How to create a design-led culture at your business

Rapid technological change and digital disruption have increased the pace of changing customer expectations so much they have become liquid - a rising tide of expectations drawn from your customer’s very best experiences across all industries.

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Consumers now expect increased engagement, personalisation, contextual awareness and an experience crafted and considered from end to end. These changes are driving momentum behind design-led innovation.

"There is an incredible opportunity for value creation for organisations that can transform their culture."
Bronwyn van der Merwe, Director, Fjord Australia


There is an incredible opportunity for value creation for organisations that can transform their culture, identify and access the right skills to drive innovation and intra-preneurialism.

That opportunity is why more organisations are looking to the creation of a design-led culture and the application of design thinking to help them to stay competitive and be truly customer-centric.

The types of challenges businesses are facing often fall into two categories. Technical challenges may be complex but they are well-defined and follow well-understood processes, like building a website, deploying a new CRM or launching a new retail environment.

Adaptive challenges in contrast are complex by nature, the boundaries are ill defined, the solution unclear. Often these challenges require working across an ecosystem with multiple partners. 

Old ways of thinking, acting and operating are no longer sufficient.  Consideration of regulation, new business models, alliances, culture, risk and uncertainty need to be taken into account. 

Many of the strategic challenges facing business today are adaptive challenges and these require people from across an organisation to come together, bringing their unique perspectives and expertise to the problem space.

What is Service Design?

What is Service Design? from Yosef Shuman on Vimeo.


This is central to a design led culture. Design thinking is a collaborative approach to strategy, problem solving and innovation that puts people at the centre.

At Fjord, we use design thinking to design services that genuinely engage. Service design takes an ecosystem view and is founded in research to understand the current state of the service across five dimensions and then to use these insights to reimagine a service such that it is a joy to use.

The dimensions include:

• People: What are the needs, hopes, fears and pain points for people? They may be customers, staff or third party partners and suppliers.

• Products: What products, physical and digital are in place and are they fit for purpose?

• Place: Where are the products or services delivered and what is that experience like? For example, in a retail environment, a call centre, in the field or on a digital channel? 

• Process: Where are the inefficiencies, forms and frictions in the process? 

• Performance: What is the performance of the whole, from a customer perspective and from the perspective of the business?

The insights uncovered during the discovery of this as-is state provide a platform for ideas and innovation as designers the future vision.

Design-led idea generation is a playful and creative process that takes people out of their day job and places them side by side with people from different parts of the business - or indeed from across the ecosystem - people who they would not normally speak to during their day to day job. This is where the sparks fly and breakthrough thinking occurs.

Design thinking is not just about strategy. Moving from design thinking to design doing is where the craft of design really comes into its own. Ideas are made tangible, prototyped, tested with users, iterated and released to market in a rapid cycle of build, test and learn.

Take for example the challenge of immigration. The Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) needed to make applications quicker and more transparent, whilst allowing employees to complete tasks more efficiently.

In response, Fjord created the eService “Enter Finland” which leveraged a customer-centric, service design-led approach to redesign immigration to focus on the core needs of different internal and external users.

Untangling red tape to EnterFinland

Untangling red tape to EnterFinland from Fjord on Vimeo.

The challenge we set out to tackle with the Finnish Immigration Service was to review, identify and improve the overall operational efficiencies through a better experience for all users; for the people filing applications as well as the staff processing them.

The emphasis of the project was to help simplify the overall application process for people who were planning to move to Finland to study or work.

It has been warmly welcomed and a 2016 survey of more than 2000 users found 93 per cent of applicants gave it a positive rating, whilst 95 per cent of users said they would recommend it to their friends. 


We are beginning to see a cultural shift where organisations move away from thinking of people as simply ‘users’ and are instead striving to develop a continual cycle of design and innovation that reflects the needs and behaviours of real people.

In the scramble to align themselves with design-led culture, organisations have typically reverted to a hiring drive to embed design-trained professionals across various project areas. Although leaders in design lay the right foundation, true design-culture doesn’t arise purely from practitioners trained in the field.

Rather, it comes from the privileged standpoint of the user. At Airbnb, for example, every project team has a manager, a design guardian, whose explicit role is to represent the user, as opposed to a particular function like engineering or project management.

Moving forward, organisations can benefit from embracing the following design-led values:

 • Empathy: Design-centric organisations empathise with customers through contextual research to better understand what people need, rather than simply applying what they say that they want.

• Humbleness: Design thinkers exhibit a willingness to learn from failure and recognise the rarity of getting things right the first time around.

• Design doing: Design thinking alone is not enough. Ideas need to be made tangible through visuals and physical prototypes that can be tested in the real world.

• Trust: The culture of design requires the preservation of ambiguity and the ability to remain comfortable, despite not knowing the total solution to the problem in advance.

• Collaboration: Innovation is spurred by co-creation amongst a diverse set of people with unique insights. The key to successful multi-disciplinary collaboration is deep professional humility.

• Systems Thinking: Customer-centric, systems-based, problem solving methods are used to understand relationships and the whole, rather than parts or silos.

Any change as significant as the shift to design-led thinking requires support from the top. Whether through gradual adoption or widespread and rapid enforcement, organisations need to reconsider the way they think, act and behave in order for the change to be substantial and long lasting.

Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi initiated a dramatic approach, giving employees just 24 to 36 months to adapt to the change. As a result of the successful transformation, ‘design’ now permeates across all Pepsi’s decision-making mechanisms and, after years of stagnation, the company’s stock price is rising and revenue growth is steady.

At eBay, CEO John Donahoe brought in John Maeda to strengthen eBay’s global innovation capability through design thinking. Their Playbook announced their intentions to the world as they seek to create experiences that are virtually seamless, convenient and enjoyable across their four commerce battlegrounds.

Design-led thinking encourages organisations to pivot towards an outward facing philosophy, underpinned by methods and an experience that respond to the needs, desires and feedback of real people.

Organisations can become cultural interpreters and facilitators and as a result, consumers become engaged and their loyalty is secured.

But as organisations begin to harness design thinking to meet their business goals, they quickly become aware of the challenges that come with implementing change.

Organisations need to nurture the right design skills and long-term success will depend on an organisation’s ability to harness substantial cultural shifts in leadership, change attitudes to risk and failure, and drive openness to collaboration from the start.

Bronwyn van der Merwe is Australia’s Fjord Director, part of Accenture Interactive.

Image credit: Fjord

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The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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