Designful Company Post2Post Interview

The Post2Post bus has just pulled in!

Marty NeumeierThe Fresh Peel is pleased to welcome Marty Neumeier, brand consultant author of a number of the popular whiteboard overview business books, The Brand Gap, Zag, and now The Designful Company, which is the featured book for April’s stop on the Post2Post Virtual Book Tour.

It’s been very exciting for me to interview Marty because his work has done a lot to shape my own thoughts and methods when working with clients. Not only that, one quick search for on this blog for “Marty Neumeier” will show you how often ideas from his books and from content produced by his company, Neutron, inspires and shapes my thoughts here.

In this interview with Marty, we touch on a few of concepts from The Designful Company.




Q: You open up The Designful Company with the idea that, “We’ve been getting better and better at a management model that’s getting wronger and wronger.” What’s wrong with the way companies are managed?

Marty: The management model we’ve been using is based on the cold mechanics of the assembly line. The assembly line was successful partly because it turned a blind eye to morality, emotions, and human aspiration—all the better to make your competitors and customers lose, so you can win. We’ve spent the last century making minor tweaks to this same narrow idea of success.

But now we’re finding that innovation without emotion is uninteresting, products without aesthetics are uncompelling, brands without meaning are undesirable, and companies without ethics are unsustainable. We need a new management model that replaces the win-lose nature of the assembly line with the win-win nature of the network. I call the new model “the designful company.” It harnesses broad-based creativity to build a culture of nonstop innovation.


Q: How must the traditional views of design and designer be redefined in order for a company to build a culture of nonstop innovation?

Marty: We need to get past our view of the designer as a shaper of objects. The dictionary defines a designer as someone who plans an artifact or system of artifacts—in other words, the “posters and toasters” of the 20th century. This is too narrow. I prefer Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon’s definition: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” In this definition, design is a way of thinking, and anyone in the company can be a designer, including the CEO.

Design thinking is about refusing to accept the easy answer. It’s about imagining new possibilities that weren’t on the table before, and prototyping those possibilities so they can be tested. It’s the difference between “deciding” the way forward and “designing” the way forward. Deciding only works in a stable market where innovation is a low priority.


Q:  In what areas of business can design thinking be leveraged?

Marty: Well, of course, communications and products—the aforementioned posters and toasters—are still important, and can be designed a lot better. But we can move design thinking up the ladder to more important levels, such as brand strategy, end-to-end customer experience, organizational design, decision-making, business models, and corporate vision. When we apply design thinking to these questions, we get even more bang for the buck.

The Designful Company Ladder

 Q: How does design thinking lead to a culture of innovation?

Marty: Design thinking creates the process and vocabulary for a designful company. It runs on human qualities such as empathy, intuition, imagination, and idealism, which in turn lead to customer focus, holistic problem solving, innovative ideas, and extraordinary quality. The overall advantage that a culture of innovation gives you is enterprise agility. It allows the company to maneuver as a single entity.


Q: Looking at Interbrand’s Best Global Brands list, are there any that standout as designful, innovative companies?

Marty: Not as many as there should be. I would say IBM, Disney, Google, BMW, Apple, Nike, and IKEA are designful companies. But Coca-Cola, Microsoft, GE, and Cisco are not so designful.

Interbrand’s formula seems to be a rear-view assessment of brand value. I’d like to see a formula that gives more weight to the momentum of a brand, which would offer a better predictor for a brand’s future value. Y&R, for example, has a formula called the Brand Asset Valuator, which takes into consideration a brand’s “energy.” Designful companies are full of energy.


Q: What will the fate be for brands that fail to fully embrace design thinking?

Marty: Generally speaking, they’ll find their products and services will become increasingly commoditized and even obsolete as their competitors race ahead.


Q: You discuss the importance of collaboration within companies, but what opportunities do you see for companies to collaborate with groups (i.e., consumers) outside the company walls? What about online collaboration?

Marty: The web is actually the technology that unleashed collaboration. I’ve always said that we don’t live in the Information Age—we live in the Collaboration Age. The web has allowed people to work together across distances in real time for almost no money.

This new connectedness has also made it necessary to work together, because there’s no place to hide in a network. Customers now know things about brands and companies that even their employees don’t know. Customers are literally running the show. So it makes sense to enlist them as a functioning part of the brand machinery. I love how Skittles has turned their website into a forum for customer opinion. What they get in return for their transparency is a direct view into their customers’ brains, plus extra credit for having confidence in their brand.


Q: In a designful company what is the attitude towards failure?

Marty: Designful companies embrace failure as a learning step. Companies with a traditional “deciding” mindset are uncomfortable with failure, since they expect to be successful immediately. The only way be successful immediately, however, is to make small, safe moves.


Q: Please explain the stage-gate innovation model and its purpose.

Marty: Stage-gate innovation allows you to make big, bold moves by turning innovation into a journey. It was pioneered years ago by oil-drilling companies to minimize investment risk. Later it was adopted by venture capitalists for the same reason. The concept is that you start with a large crop of bold ideas, then invest increasing amounts at each stage for the ones that pass muster. Only one or two ideas make it through the funnel, but they’ve been de-risked without having to compromise their boldness.

stage-gate innovation funnel 

(Click to view a larger version)


Q: When it comes to measuring a potentially innovative project as it moves through the stage-gate process, what metrics should we use to determine if it should move to the next stage?

Marty: It depends on whether it’s a product, a business model, a strategy, and whatever. For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s a product. In the first stage, you might create a prototype and measure customer excitement. At the next stage you could measure usability. At the next stage you could test various price points. And so on, until you’re satisfied that you have a winner.

The beauty of the design process is that you can test assumptions quickly and cheaply, so that you never have to play it safe. Playing it safe is the most dangerous thing you can do in a time of fast-moving markets and leap-frogging innovation.

Going forward, the bottom line is this: If you want to innovate, you’ve got to design.


Thanks Marty!