IN TOUCH: We need to get serious about design

There is growing understanding of the contribution and importance of design and an increasing appreciation for innovation as practice – but New Zealand is “years behind”.
That’s according to Darrel Rhea, principal and CEO of US-based strategic design consultancy Cheskin and passionate spokesperson for the design research industry. In New Zealand for the recent Better By Design CEO Summit, Rhea said focus on design is something that has historically been done “episodically”.
“It has tended to come in waves usually in response to crisis or opportunity and what organisations are starting to realise is that they need to systematise sustainable competence for innovation if they’re going to leverage that aspect of their growth…”
That’s change which has come about only in the past five years as large bellwether companies like Procter and Gamble and General Electric have started advocating it as core competency. However, Rhea believes there is still too much focus on individual creativity – Apple’s Steve Jobs is classic example.
“That’s model that works for few companies who happen to have design geniuses at the top but most companies are led by financial managers who don’t necessarily have the same intuition about markets, users and design,” says Rhea.
“There’s not enough understanding about how to create system that continually delivers relevant marketplace innovation.”
Which is what his presentation to the summit was all about: providing framework or “roadmap” for how to think about innovation and build it into everything an organisation does – through its processes, people, management tools, organisational styles and investment. It’s about building on the core of the business and inventing what’s next.
“This is what the majority of design processes are about – improving, evolving, inventing and transforming.”
The focus for his consultancy work, says Rhea, is driving innovation design from the standpoint of having “deep understanding” of customers, consumers and change.
“The majority of our revenue comes from generating insight – the fundamental IP that people use to compete in marketplace.”
Much of this is outlined in his book: Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Experiences, which is about creating market cut-through and building brand loyalty through relentless attention to the people you serve.
In more chaotic and competitive markets, the need to differentiate is one design driver.
“Because we’re all competing with products and brands from everywhere on the planet we can’t rely on the insularity of markets to protect us from other offers that come in which might be better.”
Everyone is trying to make sense of complexity – it helps if customers and consumers understand what is unique about New Zealand – its design sensibilities and how these are expressed in its products.
“If we don’t consciously design that experience then it’s left to the randomness of the marketplace and may not be as powerful as what’s being done in countries like Costa Rica or Hawaii for instance which have done very good job of branding what is unique and different about the experience they offer.”
The bad news for this country, says Rhea, is that we’re years behind in terms of focus on strategic design. But that’s not to say we can’t make up ground fast.
“Absolutely you can. You have this tremendous asset of beautiful country that is very young – from market viewpoint – almost blank sheet of paper with no negative historical baggage. I think you can catch up. And that is largely going to be around the challenges of finding what is that essence of New Zealand that shows up in design sensibilities.
“The secret is recognising what is inherently and authentically true about New Zealand – its character, its personality, its competencies – and articulating that, creating an ability to coalesce around more singular vision of the truth. So it’s not about putting glaze of superficial ‘design’ on top of New Zealand. For it to really work as premise it has to be grounded in truth and authenticity.”

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