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Design Outlook 2018: Expect ‘A Really Healthy Pressure’

This article is part of CMO.com’s December series about 2018 predictions and trends. Click here for more.

Where has 2017 gone? Everything moves so quickly these days, and the world of design is no different. What lies ahead? For that we turned to four design leaders, who shared their perspectives on five big-picture design topics.

Here’s what they told us.

Design Thinking, Defined
We began with a definition: What is design thinking? Several themes emerged: a focus on the end user, collaboration, and design’s ability to help tackle complex issues.

“To me, design thinking is a collaborative, action-oriented approach,” Vaquer said. “Simply put, it’s designing to improve the way people or products operate, or changing the user’s experience for the better. Think of Nest versus a traditional thermostat.”

According to Myrold, design thinking is “essentially a solution-based methodology for solving complex problems—one that places empathy for the user at the center and uses an approach of iterative design, prototyping, and testing. Companies that follow this methodology are far more successful than those that don’t.”

Curran sees design-led innovation changing the landscape across all industries.

“It’s streamlining the process of creating happy, loyal customers—by putting their needs first, rather than an evaluation tool at the end of what tends to be a slow and costly business process,” he said.

Design As Philosophy And Culture
To have a design-led culture, design has to be valued as a key part of the business model.

“One of the reasons I created SocioFabrica was to create an agency where the philosophy is to be design-led—an organization where design thinking isn’t confined to the creative department,” Vaquer said. “It’s an intrinsic part of everything we do—from strategy and marketing to technology development. This creates a business design-led culture that’s ultimately about building the best, most cost-effective, and sustainable solutions to problems—versus making ‘cool,’ flashy stuff that doesn’t add value.”

Again, we see the importance of design thinking and its focus on the user experience.

“Thinking in terms of design and design processes will always leave ‘PowerPoint thinking’ in the dust,” Curran said. “It demands real, front-line experience with a brand customer experience.”

Myrold believes that keeping users’ needs top of mind doesn’t mean that design is driving, necessarily—rather that all functions of a multidisciplinary team are represented in formulating a point of view and defining the solution.

“Design today is so much broader then just visual elements,” she said. “It’s the process, the thinking, and connecting design, business, and tech that’s needed to solve today’s problems.”

Sommerville pointed out that Coca-Cola has had a design-led culture since 1886—referencing notable design icons including the beverage itself and the Coke glass bottle, both of which have stood the test of time for more than 100 years. 

That said, he noted that the company’s internal design culture has changed noticeably in recent years.

“Compared to even five years ago, we live and market in a very different environment,” he said. “It’s not enough to sell a product; we look to truly engage with our customers and elevate the acts of buying and using our product to an experience.”

A Strategic Advantage
Design and user experience are important differentiators in the “battleground for brands,” according to Sommerville. “Anyone can design a product but not an outstanding product,” he said. And that’s where these differentiators come in.

How does an organization get the strategic advantage design can deliver? One way is by spending time with customers—to understand their experiences and then design to meet their needs.

“Too many consultants advise on experiences from the comfort of their desks,” Curran said. “A good customer experience team is out analyzing products, services, and experiences where they really happen; they’re observing and talking to the people who use these services.”

Vaquer cited ride-hailing companies Lyft and See Jane Go for addressing their users’ pain points and making the experience as frictionless as possible.

“The brands that get this are starting to service customers throughout their entire life cycle with micro-moments developed for each part of their experience,” she said.

Without understanding what consumers really care about, a business can’t deliver value to them. 

“If you look at people’s social feeds, the majority of posts are experience-based,” Sommerville said. “This is ultimately rewiring how consumers spend their money. So for Coca–Cola, analyzing how consumers think and feel during their interaction with our brands—and others—is invaluable data.”

Looking Ahead
With things changing so fast, predictions are tough—but our design leaders said they look forward to what the next few years will bring.

“I’m excited about consumers’ ever-rising expectations and what this does to businesses. It only takes one or two companies in a given industry to start providing beautifully elegant and sophisticated experiences before consumers start to demand the same from everyone,” Curran said. “That’s a really healthy pressure, and it will more and more force companies—especially large ones—to realize that how they’ve been providing services and experiences until now is nowhere near good enough.”

Myrold spoke to the possibilities for designers to be more involved in every aspect of innovation.

“I’m also excited about the opportunities related to design tooling, as we have a chance to move even more in the early definition of experiences,” she said. “Things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, and voice interfaces can’t be driven by tech alone. Design and user empathy must be the heart and soul of where we’re going with all of this.”

Sommerville said he doesn’t expect designers to be running the company—just yet. But he knows that the role of design is no longer simply to make things “look pretty.” 

“Design now also has relevance for the way organizations are structured, how they operate, and how they solve brand challenges,” he said. “Gone are the days when the design team is invited to the table, say, midway through the process.”

Outlook For Young Designers
What design teams are looking for and how they hire have evolved, too. Sommerville offered a comparison between 2008 and today.

“In 2008, you’d hire a recruiter, set a meeting, chit-chat, discuss the portfolio, and maybe then make a decision,” he said. “Today, you scan Instagram, check out someone’s feed and where they’re located, realize that they’re more than just a designer, send messages, and eventually connect, then make an offer.”

Not only has the process changed, so have the applicants—and what organizations are looking for.

“I think tomorrow’s designers will be the modern-day equivalent of ‘Renaissance Polymaths.’ Architect, set designer, digital innovator, calligrapher—these can all be in one person,” Sommerville added.

People and business skills will be important, too.

“Having visual chops and/or traditional design skills isn’t enough these days. Being able to establish relationships with a cross-functional team and having business acumen and technical understanding are more important than ever,” Myrold said. “Also, it’s important for designers to have a strong point of view—and to be able to articulate it.”

At SocioFabrica, Vaquer looks for designers who, beyond solid, traditional design skills, have a more strategic approach to their work and see themselves as creative problem-solvers.

“They tend to have a better understanding of the complex systems they’re designing for and to be more able to consider all the details, the customers they’re problem-solving for, and the consequences of their design decisions,” she explained.

At Wunderman UK, Curran looks for exceptional depth of expertise.

“What’s amazing is that we can find that in people of all ages,” he said. “Obviously, a long career can give you a massive depth of expertise, but we find a lot of experience and product designers can come straight out of university with the knowledge and obsession about experience design that we look for—and that’s exciting!”

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