Design Value

How does a digital agency evolve to the level where Creative (and design in particular) can fill a more prominent role in the value chain, where it becomes a more integrated strategic part of the agency’s service offering, and where design thinking can start to permeate the organization more broadly, instead of design being the somewhat siloed production discipline it is often perceived as?

A brand wanting to play within the agency paradigm, trying to deliver insights and actionable marketing advice to clients in digital channels, must develop a point of view on how the User Experience discipline (UX) integrates with the increasingly divergent consumer journey. UX, and design in particular, should be informing how the agency approaches that journey. Yet, on many agency org. charts, there is no specific mention of how UX would serve in this business context, and a UX Team often remains defined as a cross-functional production unit serving under layers of project management, without exposure to the larger, client-facing strategic framework.

If agencies want to change this, and capitalize on the true value of design, they need to rethink – or at least evolve – the role that Creative is playing. Many agencies go the route of organic growth, which yields results very slowly. To truly and efficiently grow the value of design requires conscious decisions in terms of organization, staffing and processes – business development being perhaps the most critical one.

T H E  V A L U E  O F  D E S I G N
So, exactly what is the real value of design?

A study compared publicly traded companies, using a scoring model to determine how design affected their stock market evaluation (presentation here). Companies judged to be especially design-centric (according to criteria outlined below) outperformed the S&P 500 at 225%, thus proving that design thinking really does affect market value.

How does your agency score? Check against the criteria of the study:

  • Publicly traded in the US for 10+ years: (Not necessarily applicable; this criteria exists just to enable a financial performance comparison)
  • Scale of design organization: is the use of design employed both within business units and centrally, with high degree of influence with the management team?
  • Investments in design: Are the appropriate investments made in staffing, facilities, tools, design research?
  • Design embedded in the organization: Is design visible in org charts, process charts, presentations etc? Does the corporation speak about design as a value at all?
  • Design represented at leadership level: Does design have a seat at the table where the most critical decisions about the agency’s future are made?
  • Commitment to design as a tool for innovation: Does design feature in discussions around how the agency can deliver increasing value to clients?

W H E R E  D E S I G N  M A T T E R S
How can we, as creatives, ensure that design matters?

As Creative Director, I want to deliver value for my employer through design. As a design strategist, I want to enable my agency to deliver value for our clients through design. To do this, the organization has to treat design as if it actually HAS value. We have to value design.

Most Creative Directors would probably agree that it is exceedingly difficult to elevate the value of design only through organic change, one project at a time. The organization and its processes have to support it (and most definitely not sabotage it, which actually does happen), and that requires change that goes beyond day-to-day and project-to-project activities.

How to do it?

Design in the organization

  • Roles related to design have to be defined at leadership level.
  • Clear mandates have to be issued to allow outcomes to be affected based on design considerations.
  • Staffing with the right resources, and the right number of resources (which should not be judged based solely on efficiency criteria and production capacity needs).

Design in the processes

  • Apply the design process consistently, across teams.
  • Avoid looking at design as a production discipline (headcount/hours/timelines/deliverables), and start looking to design for strategy and insights.
  • Apply design thinking in strategic work. Even if strategies themselves don’t encompass design, they should be visualized in ways that illustrate clarity of vision, and consistency with company core values.
  • Establish a true consumer-centric practice, supported by design processes. Consumers are not one and the same, and design is a vehicle to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.
  • Stop defining design efforts just by deliverables and timelines. See design as an opportunity.
  • Allow, or even mandate, that design should take more time: For each concept presented to a client, produce three.  For every two projects coming through Account Management (which are often driven by reactive customer relationship thinking), allow one R&D project that is mandated and pitched from the design team.

Design in how the agency communicates what it does

  • Use design as a flag under which to “rally the troops”. Make sure the visual identity tells a compelling, relatable story that creates buy-in and pride in the brand, so that employees become advocates.
  • Let design take center stage in internal communication, to enforce its importance with employees, so this design-centric outlook colors how people think about the way they themselves communicate.
  • Build the brand identity on a visual system that allows for projection of the benefits of your processes and products.
  • Let design have a stake in external marketing, to ensure that the design focus is reflected externally.

Design in how the agency sells what it does

  • Ensure that design features prominently in capabilities presentations, as a way to ensure cohesion, and enforce that design is a facet of everything the agency does.
  • Ensure that all external presentations filters through the agency design practice.
  • Target the right clients and the right BD opportunities. If your future clients don’t prioritize design, your design capabilities won’t matter, and you won’t be able to add value.

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