Good Designers Understand Business Constraints

“There is a myth that if you introduce design into a company, it will always improve things,” says Dr. Nicolas Minvielle, Director of the Master’s of Science program in Marketing, Design, and Creation at Audencia Nantes School of Management.   

“The truth is that there are as many bad designers as there are bad marketers and bad chief executives,” says Minvielle, who spent seven years as business manager for the world-famous product designer Phillip Starck. “You need to introduce good designers and you need to manage the design team to make it work.”

Both designers and marketers study customers’ needs, but they react to those needs in different ways. Marketing students are trained to choose between options. Once the customer’s need has been identified, a company’s marketing department will work to limit the possible solutions. Designers, on the other hand, are asked to increase the number of options. They are given a product proposal and told to find 10 or 20 new approaches and solutions to make it work.

When it comes to product design, Minvielle explains, “Where the marketing person says, ‘People like blue – we should do it in blue,’ the good designer goes one step further. She says every company is smart and can do marketing research. Therefore, everyone else is going to make it blue. Can we find other ways to add greater value?”

Seeing Things Differently
When it succeeds in adding value, design can transform a product. Minvielle points to a cream applicator for children, which looks like a crayon. The child draws with the cream on his skin. Immediately, the process of getting a child to apply cream is transformed from a daily chore into something fun. Each daily dose is contained in a plastic section that can be snapped off to prepare the next day’s prescribed amount.

If most businesses are to gain full value from design, two things have to change, says Minvielle: the way businesspeople look at designers and the way most designers go about doing their job.

Because it can play such a crucial role to success, design should be a central aspect of an entire business, says Minvielle – not necessarily in terms of management hierarchy, but in terms of business processes. The designers interact with every part of a business, from sales, marketing, and production, through to research, development, and materials procurement. Designers can even play an important role in businesses when no visible product is involved, such as in the sale of electricity, by helping define what the products are and by ensuring that creativity is maximized in the business.

Where exactly design fits into business processes can vary enormously. Design briefs, for example, do not necessarily have to originate in marketing departments. Minvielle has identified successful case studies where designers have proposed new products or ideas to the marketing team, who then do research on whether the idea is commercially viable.

Gaining a Competitive Edge through Design Management
“Design is a great tool with great potential,” says Minvielle. At the moment, most design schools focus on creative issues and do not teach young designers about other aspects of the product development and marketing process. Good designers should design with business objectives and constraints in mind, says Minvielle. Managers in French fashion companies fight to give their designers 100% freedom. But this attitude is difficult to defend in any other industry. Isolating the design team from other business and financial concerns can be good for creativity – but it may not be very smart in terms of the bottom line.

Nicolas Minvielle believes the role design plays in businesses is similar to marketing’s position 40 years ago. The companies that first used marketing techniques had a great advantage over their competitors. But as more companies started devoting more resources to marketing, the companies that managed it properly were the ones able to maintain their competitive edge. Today, it is design management that is one of the key factors for maximizing a company’s success.  


Dr. Nicolas Minvielle is Director of the Master’s of Science program in Marketing, Design, and Creation at Audencia Nantes School of Management. He teaches courses in Audencia’s MBA programs and is also a design management consultant to industry.

His latest book, Design en Entreprises, les Pratiques de Gestion du Design (in French), will be published by de Boeck in mid-October.