Designers seek entry into India Inc’s boardroom

There’s little in Manoj Kothari’s appearance to suggest the wildly creative nature of his profession. The relaxed formal attire and well-trimmed look point towards a serious business professional. And when he uses terms like “brand architecture” and “perceptual mapping” it’s easy to think of him as a branding guru or a market researcher. But Kothari is actually a designer. A designer with a difference. Kothari, who founded Onio Design, and others of his ilk are no longer content designing refrigerators, mobile phones and soap wrappers. They now hope to take on a bigger, more serious role in their clients’ businesses—from brand experience and trends research to business process design to re-crafting corporate strategy. In short, they want a seat at the decision-making table. How? Design thinking is a new philosophy that has helped these firms move into areas traditionally occupied by research houses, advertising agencies and consulting firms. “Design is a mindset. A design orientation helps see the world in a different way,” says Santosh Desai, managing director, Future Brands, a brand consulting firm.

For someone who has no design background, Revathi Kant’s position as head of Titan’s Design Studio is a perfect indicator of this shift in perception. “The transformation is happening. We are now beginning to realise in India that design is going to be a key differentiator,” she says. Though it cannot help size the market, design helps capture even what consumers aren’t saying yet, she says. “Market research gets the facts but design gives a better understanding of deep latent needs of consumers… To know what’s the next big thing, what people on the ‘extreme’ are doing, you need design research,” she says. A case in point is Onio’S recent project for Secure Meters, a Rs 700-crore company based in Udaipur that provides metering solutions for consumers of utility companies and to industrial customers. Secure went global in 1996 after acquiring British metering company PRI, an erstwhile technical collaborator. It snapped up five other small brands in Sweden, Australia and the UK over the next decade. Pitted against global giants such as Honeywell and GE, Secure had a milliondollar question to answer: whether to continue with a portfolio of local brands across the globe or opt for a single corporate identity? It was, in classical marketing terms, a choice between a house of brands (like P&G ) and a branded house (like Samsung).

Given the scale of Secure’s worldwide operations and different cultures involved, it was necessary to run a comprehensive and rigorous validation exercise before arriving at any decision, says Sanjaya Singhal, managing director, Secure Meters. Besides ad agencies and market research firms, Singhal invited Onio, which had previously done a visual re-branding exercise for the company, for opinion. “The question posed to us was—how could we transition these brands into the overall (Secure) brand without losing the equity of those individual brands,” says Kothari. Applying techniques like perceptual mapping (where stakeholders’ perceptions about the company and its culture were mapped on a twodimensional scale) and corporate ethnography (observation and in-depth conversations with people to uncover patterns of thought) Kothari and his team met customers, dealers, distributors and employees across four locations in Sweden, India and the UK in an exercise that lasted six months. Kothari explains that he used methods integral to a designer’s toolkit—seeking insights rather than inferences, visualizing problems across multiple dimensions, storytelling, prototyping and making everyone a participant in the process. “We involved people in visualizing the new integrated brand. People realized how a small local company can take on global competition; what values they’ve observed in the company ; what they would like to build afresh and so on.” For example, a senior manager at one of the acquired companies, Horstmann Controls in Bristol, UK, who had moved from a bigger competitor Landis+Gyr, was surprised about the nimbleness agility of Secure’s culture. Even casual conversations weren’t ignored. When he was first being chauffeured to the company’s office in Udaipur, Kothari recalls asking the driver what he thought of his employer. “Yeh log hamesha kuch naya karte rehte hain (they are always doing something new),” he was told. That was a simple yet crucial insight into the innovative nature of the company’s culture. The exercise validated a single brand identity approach that would espouse the core values emerging from the research. For a mid-sized player like Secure, it also made economic sense to promote a single brand globally, as a ‘branded house’. Singhal says it was the back-to-basics approach by Kothari and his team that made decision simpler to make: “They were not just the solution but part of the solution, which we crafted for ourselves. We learnt the methodology and process, so the choices were conscious choices.” For Aditya Dev Sood, design is about making insights actionable. “Crafting the path to making insights actionable is a good contemporary definition of design,” says the founder and CEO of Centre for Knowledge Societies, which he describes as an innovation consulting firm that employs design principles to address business and social development issues. A design firm can visualise a problem so that more people understand and become part of the solution-decoding process, he says. Breaking up large challenges into small, discrete groups is also a designer’s default approach to a situation. He shows us how. A huge process flowchart on a wall at CKS’s Greater Kailash office in New Delhi is so long that it needs more than just a glance; it needs a walk-through . The chart tells a story—of how immunization vaccines are delivered and administered in villages, complete with the key players, the problem areas, social and operational issues along the way to vividly depict what happens at various stages. It’s part of a Gates Foundation project to develop an efficient vaccine delivery mechanism in rural north India where immunization rates were low. Says Sood, “We sought first to understand how vaccine services are being delivered, where the system is most vulnerable , and how health workers interact with recipient families.” The CKS team used extensive photographic documentation and design diaries in the field to map the process on the flow chart so redundancies and errors were more clearly identified. A variety of solution concepts were generated and visualised as storyboards. Each solution was then shown to frontline health workers, district level administrators and Indian and international healthcare experts for feedback on viability , impact and cost. Finally more than 25 ideas were generated and refined such as an improved vaccine delivery kit, mobile phone based reminders and call outs to recipient families. What might appear utterly simplistic in the above process may not be as evident through conventional methods of research and problem solving, says Sood.

“Beyond the obvious, traditional research often fails to uncover the insights that are so crucial. Designers have been trained to capture latent needs,” he says. And it’s that ability that is catching the attention of companies looking for that extra edge to prepare for the future. While designers world over have been pitching for a more strategic role in their clients’ businesses for some time, it is only now that the recognition is happening . “Design is entering the boardroom now,” says Ashish Deshpande, cofounder at Pune-based Elephant Design, which started as a product design outfit in 1989. Now it advises companies on developing new products to redefining consumer segments.

“The term ‘out-of-the-box’ is part of design thinking,” he says. For example, the use of ‘triggers’ —random set of words that are non-related—can set a designer thinking in a new direction. Another technique, co-creation , is about involving everyone in the research and development process, from engineers to housewives to villagers. “When you understand the concerns, you understand the need and then you can think of solutions ,” says Deshpande. So does all this mean design thinking will be India Inc’s latest ticket to global glory? Not yet, says innovation and strategy consultant Shantanu Saha, cofounder of Nationwide Primary Healthcare Services, who previously headed Idiom Design & Consulting. Unless design firms break out of their image as mere graphic hot-shops and show tangible value addition in other areas , corporates won’t bite the bait, he says.

“Design’s powerful impact on business strategy will require a whole new way of thinking by introducing the concept of ‘creation of equity through design’ . This means that companies will also have to demonstrate to their stakeholders that design intervention in business strategy adds equity to the overall business,” he says.

Click here to see the article in the Economic Times _ as reported by Vikas Kumar,ET Bureau

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