Design in entrepreneurship: essential or a luxury? A report from A Better World By Design.

This blog was originally written for MIT Entrepreneurship Review

What is the role of design in improving the world we live in? This was the central question at the annual “A Better World by Design” (ABWxD) conference, hosted by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) last weekend. While some may associate design with beautiful buildings or intuitive software interfaces, conversations at ABWxD extended far beyond this realm. The key take-away from two days in Providence, RI: design plays a fundamental role in the success of any project, extending its influence from technology development to product sales.

In technology development, design is too often an after-thought. Noel Wilson shared the process of redesigning a rollable water vessel for developing countries. Previously, a product had been developed to eliminate the need for people to carry heavy water containers on top of their heads. As Wilson and his team were testing a prior version of the product in the field, Wilson observed that people had difficulties using the sealing mechanism. By involving the end-users, and setting up a prototype facility in a local village, Wilson was able to rapidly iterate through design features, and find those design elements that were most appreciated by users.

It is specifically the interface between user and technology that requires careful design. In a personal conversation, Steve Daniels – who founded ABWxD in 2008 – shared his experience working with IBM Research, by most standards an advanced technology company. For IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative, engineers have been avidly developing technologies that can communicate energy and water consumption to residents. Despite excellent engineering functionality, the researchers realized that analytics alone aren’t enough to change consumer behavior. To create such behavioral change, beautification is not enough: design must be grounded in cognitive psychology and sociology to influence behavior.


Besides technology and product-interface development, the importance of design extends into marketing and communication. A well-visited workshop on Saturday focused entirely on persuasive communication. To make a message stick, good design is essential. Design does not only relate to the form and quality of the communication (e.g. a YouTube video), but also on the source of communication.

Giles Holt, architecture student at RISD University, is one of the co-founders of Consignd. In place of brick-and-mortar stores, Consignd allows users to buy from an influential expert, changing the way we find the products we love. Fundamental to the stickiness of the system is the design, and judging by their website, these guys have a lot up their sleeves. Beyond their product, Consignd has brought a design approach to their business development by applying the same sequence of steps employed by Noel Wilson throughout as they go to market.

If design is fundamental to development and diffusion of innovative products and services, how can it be further integrated into university education? A good example is the annual course Product Design and Development. Taught by MIT professor Steven Eppinger in collaboration with RISD professors, this project-based course stimulates small teams of students to develop a physical product. Beth Soucy, an industrial design student and part of this year’s ABWxD organizing team, was positive about her experience taking the class, collaborating with MIT engineers and business students to develop a tangible product.

Beyond MIT, startup accelerators are picking up on the importance of design too. GreenStart, a San Francisco based accelerator, focuses on giving renewable energy companies a redesign of business, branding and communication.

Having highlighted the importance of design in many different stages of a company’s value chain, it must be noted that design is not a cure-all medicine. Beyond excellent design, transformational companies require an element of technological or business model innovation. In the energy space, this is highlighted by the “energy dashboard delusion”: the idea that visualization of energy consumption would automatically engage home owners to hugely reduce their utility bills.

How do you integrate design into your work? Is design a core element of your business, or do you see it as an extra? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!


Book review: Little Bets by Peter Sims

Little Bets communicates one big idea: to create breakthrough solutions in today’s dynamic world, we need to learn by doing. Fully formed ideas based on assumptions are bound to change, as we learn a tremendous amount in the process of turning ideas into reality. We need to discover what works by making little, experimental bets. Action produces insights that can be analyzed.

Sims uses the life stories of successful business leaders, entrepreneurs and creative professionals to illustrate and further explore the central idea. He explains how Chris Rock creates hilarious stand-up comedy shows by tirelessly trying out jokes on a small audiences; and how Bill Hewlett & Dave Packard regularly produced small batches of prototype-products to discover whether customers liked their product.

The idea of experimentation does not only apply to product-ideas, but also to personal choices. I wrote in a previous post about my opinion that the best way to find work that you love is to try things. A recent article on BigThink, as well as Reid Hoffman’s book The Start-up of You, also stress the importance of this thought.

One of the realizations that came to me while reading the book, was that every creative process brings with it the fear and self-doubt of not succeeding. Also, Sims tells a great story about learning a little bit from every person you meet, particularly children, as well as learning a lot from people who are passionate about using your product. Although the “experimental approach” has been documented by other authors, Little Bets succeeds in triggering thoughts on how to be more experimental, as well as documenting some very revealing personal stories.