Horse’s Mouth: David Kester

David Kester, director at Thames & Hudson, and the ex-chief executive of the UK Design Council and D&AD, recently ventured back to New Zealand as part of NZTE’s Better by Design CEO Summit and talked about design’s relationship with innovation, how successful companies explore and experiment and how smart companies use design within their business to remain flexible as markets rapidly change. We sat down for a chat. 

On the new industrial revolution: “There are a lot of designers who go direct to market already, like Tom Dixon. But I think the whole revolution in 3D printing is really interesting. There’s just been a very good exhibition in London called ‘The Future is Here‘, which has just been looking at that. You’ve now got architects who are literally 3D printing the components for houses. You turn up with all the kit for the house and design and build it … The complete transformation in the making of things means you can locate you business anywhere and do anything. Very few companies, very few business concepts aren’t ripe for disruption. And that puts New Zealand in a very strong position.”

On designing demand: “What we’re talking about is empowering consumers. Consumers are often dissatisfied with what they’re getting and when someone comes along and says ‘actually, we’ve found what you want and we can give it to you the way you want it, and it’s much more attuned to who you are’, people huddle around those businesses. They want what they want.” 

On design’s definition:I have a very clear definition in my mind of what design is and it is the connection between creativity and innovation. Creativity is the generation of ideas and any of us can have a good idea and it’s important for any businessperson to recognise that those ideas will come from anywhere, from your consumers and so forth. Innovation is all about getting the value out of ideas, but how do you turn the idea into the thing that consumers want? Well, that’s design. Because ultimately, if it’s a product it has be manifested in the real world. [Online eyewear company] Warby Parker had a concept, an idea, but ultimately it has to be made real. It is a website, it is a pair of glasses, it is a pack of five glasses that gets sent to. It needs to go from concept to reality. The link is that consumers are demanding more and they themselves are generating the ideas.”

On the importance of observation: “The design bit is not about market research or looking back or what people did or what they say they want. It’s about empathy, insight and observation and trying to understand what people really want, what they really need, not just what they say they want. I think it’s a core component of how businesses work. And design is a brilliant way to achieve it. You need to be out there observing behaviour and also interacting … Smart businesses are doing this on an ongoing basis and designing and prototyping in the field. I’ve seen what they’re doing in Christchurch with the rebuild. They’re doing that, they’re implementing that. And New Zealand is very advanced in terms of picking up on the clever thinking around design and how it can be applied.”

On shrinking: “I’ve charted design’s progress and there has been an expansion of design over the past 10-15 years. More companies are understanding the value and the role of design and building it into their management set. So if you’re a business that isn’t doing this you have to wonder what’s wrong. Why aren’t you doing it, because you’re missing out. We are in this period of change and it’s very exciting for that reason. If I’m honest and looked at why that is, I think the actual building blocks of what we make in the world have reduced in size. A wonderful designer and writer Ernesto Rogers, the cousin of architect Richard Rogers, said designers design everything from the spoon to the city and that was intended to show the scope of the discipline. Well, now you have to say it’s at least from the pixel to the city, if not from the genome to the city. The building blocks of design are changing and if you’re creating your experience for your customer, you are actually working in pixels and the interactions and touchpoints are manyfold. That has changed the discipline and the role of the designer. There are a number of proxies for that. You only have to look at courses that are taught in design and business schools, you’re learning service design, experience design, interaction design. So what’s happening now is the businesses themselves are reaching out to these fantastically trained people who can give them insights and almost an ear in terms of the relationship with their consumers. And that’s an amazing thing.” 

On adapting: “Designers are people who are able to develop ideas, visualise ideas and prototype them very quickly. When business models are changing so quickly and someone can disrupt a market so quickly, like you’ve seen with Warby Parker or Made.com, a high-end, beautifully designed furniture store that sells direct from the web at about 70 percent less than a traditional store and has sales in the tens of millions, you have to be able to adapt fast. You still need the more established area of business consulting and the major accounting firms and strategic management consultancies still have a monopoly on this area, but even they are realising that many of the aspects of design are really now very important and they are either sending their clients in that direction or adopting some of these skills and buying some of these companies so they can build those skills into their own management structure. When business models change so fast it’s not just about putting everything down into spreadsheets and long reports. You need to communicate with your team very fast. What might be the possibilities? Let’s visualise it, let’s look at it, let’s play with it, let’s see whether it works or not, and so suddenly the role of the designer, if they’re very good and insightful, becomes much more important.”

On the importance of Apple: “Who was the most-awarded person at D&AD? He came over three times to pick up his gold pencil, the top award, and he once came with his boss from Silicon Valley. It’s Johnny Ive. And it’s no surprise. That community of designers and creative people really look up to him and while [that success story] has been written up in all the magazines and is celebrated now, I’m taking us right back to the transformation of Apple in the mid 1990s. That community was already looking to Johnny Ive and Steve Jobs. So there’s certainly been a recognition from the creative agencies that creativity, empathy, and discipline, whether in industrial design, interaction or architecture, are phenomenally powerful.”

On overplaying design’s hand: “Design is a really core component part of the business mix. You want it in the culture of the business. You need it in the leadership. But what business functions if it doesn’t understand finance and budgeting? And do you want your finance and budgeting to just sit in the accountancy department? No, you want every person who works for you to understand the relevance and importance of their budgets. And that is all part of how numerate the business is. It’s the same thing with design. Or HR. They are all aspects of running a successful business. And you cannot say one element should be more important than the other. It’s the interaction of all of them.”

  • Here’s a rundown of the first and second day’s proceedings from Better by Design’s Melissa Jenner. 

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