New Data on Design in Large Companies

By Scott Kirsner |  August 13, 2021

In a business landscape where design-led companies like Tesla, Airbnb, Nike, and Target can produce buzz, healthy profit margins, and intense customer devotion, why do so many companies still view design as a discrete department that plays a limited role — one that often isn’t very high on the C-suite’s priority list?

We’ve been exploring that question — as well as the broader role that design can play in influencing overall corporate culture and process — as part of our 2021 research initiative, “Design as a Competitive Advantage.” In July, we conducted a short survey to gather data from corporate innovation, new product, strategy, and R&D leaders. We received 107 qualified responses; the top six industries represented were:

  1. Consumer goods and products
  2. Financial services
  3. Healthcare
  4. Medical devices
  5. Higher education and technology (a tie)

Here’s an overview of the quantitative and qualitative responses to that survey. Our research sponsor was PA Consulting; they contributed questions and ideas to the survey. (Click the arrows icon in the upper left to see a larger version of the charts.)

Who leads design? In many organizations, there isn’t a clear “owner” of the design function. Just 6.6 percent of our respondents said they had a Chief Design Officer; a larger chunk of respondents said design was led by a Chief Marketing Officer (8.5 percent) or innovation/R&D executive (17.9 percent).

Among the “other” responses were: “Product leadership,” “Our founder, who started as a designer,” “Communications team,” and “There are a number of areas that have designers; it is not centralized.”

Design leadership stops at the VP level. Design needs a seat at the table in the C-suite. — Retail Industry Respondent

When is design brought in?  Good news here. At 80 percent of large organizations, design colleagues get involved at the very start of a project; at the ideation stage; or they are involved in every stage. At just 7.6 percent of companies, designers are brought in only when products are being readied for launch, and 3.8 percent of respondents say designers are not involved in product and service innovation — perhaps focusing more on packaging, identity, or marketing-related design.

Design needs to be brought in sooner to the decision making. Right now, it seems design is more of an after-thought. — Agriculture Industry Respondent

How design influences better product and service innovation.  We invited respondents to tell us all of the ways that design contributes to better product and service innovation, and just 36 percent cited brand differentiation. Instead, the top contributions were more about customer focus: delivering user insight and creative concepts, and keeping user requirements front-of-mind throughout the innovation process. Just 6.7 percent of respondents said that design doesn’t really influence better product and service innovation in their organizations. 

How design adds value, separate from innovation work. Again, we invited respondents to identify several ways that design adds value in other functions of the business, separate from those focused on product and service innovation. The top three answers were creative problem solving, user-centricity, and better visualization and communication. Fifteen percent of respondents said that design doesn’t add value in functions apart from product and service innovation. 

In-house versus external help. Nearly 63 percent of our respondents said that design work is primarily done by in-house employees, with some external support. Just 5.7 percent said they’re reliant entirely on external agencies.

The C-suite’s role. The largest segment of our survey respondents — 41.2 percent — said that C-suite leaders don’t have an especially well-defined role when it comes to design. But 30.8 percent said some of their C-suite leaders help foster or support a design-led culture, and 25 percent said they apply design principles to business strategy. 

Qualitative Responses

We also asked two qualitative questions as part of the survey. These were 10 of the most interesting and representative responses to each, along with the respondent’s industry.

In your organization, are there changes made recently, or that you would like to see made, to make design more central to your strategy, culture, and approach? 

  • “We have to embed it further into the culture. We also have to provide training to spread design skills across a wider portion of the company. Right now, it is concentrated in the executive office.” — Healthcare 
  • “Design leadership stops at the VP level. Design needs a seat at the table in the C-suite.” — Retail
  • “Creating roles in our organization dedicated to design is a major first step. Also, consistent messaging from the C-suite as to the necessity of a design strategy.” — Professional Services
  • “We talk about human-centered design, but are still on the journey to implement it. I’d like to see us walk the talk more.” — Government/Public Sector
  • “We are reorganizing to have design be a key driver/leader of innovation and growth.” — Consumer Goods & Products
  • “I would like to see strategic design applied to projects and the R&D organization overall, to better leverage consumer insights and knowledge and shift to ‘jobs to be done’ and systems thinking approaches.” — Consumer Goods & Products
  • “We focus on continuous learning and staying curious.” — Engineering & Construction
  • “Design should lead product definition, not marketing or technology. Unfortunately, this is not the case with our company currently.” — Medical Devices
  • “Design needs to be brought in sooner to the decision making. Right now, it seems design is more of an after-thought.” — Agriculture
  • “I believe using the vocabulary of customer centricity and human centered design allows non-design affiliated stakeholders to develop an appreciation of design’s value once they observe and take part in the development process. They see that it’s continuous, not one and done.” — Financial Services

Design keeps the project focused on the customer and business opportunity; without design, I’ve seen teams get very distracted by ‘shiny pennies’ and every possible solution available… — Healthcare Industry Respondent

What role do you see design playing in the strategy and culture of the most successful organizations — not including your own?

  • “Top organizations are design-led… or at least have a executive-level design leader who can ensure there are design/customer-centric goals, metrics and initiatives included in the overall organizaton’s strategy and mission.” — Consumer Goods & Products
  • “Design takes science and applies it to human behaviors to generate memorable experiences. When this works well, you have leading products and foster brand love.” — Retail
  • “Encouraging a development process that is focused on doing what’s right by the consumer. Even if it isn’t good for the timeline.” — Consumer Goods & Products
  • “Design must be embedded at every level of the organization, and championed at the top.” — Agriculture
  • “Design keeps the project focused on the customer and business opportunity; without design, I’ve seen teams get very distracted by ‘shiny pennies’ and every possible solution available, resulting in diluted products/processes/solutions.” — Healthcare
  • “Helps the organization have a constant visualization of how they are presented to the outside world.” — Financial Services
  • “Design as a mindset and process is crucial to 1. Coming up with products that are successful on the market (meeting current user needs), 2. Anticipating new innovation potentials, and 3. Continuously learning and developing as an organization.” — Medical Devices
  • “It’s not just the cherry on the cake; it is the cake.” — Healthcare
  • “I believe design is becoming a key role to ensure a successful digital transformation within organizations, as digital solutions are becoming more important and the experience they provide is key to be successful in that journey.” — Agriculture
  • “Many people act in a very tactical manner, just executing tasks. Design can unlock deeper meaning and opportunities.” — Aerospace & Defense

InnoLead members can download the charts from this project in PowerPoint form from our Downloadable Documents library.