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Design:Chicago™ Panelists Share Thoughts on 'ROI by Design'

Watch a video of the seminar here.

Design isn’t just about sleek furniture and good-looking shoes; when done well, design can educate, soothe, heal, and inspire. But quality costs money, and in today’s world of fast turnarounds and narrowing margins, designers must always keep an eye on the bottom line.

In this climate, how can companies maximize design while also maximizing profit? And when it comes to a return on investment (ROI), how can designers ensure their work will perform?

A panel of designers shared their experiences to a standing-room-only crowd April 12 as part of Design:Chicago 2012, “ROI by Design.” 

Motorola's Jim WicksFor Jim Wicks, an ROI-friendly design is achieved through innovation and consistency — especially in an industry as fast-changing as cell phones. As senior vice president of consumer experience design at Motorola, Wicks’ products compete in an industry expected to hit the $150-billion mark by 2014.

Ten years ago, it wasn’t clear that Motorola was going to withstand the competition. But through shrewd marketing, strong branding, and focusing on a target audience as the “antithesis of Apple,” Wicks helped bring the company back to the head of the industry — all while keeping pace with quickening product development.

“Product development cycles have been reduced by 50 percent in three years. Carrier portfolios have been shrinking, making design position and brand more important,” Wicks said. “Quite frankly, it’s crazy intense. It’s addictive. So what’s next?”

Designers in the fast food industry can relate. When you’re designing for more 32,000 restaurants in 118 countries — more than 60 million customers per day — your designs must be attractive, have a universal appeal, and be easy to execute. These are the challenges facing Denis Weil, corporate vice president of concept and design for McDonald’s.

A decade ago, the fast food company was faced with a challenge, Weil noted: consumer expectations were changing, and McDonald’s restaurants seemed stuck in an era past. “If a Martian were to arrive on earth and go to a bank, a post office, and a McDonald’s, they wouldn’t have known the difference,” Weil said. “We wanted to change that.”

With the 2003 “Plan to Win” growth strategy, McDonald’s set out to overhaul its image. Looking to the first-ever McDonald’s restaurant as inspiration, Weil is leading a shift toward kitchen-centered layouts, inviting seating, and colorful walls with playful food graphics. Interactive design elements, such as self-ordering kiosks, are also a new trend, Weil said.

For Craig Throne, vice president of global marketing for Wolverine World Wide, cultural trends are also the foundation of great design. Noticing a trend away from a “cushioned existence,” Throne’s team set out to design a shoe for runners who preferred no shoes at all. Working with a group of “hippies,” the team created the Merrell Barefoot, a minimal running shoe that mimic the effects of barefoot running.

While an ROI is critical in the business world, Throne urged designers to begin with the problem, not with the money. “We’re in corporate America,” he said. “It’s about business. It’s about growing. But that’s the goal, it’s not what you start with.”

Gary Smith, director of design facilitation at Herman Miller, agreed that ROI isn’t just about dollars; in the best scenarios, he said, it’s about creating products that promote joy, excitement, or a graceful human experience.

Imagine, Smith said, calming hospital furnishings designed to minimize beeps and disruptions, with details like soft drawer pulls to avoid injury and furniture designed without bacteria-collecting ridges. Classroom furniture built for the needs of an autistic child, to minimize the screeching of chairs and the clanging of desktops. An easily-navigable stove designed for a person with Alzheimer’s.

Undertaking these design challenges requires more than an eye for dollar signs, Smith said. “Think about raising the bar on what the real ROI is,” he said. “There are probably lots of examples of things making money through shoddy design. But how does that advance the art of the human experience?”

Joan Kelly of Humana and Denis Weil of McDonald'sFor Joan Kelly, corporate director of consumer experience for Humana, the goal isn’t selling a product at all; it’s selling a healthy lifestyle. That’s not an easy task, given the poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles present in much of the U.S. population.

By analyzing people’s interactions with the medical industry, Kelly and her team learned invaluable information about their customers’ needs and wants. They also determined 10 “moments of truth” in a customer’s life in which Humana could help influence health choices.

One result of this undertaking has been physical locations where Humana patients can “enjoy getting and staying healthy,” Kelly said. Today, Humana senior centers have become lively meeting spots with pick-up and drop-off services, pharmacies, exercise classes, and even salons.

"Using design thinking, we are having our own people internally understand people more, so we can begin changing things," Kelly said.

Now in its sixth year, Design:Chicago is sponsored by the Segal Design Institute, the Master of Product Design and Development program, the MMM program, the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Kellogg School of Management.

-- Sarah Ostman