Historically design has been a process applied to physical objects. As digital technologies emerged in the late 20th century (most famously the Internet and the World Wide Web), design found a new important role in the creation of usable and beautiful digital products. Since that time the evolution of the role and scope of design has accelerated and been transformed from the creation of isolated product designs to all aspects of commercial operations.

Why has this change in the role of design occurred? The simplest answer is: Apple and its astounding success in demonstrating that design-centric companies can be hugely successful. Last year Apple, a company that was very late to the mobile phone market, was reported to have earned 93 percent of the mobile phone industry's total measurable profit. Other design-driven startups like Uber and Airbnb have successfully disrupted long established competitive markets and in doing so earned profits that are the envy of the world. 

Today it's common for CEOs to be concerned with design issues. It is also common for top strategy consultancies to name design as a key organizational capability, or as a linchpin to making an organization or product successful.

So what does a startup need to know if it's going to harness the power of design? Here are three key things: 

Prioritize Design from Day One

Not so long ago design was brought in simply to give the product some 'pizzaz'. 

Today, the right corporate culture and success in design go hand in hand. Success in design requires a commitment to design and a commitment to an organizational culture that allows design to flourish. With design prioritized from day one founders create the space needed for design and traditional business functions to work hand in hand. New sources of value emerge from outside the spreadsheet via the consistent application of critical thinking, a commitment to excellence, creative problem solving, and an openness to new ideas.  

Embrace the Use of Design Artifacts

Even without a "thing" to design, a business with a design culture will get to work coming to grips with all the facets of a product or service life-cycle:

  • Design research: understanding current and potential customers and users
  • User experience design: hypothesizing and prototyping a better user experience
  • Customer journey design: mapping out the various customer touch-points and their role in turning an interested customer into an adoring customer 
  • Learn by doing: exploring use cases by hacking together technology and then learning from that effort 
  • Guerilla user testing: simulating important notions related to the product or service strategy and putting that in front of friends and family

Designers work with tangible artifacts to explore, communicate, define, and measure. These design artifacts complement and supplement the role of spreadsheets, Power Point decks, and Word documents.

Useful design artifacts convey a sense of dynamism and progress.  They help create an opinion today on that which is important for the business now and tomorrow. They also help sort out what is necessary for the launch of your product or service while creating a roadmap for planning and achieving tomorrow's product or service. Design artifacts create an internal dialogue that is forced to be tangible and realistic.

Develop a Leadership "Feel" for Design

Leaders need to learn to challenge the design function to solve for important business impact.  Finance, technology, sales, and operations can solve thorny business issues. Design can too.  

Set a high bar for your design work, and be impatient. Temper that impatience by learning what aspects of design really do need significant time to develop and evolve. But CEOs need to set the expectation that thoughtful and quality design work is expected weekly.

Gain an understanding of how to setup and incentivize effective design programs. Design is process, investigation, choices, inspiration and sweating the details. Getting the most from design investments requires a CEO to be able to provide feedback that moves the design program forward while simultaneously pushing for better outcomes from the design team.

Lastly the priorities of designers are different from those of the typical employee. Gaining a better understanding of the culture of design and the motivations of designers will allow a leader to better manage design programs. The trend is toward "cool" offices with spaces for creation.  While that is often necessary, there is much more. Ethics, a commitment to excellence, and a sense of openness to the new, all outweigh trendy offices.