Good design is great for online business…

… and why more businesses don’t realise it.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard the statement “Good design is great for business”.

Raise your hand, and keep it up, if you agree. How do you know if good design is great for business? How does one prove it?  How do we prove anything? How do you prove to your clients the value in what you do? Simple. With proof! With evidence, with case studies, with ROI [return on investment].

By the way: How do I know if you’ve raised your hand? Would you be more likely to engage with me if I said “click here” instead? Imagine if Google Analytics could track hand raises. I’m sure its not far off.

When I spoke in China recently, my topic was about how good design is great for online business — and why more businesses don’t realise it. The topic generated a great discussion, and I’d like to share my views on this with you.

Let’s start by asking you another question. Raise your hand if you own a mobile phone? Come on! Let’s get interactive here. Just because you can’t see me while you read this doesn’t mean you can’t participate.

Now, keep your hand up if your phone has ‘the Internet’ on it.

Here’s the 40 billion dollar* question: do you use it to browse the web? And buy stuff, or at least research to buy stuff? My make-believe hand-raising and head-nodding tracker is telling me that there is a high probability that you do.

Year on year, online research using mobile devices and tablets grows by 40%.

If so much research, and a growing conversion to sale, occurs online, particularly on mobile devices, then why aren’t more businesses using good design, strategic design, and beautiful design for their online presence? Perhaps you are thinking “does good design matter?” or “what is good design, anyway?”.  Let’s get into that.

The world is getting smaller — we all know that. We can run an international business from a basement, and appear to be that big. In fact, we can run a business from a phone or tablet. We can build businesses that connect people, and sell those businesses for millions, or even billions of dollars.

All businesses have at least two things in common — people and relationships. In all instances, at some point we are still working with, and relating with, people. Inside every company, every office, every store and every transaction there are people. And where there are people involved there needs to be design involved. To distinguish, decipher and communicate. To design information and information systems, to design brands and to design tools. To create beauty that evokes emotion and encourages action. To stand out from the competition and, more importantly, to stand in with the target audience.

“technical know-how will be superseded by the ability to create, analyse, and transform information and to interact effectively with others”
Alan Greenspan

What did Alan mean by that? A simple example would be to compare a poorly designed website to a well designed website. Just think back to that time when you were totally frustrated with a website because it was too long, too busy, too hard to find anything and waaaaay too much information. The same goes for sales and marketing collateral and way-finding systems — have you ever been lost before? The same also goes for that brochure that has more words than twenty cans of Alphabetti soup — and no call to action.

“Design can directly and significantly improve sales, profits, turnover and growth. Using and valuing design brings bottom line benefits, and those who understand and act on this insight have a competitive edge over the rest. Design can be the difference between customer satisfaction and customer delight. For a design savvy business, every $100 spent on design increases turnover by $225.”
A recent study by The British Design Council

Okay, so now you might be thinking “how can design have an impact on customer satisfaction?”. Simple.
Every interaction and touch point that a customer or prospect — boy, do I dislike the term prospect — has with a business needs to be considered and designed in both process and presentation. When staff resonate with the company they work for and believe in what it stands for, it shows. We have all experienced a smile on the other end of the phone. A key factor in creating those smiles is culture. And culture is all about brand.

I believe that businesses and brands are build from the inside out. Team first. What happens on the inside shows on the outside. As T. Harv Eker says:

“To change the fruits you need to change the roots.”

When culture is great, teams are great. And when teams are great they can really delight. A great example of this is Telstra. The company that millions of Australians just like me swore to never do business with again has woo’d us back. A significant contributor has been their recent rebrand. A rebrand from the inside out. Their culture is great. The branding and design of all their communication tools both offline and online is outstanding. Most importantly, the product is great and the customer experience is now much, much better.

Better described as corporate design or communication design, graphic design brings information to life — Alan’s point above. And to communicate value, designers must have a deep understanding of the target audience and client we’re designing for.

Who is the target market?

What are we selling to them?

What visual cues will they respond to?

The answers to these questions steer and determine the success of a project. They don’t just fall out of the sky. We need to discover this gold with research. Then we can appropriately design to differentiate the client from their competitors. To evoke desire, and to make the product appealing. To give the brands, both solopreneur brands and international brands, an appropriate voice. And now design can deliver a return on investment.

But wait! That all sounds too easy, doesn’t it. There are still road blocks and hurdles to get through. When paying good money for something, it’s human nature to want to put your own touch on something. This is where good design transforms to great design, or becomes design by committee and loses its power. No matter what the outcome, it’s still being judged for value and precariously balancing on a tightrope between the investment bin and the expense bin.

“Everyone who has chosen a duvet cover thinks they know design.”
Massimo Vignelli

There’s a price for a seat at the decision-making table, where design is stifled by committee, personal agendas and the CEO’s taste in duvets. That price is accountability – ROI.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of 99 Designs, Elance or Fiverr. These are online vendors of cheap design and related services. We, as consumers, have created this phenomena by demanding prices for these services go down, and then supporting it. How many times have you bought from an online store, ebay for example, because the price was cheaper than from a bricks and mortar store? For price-driven clients, this phenomenon is making it more difficult for designers and communication agencies to justify the designing part of what we do. Why do I raise this potential threat to our business here? Because this is where bad design is born, particularly when not briefed properly.

Please. I am not slandering these online vendors, they can be valuable outsourcing resources — once the strategy is out of the way. Once you as a customer have clarity on what you need, and what will work. Have you ever used an online architect? There are some things that need to be done face to face. There is an energy and emotion to this kind of work that requires human interaction. What is critical to note here is that they can’t replace the strategy. They can’t replace the relationships that we all as businesses build with our clients. Sure, businesses could go straight to Fiverr or 99 Designs and get a logo for as low as $5, but is that what their company is worth? What would a $5 paint job do for the front of a store? What would a $5 mobile phone do for a business?

This is why there is so much difference in fees that designers charge. Window dressers will design using trends and tastes — strategic designers must conduct research to understand the client and their market in order to deliver a meaningful result.

This is true also online. There is a lack of transferal of investment in shop front and fit-out [bricks and mortar] to online presence and branding. We are finding that businesses are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into their shop fit-outs, equipment, offices and products and leaving design and marketing for the left overs. A recent survey respondent had spent a quarter of a million dollars on their new shop fit-out and had budgeted less than 2% of that for their website. Online businesses are not recognising that their branding, website and communications are their virtual shop front and their virtual staff. There simply isn’t that face-to-face opportunity to engage a potential client with your warm, customer-centric personality and expertise. It’s all up to that fleeting online interaction. Wow. Is this kinda sounding like online dating?

Now, I am not talking about global brands like Apple, Nike, Virgin or Coca-Cola. I’m not even talking about Pizza Hut, GAP, or Porsche. They all get it. They all have marketing teams, brand ambassadors and huge advertising machines. I’m talking about those little, passionate businesses that were startups not that long ago and where the owners and their teams wear many hats, one of which is sales and marketing. Some of these passionate little businesses have potential to become big brands, game changers and household names. And along that journey are a number of critical growth factors that need to be managed. One that I am passionate about and love to be involved in is branding, and branding is a function of marketing and communications.

For online business, the first encounter for a customer is in many cases the website. My conclusion is that businesses that have not utilised good design programs do not realise the value of design. This resonates with the findings of the Design Council of UK. In other words, they don’t know what they don’t know.

To be successful in business today we need to be good relationship marketers: particularly now in the age of relationships, social media and networking. This is a digital age and a business’ first and potentially only interaction with a prospect or client is their logo, a tweet, a blog post or their website. Good design is critical in conveying the right message.

In closing, here’s seven ways to demonstrate a return on investment:

  1. more enquiries
  2. more click-thoughs
  3. more sales^
  4. more profit
  5. greater market share
  6. greater brand awareness
  7. greater customer retention

^ Design and marketing can bring customers to your door, however if the product, price or sales team are not congruent then the opportunity is lost and a conversion to sale might not occur. We believe design and marketing go hand in hand. Therefore, good design has more impact when utilised in conjunction with a marketing strategy. Strategic design should take these factors into consideration.

* Apple’s balance sheet cash surplus in February 2010, not long before their ingenious founder moved on to the after-life, was 40 billion dollars.


Dan Kuss

About Dan Kuss

Twenty years in the design industry can do one of two things – drive your love affair with all things design, or drive you nuts. We’re pretty sure Dan hasn’t gone nuts. What does drive him nuts is agency-centric solutions.

One Comment

  • Lora Smith says:

    Hey Dan, thank you for my ‘statement for the day’.

    “To change the fruits you need to change the roots”. Love it!

    Great article to inspire my day moving forward.

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