A speech given by RMIT Professor Gerda Gemser to mark Founders' Day, 7 June, 2014.
Professor Gerda Gemser. Photo: Vicki Jones.
The T in RMIT stands, of course, for technology. So it is of enormous significance that we are now known as a global university of technology and design. By emphasising not only technology but also design RMIT University acknowledges the crucial role both these areas play for present-day business.
RMIT is well-positioned to generate knowledge that will help companies compete better using technology and design, thanks to our solid foundation in not only Engineering and Design but also Business -as represented by the three RMIT colleges.
Having these three colleges within one and the same university allows for unique transdisciplinary research. Indeed, RMIT's Design Research Institute has been founded on the basic premise that only by means of transdisciplinary research we can solve today's wicked problems.
Recognising the importance of transdisciplinary research and design, RMIT University has recently appointed five design professors, who each have their own specialised knowledge - including smart manufacturing, acoustics, public space design, ethnography, and management - but, who, by means of collaboration, can achieve results that otherwise would not have been possible.
Being one of those five design professors, thus far my research has focused on the relationship between two disciplines or fields: design and (marketing) management. More specifically, I examine the value of design from a business perspective: what value do companies create by investing in design and what strategies are best suited to optimise the payback from design investment?
I focus in particular on the value of professional design, that is design by those who are specifically trained as designers and/or whose main job activities relate to designing products or services. This in contrast to what is called "silent design", that is, design by non-professionals.
Over the years, I have performed several studies in which I examined the outcomes of investing in professional design. Investing in design helps companies above all to differentiate: thus rather than being just one of the same, companies can stand out of the crowd. Differentiation then occurs not only by means of aesthetics (the look and feel of the product), but also by designing products that are easy to use, and have unique functionalities.
In a recent, large-scale study, performed in The Netherlands, we found that companies investing much in professional design were able to improve their financial performance substantially. However, what we also found, both in this study and in other studies, is that good design management is a sine qua non to realise these positive outcomes.
Good design management relates, for example, to being willing to invest in innovative design. Offering a product that is professionally designed but is very similar, in terms of look and feel and functionality, to products that are already on the market, will not result in improved performance.
This is particularly true in industries in which investing in design is a common strategy. If all companies invest in design and if all do so in the same way, design loses its power to differentiate. Like total quality management, design is then mandatory - but nothing more.
How to creative innovative design that truly differentiates? Our research suggests that this may require the involvement of professional designers at the start of a new product development process rather than at the end, as "box wrappers".
At the start of a new product development process, also termed the fuzzy front end, innovation strategy is determined and decisions are made as regards to, for example, which markets and segments to target, with what kind of products.
Active involvement of designers in this phase implies that, rather than mere executors of design briefs, designers become partners and co-create the design brief together with their clients. As shown by our research, the result is then not only more innovative outcomes, but also, for example, a more efficient product development process.
The capabilities and tools of professional designers are not necessarily unique in the sense that other functional specialists cannot adopt them. Indeed, the basic premise of "design thinking", currently a very popular term in the business press, seems to be that non-designers can be equally effective with an extended toolkit borrowed from designers and with some training. Perhaps this is true.
On the other hand, our research shows that good professional designers tend to have unique sets of capabilities that may be hard to obtain by means of a week of intensive training in "design thinking".
These capabilities relate, for example, to being able to synthesise and visualise apparently disparate knowledge bits, to rely on expert intuition, and to be driven by the wish to create the future rather than to replicate the past or present. And that is exactly what RMIT now is facilitating and encouraging through its focus on design.
Thank you for your attention.