Design - the key strategy for competitive businesses in today’s economy


WHAT started in Milan as the Salone del Mobile in 1961, a fair to promote Italian furniture design and soft furnishings, has become the global event in the design industry calendar. Today, Design Weeks take place in the major cities all over the world, including Milan, New York, London. In November 2014 Belfast joined this global phenomena with its first Design Week, which has grown year after year since its inception.

It was initially envisioned by Blick Shared Studios, one of the first co-working shared work spaces for the creative sector, with the vision to celebrate design in our city and promote and strengthen the creative sector. Cognisant of the increasing value of design to the economy and the necessity for businesses to view design as an economic driver, I have been involved since 2017 and regard the design week as a vehicle to educate businesses on how design can support them today and into the future.

The content of the event worldwide has changed dramatically since those early days in the sixties. This is not surprising given we are in very different times. The design industry itself has changed fundamentally. It has evolved from the design of products to the design of services, processes and experiences, as the world has changed around us. The shift from a product economy to a service and experience based economy has necessitated different approaches to support our contemporary economies.

This diversity was evident in the range of events in Belfast Design Week; as one example, the week included events exploring virtual reality and systems modelling. Both today are being used to simulate a business or service concept pre-market.

Despite this and other powerful initiatives in our city, however, the gap between what the customer is looking for and the retailer provides is still evident. A gap that could easily be narrowed by businesses understanding the customer need and the reality that product is only part of the overall customer experience.

Today, many business owners here still believe that their customers are seeking product and invest heavily in getting this right. There is a huge danger in this. One small but potent example of how this goes wrong is illustrated well by a small juice shop in Australia. They noticed smoothie sales were doing well, and anticipated that they could increase sales if they added new flavours. They asked customers and produced the flavours customers suggested.

Then they waited to see the results. Nothing happened. Customers, by and large, continued to purchase the same traditional flavours. Frustrated, they conducted in-depth user research to discover that their customers weren’t buying the smoothie product per se, but a wider experience. They were buying the ability to sit over a drink for the 20 minutes while they waited on the transport for the next part of their commute. The thicker consistency of the smoothie meant it took longer to drink and was preferable to the cold coffee at the end of the 20 minute sit-down.

Having more flavours didn’t enhance their sales and proved a waste of time. This was because the product itself was only part of the transaction. If the business, however, had understood the whole experience, they could have added additional options specific to the commuting customers experience, eg good wi-fi to enable commuters finish their podcast on their morning and evening commutes. Their sole focus on the product meant nothing changed. Including sales figures.

Engaging with many businesses throughout the week, it was clear businesses in the city do not truly see their customer yet, or understand the extent to which their offer should include both product and experience in an experience economy. Or how design can support this process. I believe once businesses do see it, through a great example or a successful business showcase, they will thrive because they will start delivering against needs as opposed to a wing and a prayer and a whole lot of hard work.

:: Elizabeth Meehan ( trained as a service designer in Milan and has a PhD in Sociology from Queen's University. She strives to educate businesses about the changing economy and the challenges this brings.