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Review: “The Design of Business”

/ September 1, 2012 / www.millierdickinsonblais.com

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Back in 1964, the concept of “design management” was introduced by academics in the field of business studies. The design management idea suggested – for the first time – that successful businesses not only supplied products or services to consumers, but that they also understood how the physical design and aesthetic sensibility of those products was an important determinant of commercial success. Today this is widely accepted – anyone can build an MP3 player, but only Apple can build an iPod. The link between design and business success is increasingly remarked upon, but many businesses are challenged by how to turn this theory into action.

The Design of BusinessRoger Martin’s latest book The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage may help some of these businesses map out a more tangible design strategy. Martin is the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and the Premier’s Research Chair in Productivity and Competitiveness. In the book, he advocates and describes what he refers to as “design thinking” – a kind of critical creativity that bridges the gap between numbers-oriented analytical thinking and emotionally-oriented intuitive thinking.

Companies, he suggests, must embrace design thinking by identifying a particular challenge or issue (a “mystery”) which requires a solution. Through research and development, they design a concept or a model (a “heuristic”) of how that challenge may be overcome. The company may then explain the model to others, finding a way to make the knowledge accessible, repeatable and transferable (an “algorithm”). In some instances, it may be possible for this algorithm to be learned and applied by computers or robotics (employing “code”). Where traditional business often stopped at the development of the heuristic, design-oriented businesses democratize the model through algorithm and code, which prompts higher levels of consumer support, and frees the company to begin addressing new mysteries.

While Martin primarily speaks to design thinking in a business context in this book, the implications for economic development are clear. Traditional models of economic value neglect design thinking, and only by incorporating these concepts can local economies adapt and respond to the needs of the 21st Century marketplace. And only by turning our attention to solving new mysteries can economic developers really come to terms with the potential of the new economy…

Martin’s book is brief – 180 pages including some sidebars and commentaries from other researchers – and while it doesn’t break new ground in its ideas and approach, it is an outstanding summary of design management concepts and ideas, and their application in today’s economy. This makes it a great tool for economic developers bringing themselves up to speed on design and its role in the 21st Century economy.

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