Tweet Line: Applying design principles in business can give you a creative advantage

The 21st century is fast emerging as the age of creativity – a time of new sensations and experiences – designed by visionaries who realised the promise of technology and harnessed superior technical skills to deliver magical products and services. There has never been a better time to be in the business of design; numerous books and articles tout the rise of the creative age. But at the same time, many leaders in Asia have this perception that design is all fluff and not strategic.

This is a pity because there are many useful principles in design, and when applied to business, can give you an incredible edge over competitors. Leaders such as Steve Jobs of Apple, Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Ho Kwon Ping of Banyan Tree are not professional designers, but they have an intuitive sense for design and adopted its principles to gain an edge.

Here are three principles of design and how these leaders have applied them in business for success:

1. Don’t just Think Different, Respect the Problem

Some people have this idea that designers wear clothes that are different, even have funny-looking hair and maybe a little weird. There are some designers who may fit the description, but most designers are ordinary men and women whose work – in a number of ways – are similar to that of an engineer. Designers share the passion of engineers in solving problems and making life easier and better for people. Every designer knows that great solutions can only come about after understanding the problem in an in-depth way. This means thinking in terms of the scale of the challenge, the meaning of the issues at hand and what defines a better solution. So for designers, it is wrong to dismiss a problem – generally presented in one page brief – by simply jumping to conclusions because it is important to ‘respect’ it by exploring, investigating and looking at different ways to solve it.

This was how Apple solved the smartphone problem. The company was not the one who saw the emergence of the category, other leaders in the industry such as Bill Gates did. Apple was also not the first one to have developed smartphones, other companies like Microsoft and Nokia did. So what made the iPhone different was the way Apple approached the problem. The company observed that consumers did not want another seemingly ‘smart’ but complicated phone. They wanted something that was a joy to use and not something that always seem to make people feel stupid. Apple also learnt through the iPod that people really loved the element of intuitiveness, and that they love to interact with their device, so touch was an essential factor. From the iPod, they also realised the power of the ecosystem of content that they have built. It was the music library, built through painstaking negotiations with music giants that made the iPod an indispensable device. So they needed to make the iPhone indispensable by having a new eco-system of apps from partners.

Just before the launch of the first iPhone, Steve Jobs took to the stage and proudly announced that Apple will drop the word ‘Computer’ from its brand name. This shows just how deeply Apple thought and respected the challenge. Steve Jobs would later explain at AllThingsD, an annual event for the US tech industry, that he knew that the world had changed, and that it is no longer about personal computers but about what he called ‘post-PC’ devices like the iPhone and the iPod. Just like that, because Apple ‘respected’ the problem by thinking deeper about what it means; by identifying the various aspects that would make a great product; by thinking deeper about what would make a great experience, they created a game-changer. This principle can certainly apply to any business. So in an era when everyone seems to be rushing out ‘solutions’ and assuming things, it might be a good idea for you and your team to stop and ‘respect’ the challenge by taking time to consider what would be a great solution.

2. Visualise it and Keep Tweaking

When designers are working on solutions, they love to sketch, take photos, build prototypes or do anything that will demonstrate how the idea can evolve. This evolutionary process of rapid visualisation, or prototyping is extremely useful as you can quickly discern the likely problems and identify the best way forward. How many times have you been at meetings where people would argue endlessly about strategy, hoping that the other side would understand. If only they knew how to visualise what they were trying to express or show what it could be, how much time would that save?

This is how Starbucks design their stores thus giving them a competitive edge to become the world’s largest brand in gourmet coffee experiences. Starbucks was certainly not the ones who invented coffee. And America is not the country you would associate with great coffee as it did not have a coffee culture like Europe. But what made Starbucks stores different from other European brands like illy was their willingness to continuously experiment on what would qualify as the ‘third place’ for consumers. Starbucks has an internal design team called Starbucks Global Creative. This department is where Starbucks discuss ideas, trends and possible experiences. The team tries everything from the type of colour, materials, type of visuals and graphics, and see how far they can go to create a personalised experience in order to establish an emotional connection with customers. This relentless pursuit of trying to understand how customers connect with their stores and products, the constant tweaks to the stores and everything Starbucks, this scale of design evolution is unprecedented in the food and beverage industry. While other similar brands try to bring a more standardized experience worldwide, Starbucks works extremely hard to offer a variety of configurations so that the stores have a similar feel but are not the same. Starbucks dislikes the idea of the customers feeling that they are in a franchise, and so personalisation plays a significant role in their approach towards experience design.

In 2013, Starbucks, in partnership with TATA, opened its first store in Mumbai. Howard Schultz, ever the passionate champion for his brand was proud to highlight how Starbucks is collaborating with local coffee farmers to produce coffee that Indian customers can relate to. The store in Mumbai, has some of the accents like other Starbucks store in the world but everything else is inspired by India. You will find details like interiors that are inspired by Indian architecture, photos of local coffee farms and information about the history of coffee in the country. Starbucks’ ability to create personalised Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese experiences in different countries shows how serious it really is, in creating a ‘third place’ that customers can connect with. This does not require anyone to be a design genius but is simply pure hard work of constant learning and not assuming that you have already got the answer. This is a streak that designers can connect with: Take nothing for granted and keep tweaking to make it better.

3. The Harmony of Details

Designers share another passion with engineers and that is, details. They fret about everything, from pixels, materials, to the presentation. You sense the passion of designers when they fuss over every little detail and how they constantly worry about how the idea will be received. Every designer knows that it is the sum of all parts that matter, that the magic lies in the way it comes together and how everything has to work just as it was intended.

Banyan Tree Resorts is an example of how this principle helped them become one of the world’s renown brand for Asian hospitality. There were certainly other spas then, just that their experiences tend to be more clinical in style. There were also many other resorts that were designed based on Asian culture and experiences. But what made the Banyan Tree experience special was the unique way in which they considered everything and how well they efficiently coordinated each aspect of the experience. When you land at the airport, a staff member from the Banyan Tree Resort will pick you up. Once you are seated comfortably, music will be played to soothe your nerves. When you arrive at the lobby, you are then led to a place to sit where a staff member will come and offer you towels and a drink. Then once you are checked in; they will drive you to your personal suite. All these while, every staff, looks at you in the eye with smiles, making sure that they have attended to your every need. A distinct scent and the soothing music from the car seems to follow you wherever you go. It is this kind of attention to details, from the sensory aspects, that give you this feeling of ‘being wrapped gently with care’. If you arrive on the day of your wife’s birthday, a floral arrangement wishing her a happy birthday will be beautifully laid out on the bed.

The truly unique feature about Banyan Tree is the idea of the private pool in villas. Ho Kwon Ping, shared that the idea came about because the first property that they had, came without any very good view of the sea. The idea was great, but it was the attention to detail that made it really magical. The careful alignment of the bed so that when people wake up they will have a clear view of the calming pool, the promise of privacy achieved through careful landscaping and the sense of being immersed in the experience through careful selection of materials and artwork from the locality. Every Banyan Tree resort is carefully designed with the view in mind, either incorporating the surroundings or the pool which is designed to impress, so that every photo taken as a keepsake, will invoke beautiful memories.

Banyan Tree Spa experience is another example of how the team refuses to accept status quo and to do something unique with deep consideration. Traditionally, spas in the West tend to have a more clinical experience but Ho and his team wanted to deliver something more sincere and Asian in character. So when you step into a Banyan Tree Spa, it feels like stepping into a hospitable home in Asia that is welcoming and peaceful. The experience is less about science but more about the senses. With soothing music, pleasing scents and well-trained spa therapists, the experience goes beyond what many were doing then. Ho Kwon Ping and his team had no prior experience in the hospitality and spa business and yet their approach of considering and coordinating everything in a harmonious way raised the bar. Now, many high-end resorts have either adopted their strategies or are outright imitating their efforts. The attention to details and thoughtful coordination, similar to how an orchestra plays, is what made the Banyan Tree Experience unique.

Our world is now inundated with too many poorly thought-out choices, so features alone is not enough. You might be in the same business as someone else, but how well you understand the problem, how willing you are in learning and tweaking the experience and how attentive you are to the details, will set you apart from the competition. Designers know this maxim well; we are only as good as our last job. So this is not the time for more options but the opportunity for better experiences, thoughtfully designed to shape a better world.

This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.