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Towards the end of last week, I was sent to Coventry by my colleagues at the Design Council, thankfully a literal rather than metaphorical trip. The Design Council and Warwick Business School (based near Coventry) are collaborating on a new research project called Design in the Boardrooom. Together we’re looking at how business leaders are using design approaches within their companies. We’re particularly interested where these business leaders are applying design thinking, previously limited just to developing new products or services, more widely within their organisations.

Why does this matter? The bottom line is that good design is good business. An evaluation of the Design Leadership programme indicates businesses can expect to increase their net profits by up to £4.12 for every £1 they invest in design, while evidence from the Danish Design Centre shows that companies that purchased design enjoyed gross revenues approximately 22% higher than companies that didn’t.

There’s also evidence to show that extracting the best return for a company’s investment in design is associated with how deeply the principles of design are embedded within the organisation. To illustrate this, in 2002 the Danish Design Centre devised the Design Ladder, a four-stage scale of design maturity. Companies that use design solely as a bolt-on (e.g. just for styling new products) score low, while those who apply design approaches to make key strategic decisions score more highly at stages three and four.

While Danish companies are creeping up the Design Ladder (the proportion of companies at stage three increased by 10% and those at stage four by 5% between 2003 and 2007), there is little evidence that shows how deeply embedded design is embedded within UK businesses. The new research project, Design in the Boardroom, aims to explore this, uncovering the triggers that cause business leaders to think of new applications for design, exploring what they do with it, and what impact it has on their organisation.

One of the academics I met at Warwick likened it to the growing importance (over the last few decades) placed on marketing (as represented by chief marketing officers) at board level – a trend beginning to be seen in design, as the role of chief design officer starts to emerge.

We’re at the early stages of Design in the Boardroom, currently recruiting and interviewing the first participant companies, but we’ll keep adding updates to the webpage as the work progresses. In the mean-time, let us know what you think: are design principles deeply embedded in your business; what does this mean in practice, and what impact does it have on the organisation?

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