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CEOs on Design

What did the CEOs of 3M, Apple, P&G, Coca-Cola, Nike and Target all have in common?

Besides being exemplars in helming organizations known globally for growth, innovation as well as being beloved by customers, the CEOs of these companies recognized earlier than their competitors that “design” was integral to their success.

No longer considered merely "cosmetic", design was embraced as a strategic asset, no longer relegated to an internal “service” and had earned a seat at the executive table.

Legendary CEO, Chairman and President of P&G, Alan George “A.G.” Lafley viewed design as an essential part of P&G’s strategy. On the integration of design within the corporation Lafley said, “We want to design the purchasing experience - what we call the 'first moment of truth'; we want to design every component of the product; and we want to design the communication experience and the user experience. I mean, it's all design. And I think that's been hard for people to come to grips with.”

Marty Neumeier, the Director of Transformation at the Liquid Agency and author of The Designful Company sums it up this way, “Until now, companies have used design as a beauty station for identities and communications, or as the last stop before a product launch. Design is rapidly moving from ‘posters and toasters’ to include processes, systems and organizations.”

Nike CEO, Mark Parker agrees. Starting out in the company as a young designer, Parker brings the unique lens afforded to him as a designer to the role as CEO. “I try to make sure that design always has a strong voice in helping to set strategy. The nightmare for me is that design gets subjugated to some short-order cook in the backroom listening to sales, responding to the retailer's demand of, Well, that worked well last season, so we need to do more of it. That's not how you advance.”

How do companies employ design in a way that doesn’t relegate them to a short-order cook? David Butler, the VP of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Coca-Cola challenges established views of design with these questions: “How can you grow (gain market share, increase your brand’s relevance, and generate revenue growth) with the speed and flexibility of a startup? Every big, established company, organization, and even government is at risk of being disrupted, having a so-called Kodak Moment, watching its industry upended and its competitive advantages—the moats that have protected it for decades—disappear overnight. What if there were something that could help you grow, avoid disruption, and even take giant steps forward? What if there were something that could help you create both scale and/or agility? There is—it’s called design. Coca-Cola has used design to scale to over two hundred countries, build seventeen billion-dollar brands, partner with more than twenty million retail customers, and sell close to two billion products a day. But the company is still learning. Over the last decade, it has focused on mastering how also to use design to create agility—something most established companies, including Coca-Cola, struggle with.”

Design can craft open systems that leverage scale, but also provide clarity and focus to organizations as part of a holistic “experience design” strategy, which Adaptive Path Co-Founder Jesse James Garret describes as a “star to sail your ship by.”

A star to sail your ship by, a Northstar is a powerful, organizing principle to help focus and guide the actions of a team. One of the most vivid examples of this was a project that began as a dog food ad campaign.

In 2004, Lee Clow, the Chairman of TBWA\Worldwide, a revered designer and creative force behind the “1984” Apple ad as well as many other Apple campaigns was approached by the Pedigree dog food brand to develop a new campaign to bolster sales.

After a deep dive into Pedigree's business and organization, Clow determined that a simple campaign was too superficial and he propsed widening the scope of the project, “With Pedigree, we had to help them to discover their culture and behavior.”

By developing a set of internal communications, which would come to be known as Pedigree's “Dogma”, Clow and his team helped Pedigree find their emotional compass and clarify their true purpose as an organization – something that a campaign alone could not do. Embraced by Masterfood’s (owner of the Pedigree brand) executives, Clow’s work allowed Pedigree’s employees to declare, “We’re for Dogs” and managed to not only create a clear vision that would later be manifest in external communications, but raised morale within the group bringing clarity to the actions of every employee.

Clow remarked, ”By moving to a much more emotional approach, it provides a springboard into behavior and a way of acting as a brand that would set you apart—and would inform your product development, your packaging, and your actions beyond selling dog food. [Pedigree employees] used to come to work every day thinking they worked for a dog food company, and now they come in thinking they work for a company that loves dogs. That’s a huge difference.”

Steve Jobs, the Co-Founder of Apple famously pushed his staff to be mindful of design. Jobs was so driven about ensuring that the spirit of design consistency permeated every activity of the company that he chided his engineers to ensure that internal components be crafted with the same care as any outward components even though the customer might never see these parts.

Personally elevating design to the highest levels within Apple, Jobs’s view of design from January 2000 remains refreshing today: “We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing. In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. ... That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started. This is what customers pay us for — to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

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