What Price Design?

by Jonathan Ford, Pearlfisher

This is not yet again referring to fee levels or free pitching issues but, more specifically, about how we are measuring the value of design in business and just how well we are communicating the return on investment and design effectiveness message. Personally, I think that we are not yet banging the drum hard enough.

Yes, the industry awards schemes do a fantastic job for us in terms of profiling and promoting commercial and creative effectiveness. The annual DEAs (Design Effectiveness Awards) run by the UK’s Design Business Association is now entering its 22nd year and is regarded – by both agencies and clients alike – as one of the most competitive and coveted industry awards. And in the US, the AIGA’s annual 365 Design Effectiveness Competition is gaining more recognition and upping the ante stateside. We hope – and expect – to see more competitions and awards of this nature starting up around the globe. But, it is also the responsibility of each and every one us in this industry to be committed to raising awareness of the value of creativity for businesses and brands.

Now more than ever we have to be accountable in business. The climate has forced cutbacks and budget slashing and moving forward it is even more important to be able to prove a return on our investment. And design does stand out as one of the most effective disciplines that a brand can invest in. Look at those brands that are the most resilient and phenomenally successful ones. Google has been named as this year’s most valuable brand (source: www.cnet.com) whilst Apple has been named Grand Winner at the American Brand Excellence Awards. These are just two notable brand beacons where we can see the power of design value embraced throughout an organisation with both consistently investing in - and reaping the rewards from- brand identity and good design. In addition, there are also mega successful retailers, like Walmart in the US (ranked third on this year’s most valuable brands list) and Waitrose in the UK, that have a tangible appreciation of the power of design running throughout touch-points such as packaging and in-store environment.

Placing value on design can be seen as an investment in a healthy brand and business future. It is design which is the single most tangible interface between anything man made and with people who use it. Therefore, in a commercial context, how well it is designed - in both the function and aesthetic - will affect the bottom line and business fortunes. 

There is, of course, the black and white data to prove the commercial effectiveness of DEA winners such as Green & Black’s. But what is probably of just as much interest and note is that the brand identity and packaging led all advertising and marketing communication and is credited with its campaign and sales success. In addition, following a redesign at the end of 2009, the revered Peter Bake created a widely publicized and acclaimed mosaic featuring the refreshed – and more colorful – packaging. Design imitating art, Design as advertising…The power of design must not be under-estimated.

And whilst we want to champion all our effectiveness awards schemes and competitions – and welcome relative newcomers such as the Cannes Design Lions that puts the focus on judging creativity - we also need to look beyond these. We need to take the reins for tracking progress with open-minded clients, verifying, educating and communicating the power of effective design. As an industry we all have a responsibility and vested interest in presenting the case of design effectiveness and demonstrating its real value to our clients – and to the wider business world.

Not only does design create desirability for brands, it solves problems in ways that other forms of marketing just can’t do.

Aside from helping drive sales, and build businesses, design is also being adopted more and more by public bodies to help solve societal issues. The AIGA has worked with the U.S Department of Transportation to develop a set of 50 symbol signs to be used in airports and other transportation hubs as well as at large international events. Previously there had been no system of signs that communicated the required range of messages and addressed people of different ages and cultures. In the UK the Design Council has launched a design challenge briefing designers to help reduce aggressive behavior in hospitals. We need to continue proving that investment in innovative design is essential for us to respond effectively to the macro changes and challenges that we face.

Designers do understand the way the world is changing and can lead that change. It's a fantastic opportunity and an awesome responsibility. What's the threat? Not recognising that we need to adapt. Particularly as design now needs to exist in so many mediums and be so much more accountable on so many more levels as we design for social – and social media - impact. 

Moleskine is a great example of a design-centric brand. With a notable absence of advertising, Moleskine chooses to focus instead on limited editions and initiatives that relate directly to the brand identity and design of its products. And whilst existing predominantly as an analog brand, it does also offer a comprehensive social media presence on Facebook. In addition, it is reported that next month the brand will launch a new range of products to include such items as e-readers…and is a good example of a forward-looking brand understanding that its function, design and overall aesthetic is complementary - rather than counterintuitive - to these new technologies. (Source: www.fastcodesign.com)

Designer, Educator, Entrepreneur, Visionary…Clement Mok is described as many things but his vision is clear when he states, “Design, in its broadest sense, is the enabler of the digital era - it's a process that creates order out of chaos, that renders technology usable to business. Design means being good, not just looking good.”

And this is my point - from profitability to problem solving, our future really is in the hands of good design. Simply put, good design sells. And this is my call to action to tell the design effectiveness story; a story that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Creativity does not have to be at the cost of commercially effective design – good design is both. 


Jonathan Ford
Creative Partner, Pearlfisher

Jonathan is a designer and co-founder of Pearlfisher, the leading American and UK design agency, with one of the best track records for design and commercial effectiveness for brands.



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