Where Einstein Meets Edison

Design in entrepreneurship: essential or a luxury?

Design in entrepreneurship: essential or a luxury?

Oct 29, 2012


What is the role of design in improving the world we live in? This was the central question at the annual “A Better World by Design” (ABWxD) conference, hosted by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) last weekend. While some may associate design with beautiful buildings or intuitive software interfaces, conversations at ABWxD extended far beyond this realm. The key take-away from two days in Providence, RI: design plays a fundamental role in the success of any project, extending its influence from technology development to product sales.

In technology development, design is too often an after-thought. Noel Wilson shared the process of redesigning a rollable water vessel for developing countries. Previously, a product had been developed to eliminate the need for people to carry heavy water containers on top of their heads. As Wilson and his team were testing a prior version of the product in the field, Wilson observed that people had difficulties using the sealing mechanism. By involving the end-users, and setting up a prototype facility in a local village, Wilson was able to rapidly iterate through design features, and find those design elements that were most appreciated by users.

It is specifically the interface between user and technology that requires careful design. In a personal conversation, Steve Daniels – who founded ABWxD in 2008 – shared his experience working with IBM Research, by most standards an advanced technology company. For IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative, engineers have been avidly developing technologies that can communicate energy and water consumption to residents. Despite excellent engineering functionality, the researchers realized that analytics alone aren’t enough to change consumer behavior. To create such behavioral change, beautification is not enough: design must be grounded in cognitive psychology and sociology to influence behavior.

Besides technology and product-interface development, the importance of design extends into marketing and communication. A well-visited workshop on Saturday focused entirely on persuasive communication. To make a message stick, good design is essential. Design does not only relate to the form and quality of the communication (e.g. a YouTube video), but also on the source of communication.

Giles Holt, architecture student at RISD University, is one of the co-founders of Consignd. In place of brick-and-mortar stores, Consignd allows users to buy from an influential expert, changing the way we find the products we love. Fundamental to the stickiness of the system is the design, and judging by their website, these guys have a lot up their sleeves. Beyond their product, Consignd has brought a design approach to their business development by applying the same sequence of steps employed by Noel Wilson throughout as they go to market.

If design is fundamental to development and diffusion of innovative products and services, how can it be further integrated into university education? A good example is the annual course Product Design and Development. Taught by MIT professor Steven Eppinger in collaboration with RISD professors, this project-based course stimulates small teams of students to develop a physical product. Beth Soucy, an industrial design student and part of this year’s ABWxD organizing team, was positive about her experience taking the class, collaborating with MIT engineers and business students to develop a tangible product.

Beyond MIT, startup accelerators are picking up on the importance of design too. GreenStart, a San Francisco based accelerator, focuses on giving renewable energy companies a redesign of business, branding and communication.

Having highlighted the importance of design in many different stages of a company’s value chain, it must be noted that design is not a cure-all medicine. Beyond excellent design, transformational companies require an element of technological or business model innovation. In the energy space, this is highlighted by the “energy dashboard delusion”: the idea that visualization of energy consumption would automatically engage home owners to hugely reduce their utility bills.

How do you integrate design into your work? Is design a core element of your business, or do you see it as an extra? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!