Developing design maturity in clients

Design maturity measures a client’s willingness to adopt a customer-first approach using design. These are clients who use designed experiences to deliver added value to their customers. Two questions: how do you identify design maturity in a client and how do you find design mature clients?

These are questions often asked in our creative business mentoring sessions. In search of answers we conducted research culminating in The Design Maturity Report. Our aim was to find a better way to explain design and how it can be used. Similar research has been done by the Design Management Institute (the design value system) and the UK Design Council.

Adding to the complexity of the matter, many designers find it hard to explain design. It’s problematic. When asked, they usually offer an example, but as soon as they do, they’re pigeon-holed. Oh, you’re the annual report designer, or interesting, you work in the aged care sector. Sometimes that’s helpful. Often, it’s not.

So how do you define design?

We found – right at the beginning of our research – a large part of the problem is getting an agreed understanding of ‘design’. Design means different things to different people. We identified 26 different design disciplines – and that was 18 months ago, now we could add a few more. We developed an infographic of all 26 (contact Greg for a copy) and once clients saw this they understood what design meant in their workplace.

But then there’s design maturity; just how much they used design to deliver value to their customers, and their employees. The idea of business maturity comes from a U.S. Defence Department model to assess the capability of businesses supplying to the U.S. Government. A maturity model is a set of structured levels starting from from ad hoc practices, through to full optimisation of the business processes. The model describes how well the behaviours, practices and processes of an organisation can reliably and sustainably produce products or services.

Levels of design maturity

The challenge is to communicate the level of design maturity. Many clients think they’re accessing the full abilities of a design supplier when really, it’s a transactional relationship. At this level they commission specific design outputs while at a fully design mature level they are commissioning design outcomes; fully integrated design.

But it’s difficult to demonstrate this to clients without tangible examples. We think we’ve fixed that. We’ve found a way to identify five different levels of design maturity in a business; the design maturity ladder.

The design maturity ladder demonstrates the different applications of design in a business: from transactional design to fully integrated design. For a factsheet on the design maturity ladder contact Greg.

Design Maturity research

Our Design Maturity research was conducted in face-to-face meetings, firstly with the design studio owners (many from our creative business coaching sessions), and then often with their clients. In some cases, further research with the client was needed to complete the information. This process alone helped designers realise that there was much more to their clients’ business.

Apart from identify design maturity the report showed three corporate design trends:

  • UX design dominates growth of the design profession.
    Many clients, from the board to the communications and marketing areas, more readily recognised the value UX and UI added to their product or service. They understood that designed customer experiences added value.
  • Significant investment in design transforms businesses.
    The research proved design, particularly human-centred design methods, increased employee, and customer satisfaction. These are a proven financial return-on-investments. Happier employees tend to stay longer, saving the expense and time of onboarding new employees — a considerable financial cost. Similarly happier customers were often repeat and loyal purchasers. Repeat customers are also easily identified and better understood.
  • Creative businesses have new competitors.
    New design business models have been developed by management consultancy firms like Deloitte and Accenture. They have recognised these trends and developed design maturity approaches, taking business from privately-owned creative businesses. See the McKinsey The business value of design.

What is a design mature business?

Every business has a number of activities they must do to stay in business; marketing, customer service, HR etc. It’s easier if you think about them as activities a client must do, rather than departments. Not all clients have a human resource department, but all employers have human resource needs. In our design maturity research we developed a way to illustrate design maturity in ten activities that every business must do to stay in business. We called this the design value chain based on the Michael E Porter Value Chain concept; an approach taught in MBA’s and written about in the business press. When we introduced this to business owners many knew of it. This gave immediate credibility to our process.

How do you find design mature businesses?

Identifying the ‘right’ client for your business is a key activity in our creative business mentoring. A lot of our mentoring helps creatives define their client’s level of design maturity.

We’ve developed a tool to unpack a business and analyse their maturity in using design; activity by activity – their design maturity. This tool begins with identifying all the design disciplines and then measures the use of design (the design ladder) in each of the ten business activities (the design value chain). This is all based on our Design maturity report.

Greg Branson

Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.

Greg has developed The Design Business School to help owners manage their business better along with showing designers how to get more involved in the studio and develop their career path. Contact Greg.