Insights 30/08/2022 Nick Dormon

Marketers must use ‘T-shaped design thinking’ to remain objective

A long time ago, I once interviewed for a job as a design manager at P&G. Expecting a thorough review of my design portfolio I was surprised to be given an exam on marketing data analysis.

I was flummoxed. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job but, after that experience, I didn’t want it. What have statistics got to do with design anyway?

Well, quite a lot actually. Having gained a bit more experience over the years, not least being at the helm of a design agency, I have developed a much more mature view. In our capacity as creatives who are presenting our design work to marketers, we assume this is what marketers predominantly do with their time. In reality, they spend a lot of energy understanding and analysing the numbers: how many consumers like this or that? Are sales going up or down? What price would be right for this range or that variant? Whilst a marketer is not trained in design, they are asked to choose which design will be more commercially successful and why. Herein lies the difficulty.

Sometimes marketers don’t think choosing a design is that hard but it’s a critical task beset by danger. Marketers, after all are human with their own set of quirks and idiosyncrasies. As individuals, the brand design may not appeal to them given that they’re not the target market; what’s ‘good’ for them may not be good for the consumer. Yet maintaining objectivity is key to making the right commercial decisions. External teams, like design agencies and partners with carnal knowledge of design, become a vital to helping marketers stay objective. Numbers are just as important as creativity and in-house design teams, in particular the design managers, must have a strong handle on both.

At P&G and similar organisations, there are teams of design managers that manage this interface. Whilst not actively designing, they ensure close continuity between internal and external teams. They possess a unique skill set that allows them to fluently speak the nuanced language of marketing, design and production.

So what of internal teams active in design? The thing about designers is they are not one breed. They span a broad line from the conceptual thinker to the pragmatic technician. Creativity is a big part of design, but it’s wasted if the fine-tuning doesn’t happen. Ideas don’t get realised and make money. Every designer on that line is vital to success. However, most designers do not want to be cast as one of those types. In fact, they must move up and down the development line to keep fresh, open-minded and grounded. They need ownership of ideas and to see their designs through to market.

And what of the finance director’s view? Consultancies are expensive but necessary for fresh thinking. They can be turned on and off as needed and pitched against each other to get the best price. An in-house team is a permanent overhead but can be fine-tuned and systemised to keep productivity up and costs down. There needs to be a point when designs are handed from the agency to the in-house team and when projects stay in-house or are pitched out. Another cost-effective tactic would be that an in-house design team can take an agency’s sketches as early as possible and complete the artworks and technical drawings internally in a lower overhead location.

But it’s now well established in managerial circles that an ‘over the wall’ project approach just doesn’t work. It’s inflexible, a ground rife for misunderstanding and muddled ownership. Close collaboration is required to ensure design intent is preserved and, indeed, enhanced as the practicalities of development through to production come to bear. That means internal and external teams need to collaborate and interact through the programme to get the best result.

Some companies build up their design teams to handle all their design needs thereby avoiding the cost of agencies. With a few exceptions, this approach comes and goes in waves over time. I think this is because big companies can offer tempting packages to designers and designers are attracted by the skills and experience they will gain. But if the company’s business is narrow (for example, household cleaning), those designers will soon become stale – there’s only so many trigger-sprays you can design and keep the creative interest going. Either the quality of the work drops or the designers leave for more engaging prospects.

There are organisations led by design such as Google, Dyson and Apple where vast internal design teams get to explore and develop a wide range of ideas. Their scale means they can encompass the idea of ‘T-shaped thinking’ where they have the breadth of projects to work on to always keep the team broadminded and the depth of skills and systems maintained to ensure a deep knowledge of their industry.

In every other business, a symbiotic relationship between the internal and external teams ensures the benefits of ‘T-shaped thinking’. When it works best is when there is a long-term close relationship with exchanges of designers between internal and external teams to gain different experiences, empathy and understanding. It is also essential that in-house teams are involved in the up-front ideation to feel a sense of ownership and the external designers sit with the technical designers to see their work through into market.

This organisation model requires careful management and investment, but the rewards will include more break-through innovation and better quality design in the market. It will increase consumer benefits and thus ‘premiumise’ offers, be more sustainable and inclusive, reduce costs and increase margin because many of these things evolve and strengthen through a design’s development.

For this strategy to work, it needs a champion: someone high enough in the business to fight the corner of design against the pressures of finance and marketing. Design needs to be represented on the board but also needs the power to go with it. The Marketing Director can point to how his or her spend has increased sales and the Finance Director can point to how much money he or she has saved. The Design Director struggles to quantify their position, but the soft information tells its own story. So ultimately, it has to be the CEO who must champion design to defend that seat on the board, just like Steve Jobs did – and just look at what he achieved.

Read the article on Elite Business Live here