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Why brands must unify their business fiefdoms into design kingdoms

Being a designer is not without its challenges. Design is hard to define, hard to quantify and it's even harder to present its virtues to the board. Yet, for something so hard to measure, design decisions ultimately affect every aspect of our lives.

At its core, design is about removing pain-points in the customer journey to help make people’s lives better. All businesses want to be good at design and many claim they excel in it. But saying you want to be good at design as a company is one thing; transforming a company to use design intelligently is another matter entirely.

In 30 years in the design industry, there are two key problems I have seen businesses face when attempting to create meaningful design: a misunderstanding of the breadth of design and what it can deliver today; and a failure to adequately leverage design at the strategic level, which often leads to siloed departments and a disconnected brand experience for consumers.  

Often the assumption is that design is simply colouring in pretty pictures, creating neat product containers and tweaking a logo with a subtle font change. Design is so much more than this. It is much less a fishhook trying to do one simple job, and more like Velcro – lots of little hooks all adding up to one great net effect. It threads into all nooks and crannies of the business, from the in-app or on-shelf experience right through to internal branding and marketing communications.

More importantly, the way traditional businesses are set up can generate siloed departments—little fiefdoms that lead to individualistic thinking and inconsistent results. Departments end up not working together as they should, which does not reflect how consumers act, think or feel. They don’t distinguish their in-app experience from their experience of reading medication instructions. If any part of the brand experience is disconnected from the rest, there is a risk that consumers will be turned off from a product that may help them – especially in healthcare.

As designers, we have a responsibility to colour outside the traditional lines of our design thinking to ensure that we guide people to take better decisions that will improve their lives. We must embrace the design-thinking that’s got our great industry this far, but then do what I would call design-linking, where business fiefdoms are unified through design into experience kingdoms that can truly solve people’s day-to-day problems.

At GSK Consumer Healthcare, we challenged ourselves to achieve just this with our therapeutic toothpaste brand for gum health, Parodontax. One in three adults globally suffers from gum disease, an infection caused by bacteria build up.  In developed markets, more teeth are lost from gum disease than cavities and tooth decay combined. Spitting blood is a sign of gum disease, and often people are unaware that this can lead to tooth decay or loss.

We aligned all internal departments, and externally agencies, to deploy sensitive application of creative to the right channels in the right ways to ensure a consistent consumer experience whenever our customers interact with our brand. This helped our consumers make the right choices in-store to help them take control of their condition and stop the journey towards more severe gum disease—Parodontax is now a category leader.

I would like to see our industry challenge conventional design wisdom to do more to make our customers’ lives better with the help of meaningful design decisions. And to do this, we need to understand what good design is today.

Good design colours outside the lines by utilising strategic design-thinking to blur the edges between functions, disciplines, media channels - and more.

Good design joins up dots through all departments, acting as the glue that binds all business functions into a seamless experience – internally and externally this is Design Linking.

Good design is creatively agnostic, unworried by shares, likes or gross rating points, and obsessed about the consumer above all else.

Good design generates powerful brand conversations that consumers can relate to when and wherever they bump into the brand in their non-siloed experience of their own reality.

We as an industry have some challenges ahead to realising the potential of design to transforming lives and businesses alike, and what it is and can be today.

These are not challenges unique to my role. They’ll be familiar to many in the design industry. The task is to provoke businesses to believe that design as a function should be a part of every business leadership team. Only by unifying our business fiefdoms into design kingdoms can we achieve this.

Andrew Barraclough is the vice president for global design at GSK Consumer Healthcare

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