Compelling reasons for investing in design

Dirk and Niblettes are helping me think about many aspects of what design is, and what does it do, that is, a start at an answer to "What good is it to us?".  Fred Bould, who designed the Squeezebox for Slim Devices in the news of late just sent me an email today with this question, (thanks for letting me blog my answer, Fred)

met with a company yesterday. very high tech. didn’t have a realistic idea of how long and
how much $$. these are key issues. if there were some sort of rational
explanation that could be presented in terms they would understand.
all know that good design might yield ROI if the fundamentals of the
business are sound to begin with. how do you help them to understand
that deep is better than shallow?

For the purposes of my answer, I am going to take Fred’s question at face value rather than the context in which he asked (i.e. I’m not going into the specific company’s product, whether it’s business model is sound, etc ) So, how would I present a rational explanation in terms that they would understand? And I also encourage you to join the discussion and debate whether I’m on the right track here!

There are two implicit concerns here –

1. Establishing that a well thought through design solution that integrates well with the corporate objectives as well as incorporates what niblettes refers to as "utility, usability and desirability" takes a certain amount of investment in time and money.

2. That there be a viable return on investment – either tangible such as sales figures, enhanced user experience and ease of use, or intangible such as the design language communicating the brand’s identity and vision.

The first, imho, would be well served by first establishing a design process, even if it’s in the simplest terms i.e. phase one – research, phase two – framing the problem to be solved, phase three – design concepts/solutions, phase four – refining the concept etc

This then allows the designer to communicate that it’s not simply a matter of going away and coming back with a good looking box (styling as per the discussion below) but in fact going away to look at the context in which the product would be used, the concerns and needs of the users (selected market segment), deriving insights from this research and observations to come up with a product definition and then developing a ‘good looking’ box that serves the criteria established.

As for the return on investment in design – in Fred’s case, it could be as simple as demonstrating the original model of the Squeezebox and comparing it to his design, Squeezebox 3 which in fact, incorporates good looks with a strong identity around the company’s name – Slim Devices – i.e. it is indeed a ‘slim device’ and has received raves in the press for it’s looks as well as demonstrated an increase in sales etc etc. From last week’s NYT,

The Squeezebox 3 is, true to the company’s name, a slim device. At 7.6
by 3.7 by 3.1 inches, it has a face about the size of a flip-flop
sandal. The Squeezebox 3 is also gorgeous, a welcome attribute for
something that’s going to be in public view.

From their website, their earlier model and the newest version,

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