Design support for the 21st century

Published 2021 by Dongdaemun Design Plaza/ddp Design Fair/Seoul Design Foundation.

From hand-holding to startup financing

The history of design support until today has two distinct phases: project hand-holding and startup financing. From the nineteen-eighties until around the 2000’s, the economy revolved around industrial production, and a preferred model of design support was project hand-holding. In this model, a designer was brought together with a company for a project, and a part of the costs were financed. This worked well to raise awareness for design as a means to add value to companies. However, after the initial funding was completed, there was little follow-up, and the first project often remained the last.

⁠Around the 2000’s, the overall financialization of the economy led to a new model: to directly finance start-up teams through state investment agencies or investment aggregators. After the early years of excitement, it turned out that some freshly financed startup companies were unable to deliver their envisioned project. The incentive to get high amounts of funding, coupled with demands to become profitable in a very short timeframe, led several startups to exaggerate their claims. Some projects turned out to be mainly speculative, and problems in startup teams included lack of design competence, lack of product development experience, and difficulties with production and logistics. 

⁠The hand-holding model suffered from a short-term focus and a lack of follow-up analysis, and short-term design jobs often suffer from a lack of engagement by designers. Also the startup model suffers from short-termism. In the startup model, companies are expected to quickly grow out of thin air: development, production, sales and logistics, all has to be built from scratch. The hand-holding model at least has the advantage that the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented: the company is already existing and has capabilities, and bringing designers in should add value.

⁠In search of a new concept

⁠After the industrialization of the eighties and the financialization of the 2000’s, a new, more considered concept to support companies and advance growth is needed. New laws to reduce harmful ecological impact demand better resource utilization and options for recycling, and a new generation of consumers demands new standards of corporate transparency and resource traceability.

⁠SMEs thrive in specialized niches. There, design can help with creating innovative product and service concepts or with improving existing products, including ecological considerations and consumer trends.

⁠Which SMEs are successful, and why? Italian design producers such as Artemide, Alessi, or Zanotta are driven by passion and a long-term commitment to design. They provide meaning, pride and security for family members and employees, and they cooperate with a range of designers for their collections. Similarly, excelling medium sized German companies such as Festo or Durst base their strength in their commitment to innovation and technical excellence. None of these organizations exist to reap short-term profits: Instead, they have a long-term focus, cultivate innovation and are driven by an untiring motivation to excel.

⁠Design Collaboration

⁠Already In the nineteen-sixties, car companies entered collaborations with designers, either because they lacked sufficient design capability, or the in-house team needed design inspiration. Designer Giorgetto Giugiaro created cars for Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and others, while Giovanni Bertone designed cars for Lamborghini, Citroën, Fiat, Volvo and others. Design cooperations are also a successful model in fashion design: recent cooperations include Virgil Abloh for Off-White or Jil Sander for Uniglo.

⁠Design Collaboration can be a highly effective support model for SMEs because it instantly adds design capacity and experience which would be time-consuming and costly to establish in-house. To make it work, a range of points have to be considered.  

⁠To be suitable for Design Collaboration, projects should have a shared vision and long-term development focus, keeping in mind that a new design offering can fundamentally improve the market position of a company. Design Collaboration is built on the premise that designers and companies treat each other as partners. To make sure of a good match between a designer and a company, a design audit looking at capabilities and motivation should be conducted. To maintain lasting motivation, designers should share risk and reward of product development by being remunerated through a percentage of revenues.

⁠Design Collaboration is ideally supervised by a design promotion organization which acts as catalyst, principal supporter and consulting partner of companies and designers, helping with audit, analysis, and match-making.

⁠Creative professionals are mostly educated to compete, but complex tasks can only be mastered through collaboration.

Principles of design collaboration

Design Collaboration instantly adds the power of design to the capabilities of a company – transparently, fairly, and with a long-term focus. Here are 5 principles to ensure successful cooperations:

1: The Design Audit

Finding the right fit between a designer and a company is a step where often mistakes are made. Sometimes, a designer is simply taken because somebody in the company happens to know one. Other times, a design company is chosen on the grounds of being famous, but their work style and expertise might not fit to the company and design project at hand. Sure, these approaches might work by chance, but more often they don’t.

Every design project is different, so it is only partly helpful to deduce from a designer’s previous work how a future design will turn out. Instead, to find out if a designer is right for a project, conduct a design audit – see more about this below.

After the audit, have a conversation to find out about interests and passions. Then let the designer make a presentation about his vision for your project and company (this is not about the design itself or how it will look like – you don’t want ideas for free – but about the designer’s vision and approach). If the project at hand captures a designer’s heart and imagination, you will see it reflected in his presentation.

2: Collaboration from Brief to Launch

It often happens that companies do not know enough about design to use it to its full potential. Take the design brief, the start of each design development. In a conventional service relationship, the designer is given a brief by the client. For example, a company might tell a designer to design “something like” the product or brand of a competing company. But copying is not only unethical, it is also a strategic mistake – copies never help a company to achieve lasting success on the market. This brief is hence not in the best interest of the company, and it would need to be changed.

In a Design Collaboration, the design brief is created collaboratively between company and designer. The designer is not a mere receiver of orders: instead, he has to learn about the capabilities, needs and visions of a company to come up with concepts which work. The collaborative brief pins down a schedule, process and envisioned result. During the design process, key ideas and milestones are shared and discussed with key people in the company. Finally, the designer helps with suggestions for production, promotion and product launch.

3: Share Risk and Reward

Will a design be a success on the market? Every new endeavor comes with risk. In a traditional service relationship, the designer is used as a service provider, and he company bears all the risk for the design being successful on the market. In a design cooperation, on the other hand, risk and reward are shared.

The resulting design is offered on the marketplace mentioning both the company or brand name and the designers name, and the designer is mainly remunerated through a percentage of sales. That way, it is in the designer’s interest to do what he can to make the design successful on the market, and he will cooperate with production, marketing and sales to help with ideas and suggestions. That way, both company and designer profit.

4: It’s Top Management Business

In successful companies, there is often a special relationship between design and CEOs.
In the early years of Sony, Norio Ohga stablished a distinctive design and later became Sony’s President and Chairman. Steve Jobs of Apple had a great passion for design and spent a great amount of of his time discussing with his designers. Elon Musk takes design so serious that he personally leads all product design and engineering at Tesla.

Design is a strategic resource to envision, to innovate, and to create compelling offerings. It must be concern of top management.

5: Multi-modal and Transparent Communication

Genuine cooperation requires understanding, trust and openness with everyone involved. A designer needs to understand every aspect of the design project, from top management strategy to shop-floor production issues. Therefore treat everybody as a partner, from the CEO to the shop floor worker. Always communicate openly and transparently, and present ideas in a multi-modal manner: visually, with sketches and renderings; in a haptic manner, with 3D models or material samples; and verbally, explaining the reasoning and story behind the design.

6: Design does not stop

Design does not end when the designer stops working. Once a product or service enters the market, it enters a conversation with its customers. Consumers will interpret your offering as part of your brand and against the backdrop of competing offerings. Consumer feedback and consumer experiences must be fed back into the design process to iteratively innovate.

Remember: Innovation almost never fails because of a lack of ideas, but because of a lack of persistence. Innovation must be a systemic capability, and design a core competence. It is not just about a new product or service: it is also about values, experiences, processes and networks.

Designing Better Design Support

In the course of previous design support programs, it happened that companies wanted support, but weren’t actually willing to cooperate with a designer. Other companies found that in the midst of a consultation they can’t go forward because of a lack of budget. In another case, a company delayed production until after the support program ended, then produced the design with small alterations in order to cut out the designer.

In order to avoid this kind of issues, a design cooperation support program should audit both designers and companies (more about a design audit below), then monitor design projects and their implementation by a company, regularly follow up both with designer and company, and go forward with defined milestones. Like in every partnership, also Design Collaboration only works when everybody involved behaves fairly and has a genuine intent to make it work.

Conducting a Design Audit

A design audit is conducted on the basis of the portfolio and CV of a designer and must be conducted by people with a solid knowledge of design. The audit analyzes along 5 axes of ability. As each ability is analyzed, candidates receive a point score from 0 to 6. The highest possible score is 30. Candidates with the highest score should go on to have a conversation and a vision presentation.

Audit 1: Innovativeness

Innovation is the lifeblood of new business. What is the degree of a designer’s innovative thought? Does the portfolio show conventional thought and pre-made templates, or does it include innovative approaches and interesting experiments? Analyzing the degree of novel thought of a designer helps you to gauge how innovative his work will be.

Score scale: 0 for using pre-made templates, up to 3 for moderately original projects, 6 for highly innovative projects.

Audit 2: Stance

An often overlooked, but important part is played by the stance of a designer. There are three general stances which I call copiers, egoists and altruists. Does the designer have a tendency to copy other designs, does he develop primarily his own design style, or is he developing distinctive designs for different clients? If the designer applies one style across all products and companies, his interest is more in developing himself than the clients he works for. The best designers always strive to develop the brand and image of a client company rather then their own.

Score scale: 0 for copying, 1-2 for uni-style designers, 3-6 for a designer having developed a range of different successful designs for different clients.

Audit 3: Skill Spectrum

How does the skill of the designer fit to the project at hand? Is the designer a specialist working in a narrow area or does he work across disciplines? The wider the spectrum of a designer, the better is the chance he will be able to deal with the complexity of consumer demands, company needs and market pressures and come up with appropriate solutions. However, if the skill fits the project, a designer who is great in a particular area is a better choice than a designer who does many things, but none of them particularly well. If you are looking to work not with a single designer, but a design team, pay special attention to cooperation readiness and skills complementing each other.

Score scale: 0-1 for a narrow single discipline specialist, 2-3 for designers working across more than one design discipline (such as industrial design, graphic design, interactive design), 4-6 for a multi-disciplinary designer with additional experience in related disciplines such as business administration, engineering, marketing.

Audit 4: Business Experience

Does the designer have experience with business processes, company dynamics and corporate structures? In large and medium-sized companies, corporate experience helps to understand the needs of a company, to navigate business processes and to bring a design to market in an effective manner. Ultimately, ideas need to be implemented, company departments need to be involved, and possible production, delivery and sales issues solved. In small companies with flat hierarchies, corporate experience is less important, but a good understanding of business processes is still vital for bringing a design to market.

Score scale: 0 for no business experience, 1-2 for beginner experience and internships, 3-4 for experience in some projects, 5-6 for an extensive corporate and business experience.

Audit 5: Cooperation Readiness

Did the designer cooperate with others or is he a “lone wolf”? Cooperation can be learned, and experience in cooperations for different projects helps to facilitate a successful design development process and overcome adversities. The work style of a designer is equally important: this can be more theoretical or more practical. Theorists without hands-on capabilities often have trouble in implementation. A solely hands-on approach, on the other hand, might lack the consideration required for a design project. Approaching design from both theoretical and practical viewpoints is most useful.

Score scale: from 0 for poor cooperation readiness to 6 for a person with extensive cooperation experience, both theoretically and practically.

(C) Mario Gagliardi 2021. Published by Dongdaemun Design Plaza/ddp Design Fair/Seoul Design Foundation.

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Part 2 (English)