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Why Designers Are Good For Business

What business leaders have to gain and what designers have to offer

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Shunsuke Ishikawa has straddled the design and business worlds, applying design principles and problem solving skills to business questions. Shunsuke began his career working for Panasonic Design and PDD Innovation, and went on to participate in the launch of IDEO Tokyo, where he held the role of Design Director. He was then invited to build strategic design team at BCG Digital Ventures Tokyo in 2018, and now holds the role of Partner, Design Innovation KESIKI INC and he is a program director of Tama Art University Creative Leadership Program/TCL. He also authored a book ‘HELLO DESIGN, The Japanese and Design’.  

Here, he shares some of his wisdom, a unique Japanese perspective on how design can be applied to business too.

A brief history of the relationship between design and business in Japan 

In the past, with the exception of a few brands (MUJI and traditional businesses), in many cases design and designers have been isolated, for better or worse. This is a good thing, from a personal point of view, because it has allowed the seemingly sanctimonious designer to establish his own identity and to pursue a unique and impactful expression that is completely unabashed. A process that was completely separate and without the intervention of businessmen. And the attraction of this was that it sometimes reflected overwhelming individuality.

On the other hand, in a negative sense, this separation has also spread to education, resulting in the development of irresponsible designers who have no interest in business. The result is that we have produced a large number of designers who are only interested in form (execution) without asking themselves why they are designing. As a result, design and business have become less equal and more like a relationship of order and supply, and the number of passive designers has increased. The valley between business and design is wide open, and the different languages used make it almost impossible to have a conversation within an organisation.

“In the past, the role of the craftsman was similar to that of a specialist in a certain field, so all he had to do was to be able to cook with materials of colour and shape, and he excelled in this by far”

In the past, the role of the craftsman was similar to that of a specialist in a certain field, so all he had to do was to be able to cook with materials of colour and shape, and he excelled. However, in the age of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), the emphasis has shifted from the value of "what" to the value of "why". The importance of the act of "thinking of others, being close to them, imagining the future, creating first, and thinking while creating" (≒ design thinking) has come into focus. The timing of IDEO's re-entry into Japan coincided with the beginning of a transformation of the Japanese market, which helped drive its later growth.

Introducing design thinking into business 

In the last ten-twenty years, for better or worse, IDEO (Ishikawa worked as Design Director at IDEO Tokyo 2.0, and IDEO Tokyo 1.0 was established by Naoto Fukasawa) and others have been introducing design thinking, and at least design and business are beginning to intersect at a higher level. For example, more than 10 years ago, the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (KESIKI INC. is currently working with the Japan Patent Office, promoting the integration of design and management) started to use not only the word technology, but also the words design and art, which are difficult to describe and quantify, in national education and industry revitalisation. Also, with the extremely fast pace of start-ups, entrepreneurship and design management, the relationship between design and business is changing in a way that makes it even closer and clearly more intimate.

“It's interesting to see how the questions of "what is design" and "what is business" are coming together”

This is a good discussion to have in Japan. Design thinking, art thinking, or any other ways we might call it. Personally, I think that Japan and the world are at a turning point towards the maturity of individual creativity. It's an interesting time in which business and creativity are coming together in design, and it's like a different kind of martial arts battle, but it's also an interesting time in which anyone can be involved in creativity and it's a society in which anyone can produce output. In such a situation, what is design? What is business? The interesting thing about the relationship between design and business in Japan today is that we are entering a society that is challenging issues that are common to both.

It's interesting to see how the questions of "what is design" and "what is business" are coming together. There is a decentralisation of needs, and in the process of satisfying these needs, design and business are becoming more integrated. It is important that the process of creating things becomes new, and hopefully that means creating beautiful things with beautiful ideas, and in doing so, creating beautiful businesses. This is the kind of change that is about to happen in Japan.

Why design thinking helps business 

There are so many ways in which designers can influence business decisions. Interestingly and ironically, the answer to this question is that the most classic skill set unique to designers is to visualise concepts and their stories. In the age of VUCA, one of the best ways to create the future is to prototype and learn through iteration. And these built prototypes can help business leaders to have more concrete and meaningful conversations about users and experiences they haven't seen yet. And apart from looking at numbers and competitors, it can make a big difference in shaping business decisions.  

Another way is to visualise storytelling. Designers can help you visualise use-case scenarios, future fantasy stories, and brand visions. A good designer can help visualise and concretely produce a big picture that integrates the corporate philosophy and business goals that can engage not only employees, users as well as investors while setting business KPIs. It is one of the many ways in which business people can work with designers to better shape the future of their business.

Design thinking in action

We are often asked to design creative culture for the corporate. Since last year we have been working on a project with a large network infrastructure company, where our design focus is on the culture of the company itself. It is about things, people and habits and rituals that are transforming corporate decision-making processes in the company.

"The scope of the project has expanded from being involved in the design of a single product or service to include the development of a new way of working"

The design challenge was a cultural design project to transform a large company with thousands of employees into a creative culture by bringing the power of design into the company. Initially, there was no such thing as a designer, but an employee with a passion for design was learning design thinking on his own. However, as the importance of UX and UI began to spread, every touchpoint was being designed, and even the infrastructure needed to be aware of the point of contact with the user. The scope of KESIKI's culture design project was to establish a design organisation with a clear role and a brand that could drive adoption. The next step was to form a joint team with the new design organisation, KOEL, and other business units to create a new business and embody the meaning of KOEL's existence. After the first phase of the project was completed, it scaled up to a cross-sectional project to spread the idea throughout the company, and to change the mindset of people both inside and outside the company.

The scope of the project has expanded from being involved in the design of a single product or service to include the development of a new way of working and the dissemination of that way of working, while maintaining the focus on product and service development. The number of projects in the field of design management is increasing.

A practical method to apply

At KESIKI, we have developed Loved Company Loop which is a tool that enables company leaders to clarify the purpose of its business, in other words it helps leaders to have powerful questions that inspire. This is a method we have developed based on the Design Thinking approach. It helps us to uncover deep insight, then collaboratively build ideas into strong concepts that reach the hearts of the end users. And we have been really successful creating products and services, but, we have realised that we can also solve the bigger challenge which is about transforming a company to a creatively minded community. In a simple term making its employees to be DESIGNERS. It takes a few years, but after employing a Loved Company Loop, these companies are able to create innovative solutions without us (even though that is why we stay valuable to companies).

Loved Company Loop is made of a set of tools, One of the important tools above is called the Powerful Question. This is an important framework for the Leaders to realise if they are challenging the status quo. With the data integrated World, the unique perspectives are needed to inspire new ideas and asking the Powerful Question is a key to the Creative Leaders who are eager to create innovative businesses. 

The other tool mentioned above is called the Purpose Vision Beacon. This is a powerful tool for a leader to articulate his vision and his company's policies in a beacon product that serves as his wolfsbane. As work styles and demands for work become more diverse and distributed to more individuals and smaller communities than ever before, managers and leaders must have a clear, unique, and coherent (and often honest) culture to engage not only employees, but also stakeholders and their users. In order to do this, managers and leaders must have a clear, unique, and coherent (and often honest) culture to engage not only employees, but also stakeholders and their users.

A message for businesses  

Thinking like a business leader and having business leaders acting like designers can transform the way organizations develop products, services, process and strategy. Working with designers can help you develop some useful mindsets and skill sets. And the best collaborations are those where you get more than just skills, but a creative mindset.

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