Commentary: Intangible Rewards

By Anne Traver January 30, 2013


There has been a remarkable expansion in the relationship between design and business, as design has moved beyond that which we can touch and feel to increasingly intangible contributions.

Brand development is a core practice area for many design firms and todays smart brand designers define this work not as a collection of graphically aligned artifacts but instead as a tightly crafted set of attributes, attitudes and voices that permeate a company at every level and that customers experience at every interaction. Brand designers, whose role was once limited to logo design and its applications, are now helping clients to express their brand values in the form of services, experiences and behaviors. Easy example: the offerings, staffing and attitude apparent in every Apple Store are intangible but powerful brand expressions, and unmistakably Apple.

At Starbucks, there is a seamless attention to what customers experience when they walk in the storethe visual experience is inseparable from customer service, ambience, product. Like many other large brands (Target, Nike, etc.), Starbucks considers its in-house design team a big advantage in ensuring that the transition between how the business is created and how the business is expressed to consumers is as seamless as possible.

A parallel phenomenon is the migration of design thinking from the studio to the client sphere. Seeing things differently, framing problems, visualization, creating multiple solutions, prototyping, creating againthe constellation of nonlinear, collaborative, free associating methods that designers useis being found to add value beyond the design department. Corporations and nonprofits are learning to harness the tools and behaviors of design to develop not just new products but new services, new business models, new solutions. Stanfords D-School (D is for Design) makes classes in Design Thinking available to students from every discipline. Companies like Procter & Gamble try to replicate the innovation and entrepreneurial energy of a startup by incorporating design thinking incubators where teams use design tactics to solve important business problems.

Innovation-driven organizations are turning to designers as trusted collaborators. John Rousseau of the international consultancy Frog Design, which has a Seattle office, says, At Frog, we are often designing the business itself as much as its tangible artifacts. Increasingly, our clients expect higher levels of collaboration and engagement.

Erina Malarkey, director of marketing and communications at Unico Properties, a Seattle-based real estate investor and operator, says, We like to have our brand design team involved from the start of a property development project. The ideas that come from these early concept meetings help inform the name, the architecture style, and the programs and services that will differentiate our propertiesand differentiation is the critical element in real estate marketing.

Methodologie, where I was a partner, worked closely and early with the Unico team on Asa Flats + Lofts, a multifamily project in Portlands Pearl District, arriving at insights about the competitive environment and the opportunity for a better tenant experience. The idea of a warm, inviting home (home sweet Asa) was expressed in a blog-style website, neighborhood outdoor movie nights, happy hour in the lobby, a Leasing Lounge and bold ideas for artwork. Asa leased up ahead of schedule in a seriously down market, and the lively brand continues to deliver a competitive advantage to the project.

The opportunity for entrepreneurs, marketers and communications directors is that, instead of bringing in design to give form to an idea at the end of the development chain, they can draw on design tactics for innovation and problem solving in areas not generally classified as design related, and do more to integrate design resources, both in-house or consultants, into the lifeblood of your organization.

ANNE TRAVER is a brand and design consultant and part-time faculty member in the University of Washington School of Art.

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