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Leveraging Design’s Core


Chris Conley, Professor and Director, Product Design Graduate Program,

Institute of Design, Chicago

Reprint # 04153CON45
This article was first published in DMI Review Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 2004
Delivering Value Through Design
Copyright © Summer 2004 by the Design Management InstituteSM. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
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Leveraging Design’s
Core Competencies
by Chris Conley

I n a triptych of intriguing anecdotes, Chris Conley points out

aspects of designing that add value to the spectrum of activities
within the business enterprise—the ability to engage the context to
and reframe problems, to work abstractly, to visualize, to use form
to embody and communicate ideas, to discover critical relationships,
and to generate meaningful alternatives.

There is a curious tendency, or perhaps professional’s true potential. Whether

it is a deeply held belief, that is evident you are a design consultant or an
when designers talk about their role in in-house designer, as long as you are
business. One might hear something working from the design department,
like, “Business managers should use you’ll be working as a designer, and
design more strategically, but they just not strategically.
Chris Conley, Professor don’t think that way.” Or perhaps, One might ask if what I am suggest-
and Director, Product “Business is just trying to minimize ing is that designers simply give up on
Design Graduate Program, costs. It’s not interested in innovation.” making a living as designers and move
Institute of Design, Over the years, as I have worked with over to the business side (there’s that
Chicago. “them” in so many different ways, I have distinction of “us” and “them” again).
started to wonder more and more: Who That would be the case if the skills and
are “they?” And why are “they” so differ- expertise necessary for the new role were
Design expertise ent from “us?” simply those of finance, operations, and
Historically, design has made a big marketing. But what has been so hard to
can play a distinction between itself and business, fathom, or at least to state explicitly, is
driven primarily by the fact that design that design expertise can play a defini-
definitive role is employed as a service in most situa- tive role as the designer moves from the
as the designer tions. But that distinction is blurring design department to business manage-
rapidly as design and its competencies ment.
moves from the are recognized as having a broad range
design department of applications and value in building The Core Expertise of Design
businesses. Creativity has long been articulated as a
to business The distinction may be blurring, but core expertise of designers. Others
management. the barrier is still there, and until it is include “coming up with new, valuable
gone, we won’t realize the design ideas,” “building brands,” and “helping

Design Management Review Summer 2004 45

Delivering Value Through Design

6. The ability to establish purposeful relation-

clients to innovate.” The trouble with these
ships among elements of a solution and
answers is that they are far too general; they
between the solution and its context
clearly overlap with what is required of other
disciplines; and they provide little insight into 7. The ability to use form to embody ideas
why a designer can add this kind of value. Still and to communicate their value
other core competencies are the kind that strate- These skills should seem familiar to most readers
gically inclined designers shy away from men- as the basis for strong design work. Of course,
tioning—that is, “making products and services we have all seen them used to solve specific
understandable and good-looking.” While it is design problems. However, I have seen these
more specific, this response is often associated skills employed by those with design training
with design coming in late in the development add value to a wide range of business initiatives
process to help “clean up” a product or service. before there was a particular product, service, or
The move over the years to using words such as communication to design. Think about these
strategy and innovation is meant to give design skills applied to the beginning years of a startup
expertise additional credibility, but unfortunate- company; to a major marketing research study;
ly, those words are also used by other disciplines, to the planning of a new product line; to an
and this diminishes their informative power organization’s annual strategy-setting process.
considerably. The question remains: What do Designers can leverage these abilities and bring
designers really do? unique and powerful value to organizations.
Over the past decade, through working with The application of this expertise beyond
business leaders across industries and develop- what is normally considered a “design project” is
ing the current graduate product-design pro- accelerating design professionals’ relevance to
gram at the Institute of Design, I have developed business. Understanding the broad relevance
a firm understanding of the kinds of expertise and power of these skills, distinct from tradi-
that are at the core of design. These competen- tional business skills, makes it possible to break
cies, if you will, are meant to be much more spe- down the barrier between the designer and the
cific than the creative dimensions mentioned business person. Where can we find examples?
earlier. Currently, there are seven of them and I No doubt readers of this journal have experi-
am wondering, in line with psychologist George enced situations in which design skills were used
Miller’s recognition of one’s memory capacity, to solve a problem more along the lines of “busi-
whether the ultimate number should be plus or ness” than “design.” The recognition that design
minus two. expertise was at the heart of the value added can
be subtle. Often, when something is done in a
They are:
way that designers appreciate, it is because they
1. The ability to understand the context or cir- recognize the presence of design competence
cumstances of a design problem and frame and think, “Hey, they get it…that’s very smart.”
them in an insightful way
As we begin to recognize and describe these
2. The ability to work at a level of abstraction actual competencies, design overcomes the “cult
appropriate to the situation at hand of personality”—which in itself is a result of
3. The ability to model and visualize solutions design’s inability to describe its core expertise.
even with imperfect information In order to illustrate design competencies, I’ll
4. An approach to problem solving that discuss three examples from professional work I
involves the simultaneous creation and eval- have experienced over the past five years. As is
uation of multiple alternatives true with most real case studies, I have had to
5. The ability to add or maintain value as leave out some details to preserve confidentiality.
pieces are integrated into a whole My focus is on how design competence can
manifest itself and add value to what looks like
standard business contexts.

46 Design Management Review Summer 2004

Leveraging Design’s Core Competencies

Working in Technology Strategy interviews at key industry events to understand

Brunswick New Technologies (BNT), a business what boat owners thought of the technologies
unit of Brunswick Corp., focuses on the applica- available—which ones were indispensable and
tion of advanced technology across Brunswick’s which had brand value. This would help BNT
current businesses, which include boats and select the companies that provide the most
marine engines. BNT was assessing marine tech- leverage and value.
nologies with an eye to acquiring several compa- What Gravity Tank found was that boaters
nies. Not only would this growth be good for didn’t care much about technology—they sim-
earnings, but the technologies of the acquired ply wanted to maximize their boating time and
companies could also be used across other busi- the quality of the experience. Trained navigators
ness units, leveraging their value. To help assess and enthusiasts alike had actually begun to feel
which companies to look at, BNT called on my that the technology was getting in their way.
firm, Gravity Tank. Gravity Tank also found that the way in which
Gravity Tank is a consulting firm. We don’t Brunswick segmented its markets—by boat
have the financial and operational due diligence type—limited its ability to serve other needs of
skills you might expect to be called for in an these customers. For instance, the assumption
acquisition situation; our beginnings are found that an off-shore fishing boat only needed prod-
in user-centered research, product design, and ucts and services for off-shore fishing was limit-
product development. What we do have is a way ing; an off-shore fishing boat was as likely as a
of looking at the value of companies’ offerings nice yacht to be used for an occasional cruise to
from the customer’s point of view and how the the Bahamas.
actual embodiment of the products and services The result of the program was a reframing of
relate to customers. We also have a history with BNT’s strategy, which had emphasized technolo-
Brunswick Corp., having worked with various gy acquisition. Because the research had shown a
units of the company in the past. To help BNT, relative disinterest, if not a rising opposition, to
Gravity Tank agreed to conduct user-centered technology, the challenge was to reframe how

To help Brunswick Technologies reframe its strategy, which had emphasized technology acquisition, toward new ways of providing value to its boating customers, Gravity Tank created this diagram
(simplified here). Gravity Tank suggested that BNT shift from a technology focus to a solution focus and, in doing so, give itself more flexibility to serve boaters across behavioral segments in mean-
ingful ways—ways that would result in more quality boating time. The diagram consists of three layers: an enabling technology layer, a solution layer, and an interface layer. Each layer represents a
different role for technology. The enabling technology layer describes base technologies, such as GPS systems, an industry-standard communication bus, and navigation algorithms. The solutions layer
represents a service, such as a speedometer, that could be provided to a specific boating activity. The interface layer holds different input and output devices, such as LCD screens and membrane key-
pads, through which a service can be delivered to a boater.

Design Management Review Summer 2004 47

Delivering Value Through Design

BNT would provide value to boaters. Gravity interviews with enough customers to see that
Tank suggested that BNT shift from a technolo- something wasn’t right.
gy focus to a solution focus and, in doing so, The second design competence, “the ability
give itself more flexibility to serve boaters across to abstract,” also played a key role. The diagram
behavioral segments in meaningful ways—ways created to communicate the layers of enabling,
that would result in more quality boating time. solution, and interface technologies is just an
To help do this, we created a diagram, illustrated abstraction. Current GPS systems, for example,
in a simplified form on the previous page, which integrate all three technologies in a convenient
consists of three layers: an enabling technology package—as do most current boating technolo-
layer, a solution layer, gy products on the market. To think about “sep-
Recognizing and an interface layer. arating the system into layers” is to abstract from
Each layer represents reality in order to evaluate the value that would
that users, as a result a different role for ensue from doing so.
of their experiences, technology. The Finally, the diagram Gravity Tank created
enabling technology shows how the use of form to embody meaning
would have a lot to say layer holds base tech- can have significant business impact. Of the six
about the acquisition nologies such as GPS or so recommendations from our work with
systems, an industry- BNT, it was the diagram representing the new
strategy, we had to standard communi- strategy that the company quickly adopted. BNT
cation bus, and navi- began using it actively to think about and visual-
ask the question,
gation algorithms. ize how the strategy could unfold. BNT put spe-
“If boaters don’t care The solutions layer cific items in each of the layers and varied them
represents a service, within and across boating groups. It was there-
about the technology, such as a speedome- fore able to look at many alternatives, all organ-
where does ter, that could be pro- ized by the diagram, to assess how the strategy
vided to a specific could be implemented.
the value lie?” boating activity. The This program was not traditional design
interface layer holds different input and output work, yet it derived much of its value from using
devices, such as LCD screens and membrane the core competencies of design.
keypads, through which a service could be deliv-
ered to a boater. Helping Business Teams to Make Decisions
What design competencies were essential to Matt Mayfield works in one of the business
this strategy program? The willingness and abili- groups at Motorola that is responsible for all
ty to understand the context of boating and Motorola mobile phones based on CDMA (code
reframe the problem was essential. Earlier in my division multiple access), one of the primary
career, I might have panicked as it became clear transmission standards in the industry. He has a
that the work we were doing would not give us degree in industrial design from the Institute of
reliable information about the companies BNT Design, in Chicago, and has more than 10 years
should acquire. Recognizing that users, as a of experience at several product development
result of their experiences, would have a lot to and management consulting firms. Given his
say about the acquisition strategy, we had to ask experience, his views and expertise are broad,
the question, “If boaters don’t care about the but his value to the CDMA group at Motorola
technology, where does the value lie?” This rests in his core design expertise. He is responsi-
allowed the team to work toward a more mean- ble for planning the annual CDMA product line,
ingful answer for BNT. Notice that the reframing which includes more than 50 handsets sold
was not based on an independent flash of around the world. He looks to understand and
genius, but was developed from evidence— rationalize many dimensions of the marketing

48 Design Management Review Summer 2004

Leveraging Design’s Core Competencies

situation, from the variety of products that will for a moment. “Make that a seven instead of a
be available in the market to the changing four!” “Increase the technical challenge of
nature of consumer desire and behavior, techno- Product 23.” “Add our two South American car-
logical trends, and the particular strategies of riers to Product 17.” He did, and everyone
CDMA carriers who are this group’s customers. watched the resulting diagrams update in real
All these activities sound like the activities of time. It was clear from the resulting visuals,
a business person. That’s good, because Matt which took all of 10 seconds to generate, that
Mayfield is a business person. However, the way these changes had little effect on the priorities.
he works to fulfill these traditional business But the managers were intrigued. Mayfield dis-
responsibilities is fundamentally different from tributed the tool to everyone at the meeting and
the way a traditional business person might sent them off to “play” with it.
approach them. Many business analyses are Is there really something new here? Doesn’t
based on a fairly linear approach: Gather data, everyone use the spreadsheet to make models
use a spreadsheet or stat’s package to analyze it, and conduct what-ifs? I think it would be fool-
and report the findings. The findings are usually hardy to overlook the important dynamic and
static, often presented in far too much detail in precedent Mayfield was able to establish. When
PowerPoint. Unfortunately, this approach has was the last time you attended a business meet-
come to define the way in which people work ing at which you were
together. We sit in review meetings watching able to “play” with a
static PowerPoint presentations, most of which model someone had Many business
have had no attention from a designer—some- built expressly for this
one who could improve the communication purpose? It doesn’t hap- analyses are based on
quality of the presentation. pen very often. When
a fairly linear
Recently, Mayfield has built several tools was the last time you
using the same software program his business looked at a spreadsheet approach: Gather
colleagues use—the spreadsheet. But the ability built by someone else
to model and to use form to communicate, and and found it easy to
data, use a spreadsheet
most important, the understanding of the need grasp on first use? Which or stat’s package to
to play with multiple alternatives helps Mayfield one of your business col-
use the spreadsheet in a different way. Mayfield leagues understands that analyze it, and report
is using design competence to make the spread- having others play with the findings.
sheet more effective and to work with his col- his or her work is a criti-
leagues in a new way. One of Mayfield’s cal way to foster under-
spreadsheets helps him to make decisions about standing of incredibly complex choices and
which products should be developed and decisions? The best designers routinely do these
become part of the global portfolio. When kinds of things within design projects, but these
Mayfield “presented” the spreadsheet and his skills are unique and valuable far beyond the
recommendations, the traditional behaviors realms of design.
began. One manager thought a particular evalu-
ation was not right. Another thought the value Crossing the Definition Chasm
proposition of a product was not really right. Marketing loves to create “requirements docu-
Mayfield halted the discussion and offered, ments” that give customers everything they need
“What would you like to see changed? This is a and more—at a price lower than last year’s
live model. I’ve built it so that we can evaluate model. Engineering loves to create technical
some alternatives real-time, together, and talk specifications that are so detailed they preclude
about the implications.” The managers thought any understanding of what value customers

Design Management Review Summer 2004 49

Delivering Value Through Design

might get from the product. Gravity Tank calls The process was at a standstill—a deadlock
this the “definition gap”: Engineering can’t com- that was broken through the application of a
mit to what marketing desires, and marketing Gravity Tank product-definition workshop.
can’t approve a technical spec that doesn’t illus- Gravity Tank’s workshops use the core compe-
trate the actual use of the product. As a result of tencies of design to help business teams to create
this gap, organizations spin their wheels or pick robust definitions of products that are worth
off pieces of the project to try and make developing. The key competencies include
progress. Unfortunately, the piecemeal approach abstracting at the right level, framing the prob-
never really solves the definition gap; indeed, it lem, modeling solutions, and considering multi-
often forces the direction of the solution as a ple alternatives.
result of assumptions built into one of the Prior to the workshop, Gravity Tank gave
pieces. The best way to address the definition Zebra a preliminary agenda which, in addition
gap is to find common to the expected brainstorming exercises, high-

Gravity Tank’s ground between mar-

keting and engineer-
lighted a prototyping session on the second
afternoon. The client liaison shared the senti-
workshops use the ing at the right level of ments of the engineering team, which were that
abstraction. This there was no way they would be prototyping on
core competencies forces marketing to be the second afternoon of working on the poten-
of design to more specific about tial product spec. Even assuming the team got
what can really go into that far, they questioned whether Gravity Tank’s
help business teams the product, and it facility had all the machine tools, metal bending,
forces engineering to and electronic test equipment that would be
to create robust
be less specific about necessary. Gravity Tank explained that automatic
definitions of products how a product could machinery and test equipment would not be
be implemented tech- necessary and that paper board, urethane foam,
that are worth nically. Gravity Tank and hot-melt glue guns would provide a pro-
developing. has found that low- ductive medium for the team to explore new
and medium-fidelity product architectures.
modeling works well for facilitating discussions Gravity Tank suggested that Zebra reframe
at the right level of abstraction. It was the key to its problem as one of addressing product archi-
our work with Zebra Technologies, which had tecture, rather than by selecting features based
been working on a new product platform but on cost. Many companies try to reduce costs by
was having trouble finding the right direction in eliminating features, not realizing that design
which to proceed. can actually change the value equation. A differ-
Zebra Technologies is the nation’s leading ent approach to the way in which the product is
manufacturer of bar-code label printers. In late designed (that is, its architecture) can help to
2002, Zebra set off to create a new product that lower costs while maintaining the desired fea-
could be built for significantly less money than tures. For Zebra to meet its cost objectives, a
any of its previous products. It had been new configuration was required, and Gravity
struggling, as many manufacturers do, between Tank knew this was where potential value lay.
the marketing requirements and the product The workshop proceeded skeptically, but
specification. The marketers wanted to know with good humor. The cross-functional team
from the engineering group what could be engaged in a variety of design exercises.
achieved at the challengingly low price point. Members took apart existing products, spent
The engineers wanted to know from the mar- time with users of the equipment, and brain-
keters what performance was necessary so that stormed hundreds of ideas. And they prototyped
they could analyze the tradeoffs and focus on with paper, foam, and hot-melt glue guns—
problem-solving. something many of them hadn’t done since

50 Design Management Review Summer 2004

Leveraging Design’s Core Competencies

entering engineering school. At the end of the Conclusion

second day, an exhausted, surprised, and exhila- Current beliefs about design talent tell us that
rated team reviewed nine models of new prod- creative people are mostly found within design
uct architectures they had created. The firms and that companies should hire those
engineering team recognized that they had let go firms to do their work for them. To leverage the
of a level of detail at which they normally work knowledge and talent that sits latent in many
and played at a higher level of organizations, one doesn’t nec-
abstraction. In contrast, the essarily need a design firm.
marketing team was amazed at
how specific the group was able
Design is a discipline What one needs is a more
objective understanding and
to be about the nature, per- with a set of command of the core compe-
formance, and value of the tencies of design.
potential products. Zebra was
competencies that can Design expertise has little
able to meet the extreme cost be understood in to do with that black box
constraints of the new product called creativity. Design is a
while delivering significant new objective terms and discipline with a set of compe-
value to the market. The final applied broadly across tencies that can be understood
product that emerged more in objective terms and applied
than a year later is strikingly business functions. broadly across business func-
similar to the model that was tions. Designers, long locked
made six weeks after the work- inside the design department,
shop: a testament to the problem-solving powers have the potential not only to use design strate-
of abstraction. The Zebra team worked for two gically, but also to use it to create, manage, and
days in a highly collaborative and tangible way grow successful companies.
and was able to set sail toward a new product The core competencies of design facilitate
architecture. specific and tangible ways of engaging with
Was this a typical design project? Perhaps. problems. These competencies bring new value
However, Zebra does not consider Gravity Tank to the way in which business teams work. To
a design firm. It is just “that consulting firm that foster the broad application of design compe-
helped us innovate.” Although Gravity Tank tence, designers will need to feel confident in
worked with Zebra intermittently in the months leaving the designer label behind and accepting
following the workshop to integrate the dis- the label of “business manager, strategist, or vice
parate engineering work into an overall model, president.” Of course, this is no big leap for the
its contribution did not include any design or best in any discipline; one will find engineers,
development work. Gravity Tank’s role was cer- accountants, and human resource professionals
tainly based around design skills, but the Zebra at the helms of organizations around the world.
project was hardly a design project per se. However, at that point they are simply
What Gravity Tank really offered Zebra was a called leaders.
way to leverage its existing resources, which it Reprint #04153CON43
thought were running out of steam, to success-
fully innovate. The missing ingredient was the
application of design expertise.

Design Management Review Summer 2004 51