Major corporations aren’t exactly known for their transparency. But I’ve recently started seeing something that’s really surprised me. Corporate heavyweights like IBM, Goldman Sachs, Google, and Starbucks are providing a rare peek behind the corporate curtain: They’re publicly posting their internal brand standards, design guidelines and plans right on their websites.

When these large, established companies start sharing information that traditionally has been considered proprietary (or even a trade secret), you know something is up. Why the sudden openness? What’s the incentive for being so forthcoming with their design strategy?

Simply put, these companies now recognize the extent to which design drives their bottom line.

As technology continues shaping our world, the business case for making design a priority becomes even stronger. Let’s explore why some companies are going this route—and examine how your professional services firm should look at its future through a design lens.

“Aha!” Design Moment: Corporate Customers Are Real People

The word “design” encompasses a huge discipline that goes far beyond just letterhead and a logo. At its core, design isn’t just about creating attention-grabbing images or interfaces. It’s a means to more seamlessly and meaningfully connect with people.

Companies must deploy thoughtful, engaging and useful design consistently throughout their website, apps and/or other digital platforms. Using design across the entire customer journey to improve the user experience will give your firm a distinct competitive advantage.

IBM Depends on Design to Increase Sales & Customer Satisfaction

When Ginni Rometty was head of IBM, she made it clear how design was informing the company’s direction: “The goal is to make our B2B products as consumerish as possible in terms of ease, feel, simplicity,” she told Harvard Business School.

Here is one of the largest and most established companies in the world using “consumerish” to describe how they hope to employ design to attract new customers in a B2B marketplace. IBM recognizes that the products and services they’re designing for companies are being used by real people. That demands a more holistic, human approach.

These are not giant, faceless entities buying your product or engaging with you; these are real people.

In 2012, IBM began looking at how design thinking (a user-centric approach to solving design problems) could improve their products as well as their relationship with customers. By 2020, the company had hired 2,500 professional designers and trained more than 250,000 employees in design thinking. In doing so, IBM improved its product development time to market by 50%. After elevating the importance of design and embedding designers into cross-functional teams during that eight-year period, IBM enjoyed higher sales, revenue and customer satisfaction.

By assigning designers to work on product teams alongside their technical engineers, developers and product managers, IBM discovered new efficiencies. Involving designers earlier in the process gave developers direction on how to improve the end-user experience—insights they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Consider the level of consumer-focused thinking at Apple when they’re designing the next iPhone. IBM recognizes its corporate customers expect their experience with IBM products to be as seamless, painless and productive as their interactions with their iPhones.

Why Is Designing for Consumers so Important?

Today, a customer’s interactions with your brand are more likely to be mediated by technology than anything in the physical world. Professional services firms that don’t make design integral to their strategy risk falling behind the competition, losing market share—and maybe even going out of business.

Banking is a prime example. You used to go into a branch, look for a pen, maybe you’d be happy there were lollipops for your kids or treats for your dog. Now you don’t need to go to a branch office for most of your banking. Depositing checks, transferring money, paying bills, checking balances, even making investments—all of that can be done online or in an app without ever having to walk into a building.

Design’s Function in Global Investment Banking: Goldman Sachs Case Study

Goldman Sachs saw where the future of banking was heading when it introduced Marcus, its financial services platform that lives entirely online. There are no physical Marcus branches anywhere.

So when creating an experience for customers that is purely digital, design is everything. From visual design to interactive design to user experience design, design defines the entire experience.

In sharing their design guidelines with the public, Goldman Sachs distilled them to a handful of simple rules:

• Start with users.
• Clarify complexity.
• Deliver value, not features.
• Empower clients.
• Consistency, at scale.

Notice that Goldman’s emphasis on design has less to do with “making things pretty” and more to do with creating a clear, consistent, user-friendly experience.

Smart Design Shows Customers You’re Serious About Innovation

Companies emphasizing design know it’s central to the customer journey, and they’re investing time and resources to ensure success. If a customer’s digital interaction with your brand fails to live up to their expectations or leaves them confused or unfulfilled, they will delete your app or leave your website—and move on to one that actually works.

But investing in design behind the scenes and publicizing that commitment are two very different things. Some firms may have good reasons for keeping their design strategy under wraps. Those who are going public see value in sharing their design intentions and aspirations with prospective customers and employees. Both approaches are valid as long as design has a seat at the table. However, it’s worth considering why some firms are taking the public approach.

Goldman Sachs would not embrace design with this level of public commitment without believing it provides a strategic business advantage. Making design a priority is a non-negotiable.

There are reasons to amplify your firm’s commitment to design that will also help distinguish yourself in the market.

Making Your Design Commitment Public Can Boost Recruiting

Talented designers are in high demand, and competition to hire them can be fierce. Why not tell the world how much you value design at your firm?

Public design guidelines are a strong signal to potential employees that your organization is innovative—that your firm offers candidates opportunities not available at more traditional companies. For global or otherwise far-flung institutions, it is a way to broadcast modernization and quality standards, optimize version control and unify a dispersed workforce.

Sharing Design Standards Shows Relevance

Firms that disclose their design standards and intentions see it as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Such forward-thinking firms already recognize that their future customers are younger and more digitally savvy. Putting design in the center of the conversation is vital to remaining relevant. It’s as simple as that.

Design To Thrive (or Be Doomed to Decay)

To evaluate and elevate your brand effectively, it’s time to rethink how you have been thinking about design. Believing you can do business the way you always have is no longer valid.

If the largest and most established companies in the world are taking design to the next level—and publicly broadcasting that commitment—your organization needs to be making a move in that same direction.

This doesn’t mean your firm needs to broadcast its design intentions for all the world to see. But it does mean that design plays an increasingly vital role in determining your firm’s success.

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