Nathan Shedroff is one of the pioneers of experience design as a strategy. He is the founding director of the groundbreaking MBA in Design strategy and firmly believes design is a critical and teachable discipline all organizations need to adopt. Apple is the most valuable company in the world, and as is well-known, design is in their organizational DNA. Still, many businesses struggle to embed design in their strategy because it’s inherently qualitative in a world that needs a number on everything.
In his book, Blind Spot: Illuminating the Hidden Value In Business, Shedroff and his coauthors argue there’s as much or more value hiding in the qualitative side of most businesses than in the things we can measure. This “blind spot” causes companies to miss out on huge opportunities. But all’s not lost. We can learn to recognize and liberate qualitative value by understanding and applying the principles and practices of design.
I caught up with Shedroff to find out what good design in business looks like and how to make it work in more companies.
Lisa Kay Solomon: Why is design so important for organizations and leaders?
Nathan Shedroff: Design is commonly recognized as a creative discipline, but I believe all business people should be creative, and all parts of a business should be creative. At its core, design is a process to see new opportunities, understand the context our customers or stakeholders are in, then take that new perspective and make new things out of it.
Companies that do design well make it part of their corporate strategy. Design is used to inform and understand markets, competition, customers, and context. If you look at any successful company that has a well-known brand or is able to charge more than their competitors, design is typically one of the reasons why they’re in a position to do so.
Design is a set of processes that understands how to capture qualitative value. You pair that with traditional business tools that are really good at measuring quantitative value, and you have a complete picture of the opportunity and customer need, which informs how you approach the market and build better products and services.
LKS: We see some very prominent cases of design-driven companies like Apple, Tesla, and Nike. Why don’t more companies do it?
NS: The last 50 years of business education and business practice has relegated anything that’s qualitative off to the side because it’s messy and hard to deal with, and you can’t attribute numbers to it. Remember the old saying “If you can’t measure it then you can’t manage it”?
If you look through the financials of some companies, design isn’t anywhere in there. Certainly not in a distinct and measured way. But, in reality, design is an integral part of strategy and how it gets executed. Design allows companies to create better relationships with their customers, partners, stakeholders, and even employees.
Those relationships are where all the value is.
If you don’t have good relationships, you don’t get good value. End of story. Design is the thing that supercharges the rest of the company.
LKS: What’s the relationship between design and technology?
NS: Technology is an incredible enabler. This is no more present than in Silicon Valley, which lives and breathes technology. But the dirty little secret to Silicon Valley is that probably 90 percent of the companies that start in this region fail, and not because they’re poorly engineered or their technology’s not interesting or right.
It’s usually because nobody really needs the technology. If you want to be successful in business, you have to pay attention to the technology and what it enables you to do, but you also have to do it in the service of a market need.
LKS: What are some of the unique skills that designers bring to business?
NS: Designers are comfortable with qualitative research and divergent thinking, and they’re good at reframing, or looking at markets and opportunities through new eyes.
Airbnb is a great example. Here you have three founders who don’t have any experience in the hospitality industry, yet they’ve disrupted it because they reframed it, not as renting a hotel room, but having a place to stay, belonging somewhere. That allowed them to totally re-imagine how to think about the kinds of services and experiences they offer. Now, they’ve reframed it again and said it’s not enough to have a spare room to stay in—it needs to be an experience. In fact, the opportunity here is to have a better experience than you would in a hotel because you have a personalized relationship and local insight, and that’s going to unlock new value.
Designers are also skilled in the practice of critique—the ability to reflect and provide productive feedback on the work. They understand that the feedback loop isn’t necessarily a reflection of them as a person or their talent, it’s a reflection of the work and what it needs at that moment. They understand design is a process, and input from multiple sources is helpful to the overall success of the idea. It helps if the reward system in the company is set up to support that.
I think of being a designer as being more like a conductor. You’re conducting all these choices, all these notes. You’re trying to build a symphony—not for yourself, but for an audience whose experience you care about deeply.