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Why Companies Like Nike Are Shifting to Design Led Business

The challenges of leading an effective team of creative designers in a design led business—whether it be for a small brand or a multinational corporation—requires more than a unique approach to the design process. It is, more often than not, dependent on understanding the nuances of human behavior and the way that individuals work within a corporate environment. The difficult task of managing people is amplified in creative companies and design led brands where people of varying ages, experiences, and cultures are tasked with creating products with singular brand identities. This sort of people management is a job within itself, but one designer thinks that failing to support designers with business-savvy liaisons is a misstep for any major corporation that relies on good design to run their business.

Noticing a Need for Design Led Business

Lydia Hummel did not come from a design background when she stumbled into the offices of Polo Ralph Lauren. Instead, she studied communication and psychology at Eastern Michigan University, which she planned on parlaying into business.

“I studied individuals and the way they interact in groups and how those groups interact with one another. I never wanted to be a psychologist, though,” she insists. Her goals were clear from the beginning. Hummel was interested in understanding the way humans work and applying that to design led business environments. From early on she had an intrinsic understanding of how psychology could be used in corporate settings to get the desired results from a team. “I developed an understanding of humans and the machine.”

An executive at Polo took a liking to Hummel and paid a vested interest in helping her develop as a designer despite her lack of an art school credential. “In a way, the company almost preferred to build a creative designer team that didn’t have a strong background in design,” she asserts. “They thought that design was really all about aesthetic and that they should be able to shape the design team around their particular aesthetic.”

creative designers
A designer presents her creative approach to a team of executives.

Over the next ten years, she designed hardware, accessories, and logos for some of the world’s most recognized names in the fashion industry, including Polo Ralph Lauren, The Limited, Inc., and Nautica. But the work was markedly business-driven with deadlines and market trends dictating the design of product. “So much of designing is knowing your customer, knowing what they are looking for and being able to edit your work. We were constantly researching and putting together what we thought a consumer would want, says Hummel. “It was very vendor based, but smarter because you don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”

It was her background in psychology, however, that allowed her to see the pitfalls of that kind of market-led approach to leading a design team.

“I don’t pursue the things that exist. I pursue those spaces where there is a gap,” she explains, “When you are dealing with design in a corporate environment, there is always a barrier. On one end you have these uber creative designers creating things and on the other end, you have the business that is managing timelines and a whole different set of expectations.”

It was during her half-decade career at The Limited designing menswear that she saw that filling that gap between business and design was not only possible, but the most important part of running a successful team in the design industry. “The VP of Design and the VP of Product Development understood and appreciated each other’s goals. They were able to overcome that design gap that is so prevalent in corporate environments.” Rather than business dictating design, the two worked in harmony with one another.

It was then and there that Hummel began a paradigm shift in her career, creating a niche for herself as a ‘designer of teams’ and becoming the intermediary for business and design for big name brands like The Gap, Nike, Coach and Tiffany and Co.

Why Companies Should Allow Design Principles to Dictate Business Output

“Designers need advocates. They need people there that understand their needs. I was fortunate to have amazing people see the value in me and open doors and be willing to see what I had to offer,” Hummel says.

Despite a flourishing career as a designer, Hummel “saw a gap and stepped into it. Not really sure where the path would take me but knowing that I needed to follow it.” With her unique perspective as a creative designer and student of psychology, she began working for The Gap as the right hand of the design director and shifting her focus from actual design to being the liaison between design and product development.

design led business
Allowing designers to dictate business trends is an increasingly popular approach.

In a design business of such magnitude, common practice dictated that the business analyzed market trends and the assignments trickled down to design, branding, and marketing—which worked in isolation from one another. Hummel shifted that process to create design-led business initiatives that the company could follow, a practice that would be more at home in European fashion houses or small independent designers.

As Bloomberg notes, allowing design to drive business decisions in an increasingly valuable approach. By focusing on the trends consumers are seeking, companies can mitigate the risks involved with launching new products. Putting the focus back on design allowed Hummel to more effectively communicate which products would be successful while giving creative designers ample room to focus on creating while adhering to the company’s production and execution deadlines.

“I have a very good relationship with the business part of the corporation and understanding what the needs of the organization are,” she says. “There are realities that we have to deal with in terms of what needs to be delivered to the stores. But when a brief is sent out, the business director and the creative designer see two very different things,” Hummel explains, emphasizing the importance of a corporation being able to read between the lines and foster a dialogue where the entire corporate structure speaks the same language. “It is important to create a dynamic where both  sides can see the bigger picture.”

This is easier said than done as each side come from vastly different backgrounds. The business has a tendency to analyze what is happening in the market now, while creative designers are able to see what trends are right around the corner.

“Designers would always ask, ‘Why doesn’t the business understand what’s right around the corner?’” says Hummel. “It’s simple, people don’t know what they can’t see. My role is to orchestrate a series of points where you can bring people along on an idea rather than just dumping it on them.” Rather than letting the business dictate design, Hummel focused on giving her creatives room to experiment, and then presented those product ideas to executives.

creative designers
Design led business puts the emphasis on consumer-driven trends.

This approach led her to manage successful campaigns for both Converse and Tiffany and Co., where the process of creating a collection was flip-flopped. In order to create design led campaigns, designers must have a larger voice and lead the conversation, rather than react to the needs of marketing and merchandising and have a deciding role in traditional business decisions like launch dates and branding initiatives.

“We created a new concept of original ideation where creative designers were able to experience for themselves what was going to be next. We gave space to the designers to really process that by just leaving them alone to design. Then we would pull in brand and marketing, and by the time design was finished all three departments had solidified a collection and were collectively pitching it to the CMO and CEO what we wanted to do rather than everyone functioning in isolation.”

The shift towards design led business is no doubt going to be a drawn out process down an unclear path. Creative designers will have to take on more significant roles within the corporate structure and businesses will need to put more faith into the value of design and the preservation of the idea. But with design advocates like Hummel running successful campaigns, a strong bridge has begun to close the gap.

Which design led business approach do you most admire, and why?

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About the author

Kevin Vaughn

Kevin Vaughn is a writer and photographer focused on food and culture based out of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His freelance work has appeared in Munchies, New Worlder, Remezcla and Savoteur, and he pens a weekly restaurant column for the BA based news and lifestyle site The Bubble. When he is not writing he is giving customized food tours to hungry travelers via his company Devour Buenos Aires or is making tacos for his Mexican inspired traveling pop-up MASA.

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