What is The Business Value of Design? – Seth Mbhele

Immersion Group > Blog > What is The Business Value of Design? – Seth Mbhele

Immersion Group’s Head of Consult, Seth Mbhele gives us valuable insight into the business value of design.

A lot has been said of late about the role and function of Design in the world of business; there is a lot of fascination about Design getting a “seat at the table” and being able to influence the way organisations do business. In many ways; this newly found status of Design (with a capital D) actually begs more questions than it answers – what do companies understand Design to be, and perhaps more importantly; what do we, as Design practitioners understand as being the (business) value of Design we bring to the table?

The Seat at The Table

A quick scan of job boards and LinkedIn posts points to anecdotal evidence of the emergence of Design Leadership roles in many large South African corporates. This is largely in line with global trends in the rise of roles such as Chief Design Officer, Executive Head of Design etc…

Corporate South Africa; it would seem; has caught on to the notion that Design is intrinsically valuable and needs to form part of the leadership organogram in order to differentiate in what has come to be known as the Age of the Customer.

Ok, so Design now has a seat at the proverbial table… But what does this actually mean? What is it that large corporates understand to be the true value of Design? What, in real terms, is the mandate of this new band of leadership and therefore what are they able to shape, influence and direct within these organisations? How is the Design perspective received at this table and what does it mean for the organisational culture, ways of working, processes, technology and the value propositions we present to the customer?

In these early days of Design getting a seat at the table, I would argue; from conversations and observations with emerging Design Leaders at large corporates and the business itself; that the role and function of Design is largely not yet fully understood by any of the parties involved. Companies seem to have jumped on the global Design Capability and Leadership bandwagon without fully understanding or articulating the value drivers and top-level metrics that the function of Design is accountable for. This points to a need for organisations to be deliberate in understanding the Business Value of Design; but also, and perhaps more importantly; for Design Leaders and Practitioners to understand what it is they are meant to be doing at the table.

Defining the Function of Design

Like any other function within an organisation; Finance, HR, Legal etc; the function of Design needs to be well defined and widely understood. This is perhaps the first and most pressing task that the incumbent Design Leader needs to tick off their laundry-list of things to be done. Fully defining (ie. designing) the function of the Design Capability not only helps to align practitioners in the work to their higher organisational purpose, but also elevates and creates a shared language and clear expectations for the rest of the organisation. The Design Leader needs to be deliberate in how they design and orchestrate their functional area – this brings to mind key considerations such as processes, methods, ways of work, tools, taxonomy, strategic growth ambitions, employee relations, measurement, capability maturity and integration with the broader organisation; amongst other considerations. It needs to be crystal clear to the entire organisation what it is that they can call on Design to solve for within their own functional areas. It also needs to be clear what they need not necessarily come to Design for (low impact graphic design, PowerPoint templates and the like).

Perhaps it bears mentioning at this point that the Design Leader needs to crystalize with the organisation the fact that Design as a discipline and practice goes well beyond pixels and pretty pictures – Design, specifically Human Centred Design, is the deliberate, process and data driven approach of architecting customer solutions and business outcomes in a way that deeply considers the context, needs, motivations, drivers and blockers of the primary actors involved. It is a different perspective and approach that brings the customer from the outside to inside the organisation to co-create the solutions that matter to them. Having this level of clarity will go some way in elevating the conversation and expectations around Design as a whole.

Measuring Design

There is also a deep fascination in this brave new world for individuals who come from other functional areas in the organisation to try and interrogate how the efforts of Design are to be measured.  I have found that Design Practitioners and Leaders very often allow themselves to be drawn into dead-end conversations with Karen from Risk around how we measure the value and contribution of Design. While I fully understand the want and need for Designers to bring the organisation along on the journey, with humility and transparency; I really cannot stress enough how much of a waste of time conversation this is to be having. Of course, as practitioners we understand the importance of measurement as a yard-stick – in fact we probably understand measurement followed by informed action (iteration) far better than most – however it is not our job to justify why we are at the table. I find that we fall into the same traps in corporate of vanity metrics as a key justification for our existence. We are all busy and it makes no sense to spend our time desperately justifying our value. It is the job of those who placed us at the table to explain and elaborate. Ours is to show (not tell) the value of Design through working with business to plan, monitor and be vocal about the impact of Design interventions on the bottom line. How do you measure your value to the organisation, Karen?

Re/Designing the Organisation

Ultimately, the Business Value of Design is to re/design the organisation itself. If we truly understood that the organisation is merely a collection of people, process and technology, working towards the common outcome of realising the organisations’ promise (brand) and improving interactions with their customers (customer & employee experience) for bottom-line impact; it then becomes a no-brainer why Design should be at the table. The Design Leader, therefore, needs to challenge and shape the very make-up of the modern organisation. Every touchpoint where humans (ie. customers, employees, stakeholders) interact with the organisation need to be deliberately curated, architected (designed, duh) and transformed to meet the demands of the Age of the Customer. The process of how we organise ourselves to solve customer problems can no longer be done by actuaries and lawyers in a dark room; as smart as they are; they are ultimately not the customer; they do not reliably know what it is they are solving for, why it matters and to whom. The role of Design in creating truly empathetic organisations cannot be overstated.

It is the role and value of Design therefore to facilitate and co-create with the rest of the organisation how we organise ourselves and show up to solve real customer and employee problems. Design Leadership is about how we embed Design / Design Thinking as a way of thinking and doing throughout the organisation. There have been many buzzwords thrown around in corporate circles of late around customer-centricity, agility, empathy, waste reduction, innovation, outside-in perspectives, sustainability etc etc – these are all very much Design-led approaches, and perhaps the reason many of these initiatives have failed in the past has been the lack of clear, visible influence and direction from Design. Perhaps the time is now for Design to stand up and show its value by creating the future we want to see in our businesses and communities. Perhaps the time is now for Design to Lead.


The Immersion Group provides human-centred digital solutions for progressive, intuitive & engaging experiences. We encourage embracing digital transformation in an experience-driven world. If you would like further information please contact shaunei@immersiongroup.co.za.

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