEO Stefan Preston admitted at the outset that his is not (yet) a design-led company, “but we do have some pervy pictures for you”. And he did, along with a tale of business transformation from a brand that was dead in the water to an efficient marketing machine—but it’s not enough. Bendon is bumping up against the limits of FMCG-style marketing, and discovering the need to know what its brand stands for and sharing that throughout the whole organisation.

One clear message comes through from the case studies and presentations here: design is not about avoiding risk. These are entrepreneurial companies led by people who see great opportunity, and are learning to co-operate with their markets to create the best solution. Maybe that’s the heart of design.