Innovation That Matters

5 Must-Know Lessons From Design-Driven Brands

Work & Lifestyle

With some of the most innovative startups in the world being founded by designers, there's plenty to be learnt from successful design-driven brands.

Whether you own a business or are thinking of starting one, chances are you’ve already slogged through the endless amount of business advice on the web. TED talks, dreary webinars, bedtime reading of the Harvard Business Review — the list is endless. You’ve heard all about the value of conversion rates and ‘going viral’. But have you heard anything about the value of design-driven thinking?

Didn’t think so.

This is odd considering the fact the some of the most innovative start-ups, like Airbnb, Gumroad, and Pinterest, have been founded by designers. Countless others have adopted practices taken from creatives of all backgrounds. There’s plenty to learn from design-driven brands, and these five lessons are a great place to start.

Use A Design Perspective To Solve Business Problems

When Airbnb founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky first sought funding for their start-up, they were uniformly rejected because Silicon Valley investors didn’t think two design grads could build a successful company. But what those investors perceived as a weakness has actually proven to be one of Airbnb’s greatest strengths.

Gebbia and Chesky’s design backgrounds have played a role in everything from building their conference rooms — which are modelled after real Airbnb listings — to the structuring of a new employee’s first day on the job.

In fact, each new employee at Airbnb is expected to implement a new feature on day one. This unorthodox policy has yielded some impressive results. When a new designer changed the icon used when users ‘favorite’ a listing from a star to a heart, user engagement increased by 30%.

Not every business issue can be solved by design, but by making a habit of approaching problems from a design perspective, you’ll often find unique solutions that wouldn’t have otherwise been discovered.

Steal Like An Artist

Taking a page out of Austin Kleon’s seminal book about standing on the shoulders of giants, the founders of online opticians Warby Parker found inspiration from their favorite designers.

In an interview with Fast Company, co-founder Neil Blumenthal said, “We thought a lot about Zappos and how they changed the game from a customer service standpoint. They created this awesome internal company culture that then impacted the customer experience and their brand.”

In the same interview, the company’s other co-founder, Dave Gilboa, noted that they wanted to give their start-up a name that emphasised their focus on fashion and design in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors, whose names were overwhelmingly literal. Gilboa said they tested over 2,000 names before finally settling on Warby Parker.

Even if you aren’t an expert designer, as a business owner you definitely have taste. Don’t be afraid to use it to take inspiration from your favorite artists or brands and make them your own. And if you want customers to associate your brand with a specific aesthetic, make sure you pick a name that reinforces that.

Give Your Employees Room to be Creative

Sahil Lavingia, one of Pinterest’s first designers, knows a thing or two about the value of creative freedom. When he set out to found Gumroad, an online marketplace for creatives, he made sure to keep the hierarchical structure flat.

There are no managers at Gumroad, offering employees a degree of autonomy rarely seen at other start-ups. A recent First Round article points out that this structure — or lack thereof — has helped the start-up acquire millions of new users in a short amount of time. While this may sound like anarchy, it’s anything but: all 20 Gumroad employees report directly to Lavingia, enabling him to ensure that everyone has the same information and the same overall goals. In his own words, “the people who define the choices have more power than the people making the choice.”

By creating a company culture with a central mission and using the right tools to establish intuitive workflows, employees can often find answers to their own questions without needing a manager to micro-manage them. That freedom, in turn, can result in tremendous growth and innovation.

Try Radical Transparency — Your Customers Will Love You For It

During his days as a venture capitalist, Michael Preysman didn’t understand why there was such a high markup in fashion — so he flew to Spain to see where his favorite designer wallet was manufactured.

From this experience, he designed Everlane, a radically transparent online fashion retailer. Every cost, from cotton to shipping, that goes into making their products is detailed on their site, and their mark-up is never more than double the production cost.

Practicing this kind of transparency can attract customers in a way no other advertising can. Being open and honest breeds authenticity in your brand that is worth its weight in gold.

Make Design As Important The Business Itself

When former Gap CEO Mickey Drexler was brought in to reinvigorate J.Crew’s stalling brand in 2003, one of his first decisions was to make the design team as powerful as the business itself. The days of anonymous suits at corporate HQ deciding what ended up in stores, Drexler decided, was over.

He would eventually name veteran J.Crew designer Jenna Lyons as president and executive creative director of the company, pairing her with Libby Wadle, president of J.Crew Brand on the business side.

Of the business vs. design dynamic, Wadle said, “There should always be tension. Tension [between merchandising and design] will always help move each party forward.”

Too often great design work is stunted by the business side of an operation too afraid to take risks. By trusting your design aesthetic, you can be an innovator in your market, instead of falling in line with the rest of your competitors.

So put the spreadsheet down and pick up the paintbrush, it’s not always about doing what the rulebook says.

Written by Michael Tunney


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