When my company decided to go full time, we made a big decision right off the bat: As designers, we wanted to focus our energy on making things. If we couldn’t grow by the quality of our work, we didn’t want to grow at all. So, we put funding rounds and sales strategies aside for the time being and got started.
We quickly learned that people are attracted to companies that lead with design. The numbers bear it out. A study by DMI shows that such companies outperform the stock market by 228 percent. Why? Good design conveys a clarity of mission, a sense of purpose and a healthy disdain for unnecessary distractions.
Thinking like a designer, in fact, has been a reliable way for us to build a bootstrapped, organic company. Today, as a team of 30 people, we’ve seen this mentality help us focus on what really matters: the work, the experiences people have and what we can do to create sustainable growth year after year.
Here are a few design approaches that may be helpful to apply to your business:
1. Don’t “pivot” on who you are.
Accepting that smart people often fail is a key to the entrepreneurial economy, but it’s resulted in a “fetishization of failure,” with too many founders abandoning business strategies from one week to the next.
Designers know that brands that endure combine successive iteration with a clear purpose — and have the discipline to stick with that purpose, forgoing the urge to tinker.
Guinness is an example; it’s been growing recently by adding beers to its lineup, updating its glass design and opening the Brewers Project — a lab where brewers can explore new recipes. But the company has also known when not to change. It’s been committed to its story and identity since 1862. But what if, when faced with a bad quarter, an ambitious designer said, “It’s time for something more modern” and then threw out that famous harp logo? Would we still root for Guinness?
Pivoting on tactics should be encouraged. We should iterate, test assumptions and get feedback before we reach conclusions. But we shouldn’t pivot on what we stand for. Be patient, and see your vision through, even when times get hard. Customers recognize and reward that consistency.
2. Think like a customer.
The best designers can get into a user’s mindset, and a key principle of user experience design is that users like to be delighted in unexpected ways.
A good example is how Slack handles cancellation. Its service monitors user accounts, and if someone hasn’t logged in for 14 days, it automatically makes the account inactive. That way, if a client forgot to remove an employee who is no longer with the company, it won’t be charged. Slack’s service hurts its immediate bottom line but achieves something more important: It shows that the company cares more about its relationship with its customers than monthly numbers.
In a service business like ours, people notice when we’re forgiving on scope, when we overdeliver or when we show flexibility in a way they wouldn’t expect. We work to make flexibility the exception instead of the rule.
3. Empower designers to do their best work.
The recent Uber rebranding had all the hallmarks of client-directed design, which is usually a handy euphemism for bad design. The work had potential, but the end result was confusing, disjointed, often literally misaligned — and reportedly directed by the CEO.
Any designer who looks at what happened with Uber can almost feel a businessperson pointing to his or her screen and stating, “I’m not a designer, but. . .” before pointing to where each pixel should go.
To combat this, organizations have to set up empowered teams — and trust them to do what they do best. Your company should do this, too: Instilling a mindset of ownership into any team is as important as anything you do as a business owner. Companies with this mindset often consider themselves insurgents and naturally fight off stagnation.
Even as you grow, foster a culture of ownership. Instead of increasing complexity and killing growth, make sure everyone is given the freedom to drive the mission.
4. Reject distractions.
Employee engagement isn’t a mystery. People want to be challenged to do their best work and trusted to make decisions. They want to be paid well, to be treated respectfully and to work with people they like.
Furthermore, employees understand how businesses work. They’re very aware that the money spent to book a famous band for the holiday party has essentially been taken out of their paychecks. When 72 percent of people are stressed about money, it may be time to rethink that multimillion-dollar office building you had planned in lieu of finding better work, doing better work and giving the team a bigger part of it.
Like any good design, focus on what matters. The rest is a distraction.
5. Don’t hack your growth — earn it.
Designers and “growth hackers” are natural adversaries. This is because the best design is rooted in long-term strategic thinking.
Growth hackers, on the other hand, often cobble together disparate systems or methodologies for quick wins and short-term growth before moving on. Those actions may be great for meeting the sales quota, but not every company is a software-as-a-service startup. In many industries, this mindset is counterproductive.
Imagine that you own a high-end fashion line: Your designer lays out a beautiful, clean redesign of your new website. The marketing person requests a big phone number be placed in the top-right corner of the site. Even more, she asks for a red arrow to point to it. “This drives leads,” she says. And, to the dismay of the designer, she’s right — leads do increase the day that the update goes live. The marketer moves along.
Later on, however, trust in the brand erodes. Customers don’t feel a connection with it — they feel that they’re just being sold something. That may work for a more transactional company, but it won’t work for a high-end fashion line where customer sentiment is everything.
The message here? There aren’t any shortcuts to long-term growth. With an organic-growth business, build sustainable and repeatable relationships instead of focusing only on numbers.
To truly grow your business, invest in the things that don’t go out of style. That means creating a culture of quality, freedom and purpose. It’s ultimately not about design. As graphic designer and filmmaker Saul Bass once said, design is just “thinking made visible.”