Corporate design is an umbrella term for all of a company’s design-oriented approaches to creating and projecting products/services, messages, brands, and other business or cultural propositions to external or internal audiences. Corporate design points to a potentially value creating, integrating business function. It deals with many design matters, embracing much more than the company logo.
It may encompass work spanning everything from company letterheads to orchestrations of the company’s core offerings, identities, and brands, transactional and presentational places, and communicative messages (Olins 1989). Corporate design thus includes functional, use-oriented, and symbolic concerns related also to system architectures, production platforms, buildings, interiors, websites, and other business interaction spaces, which typically need to be thought about in systematic ways. Corporate design can become a nexus for design/business-inspired creative action that may reinvent, help organize, and express future offerings or otherwise serve a customer’s experience. In advanced or large corporations, it may include managing a mixture of digital, artistic, technical, and visualexpressive means, which often calls for specialist resources and partner relationships.
In doing its multilevel activities, corporate design is concerned with the conception and expression of a gestaltung that can help create, synthesize, and communicate whatever the business enterprise offers – currently or as an opportunity. Also, exemplary corporate design leaders and allied designer consultants have taken an interest in cultivating the company’s heritage while engaging in renewal and innovating (e.g., Peter Behrens at AEG, and Knut Yran, Robert Blaich, and Stefano Marzano at Philips; Sparke 1986; Marzano 2005).
Although corporate design often taps some personalized, blurred mixtures of crossdisciplinary backgrounds, it is fruitful to know about the rich variety of design specialties. Expertise involves a multifaceted designerly knowing. One traditional way of categorizing design is by discipline. Multiple design disciplines exist, such as graphic design, fashion design, product design, transportation design, textiles design, furniture design, interior architecture, information design, design engineering, etc. New, composite specialist fields have emerged, e.g., industrial design and interaction design, while application domains for these specialists have become more focused; e.g., sports design, retail design, web design, maritime design, and medical design. Thus, corporate design functions may find it rewarding to connect to specialists and form multidisciplinary teams to leverage concept development and design innovation efforts. Hybrid business-related areas are also attended to, such as strategic design, design management, service design, and even experience design. Although traditional boundaries seem to break down, hundreds of sub-fields and angles are identified from a broad point of view on design.
Not surprisingly, it is not so clear how to distinguish the particular design-intensive innovation efforts or actions by relatively young disciplines, like industrial design and interaction design, that are clearly interdisciplinary (covering more than one area of study) or even transdisciplinary, i.e., moving in areas across and beyond established disciplines.
When corporate design departments organize user-centered research or wish to initiate new online or offline conversations, both scanning widely and further exploration with frequent design reviews and quality-oriented screening can be of interest. In doing a range of temporal projects, corporate design managers often strive to become focused, rewarding, and meaningful for others, and realize new designs within tight schedules. Working in between divisional managers and not yet fully recognized concerns is an ongoing challenge (Blaich & Blaich 1993; Marzano 2005). Corporate design typically deals with a variety of solutions as well as with ill-defined or awkward problems in the social realm (Krippendorff 2006, 27), which cannot be optimized in simple ways but must be engaged with by participating stakeholders.
These diverse viewpoints make corporate design work complex. Learning from the market needs to be understood beyond traditional marketing practices, and includes tapping into latent problems or overlooked desires. Another design tool is through the “gift of iteration” (Shaughnessy 2005, 144). Iteration involves exploiting the feedback loops from critical scanning, using, or testing of new designs. Relationship perspectives together with the multi-skilled interactive design views may help understand the intricacies of setting up and facilitating plug-in, screening, and editing of digital conversations, which unfold in social media on the Internet with increasing speed of interaction, though the few seem to entice the many in this beta land. The challenge for corporate design work is not merely to signify the corporate offerings but to help bring together new interactions affecting users’ experiences in more genuine ways.
The term design has many meanings; no agreement exists as to what design covers. Both designers and managers may find it difficult to move beyond jargon or the everyday language of likes and dislikes. This is related to how design involves a multiplicity of aspects and also talks to our feelings, e.g., the “emotional design” of a car. Being both a verb and a noun (Rand 1993), design refers to processes and outcomes, encompassing technicalities of what is “below the line” or invisible for the consumer (Dormer 1990, 15), as well as symbolic meanings depending on the situation or context to be read fruitfully.
It is fascinating but complex to create something distinct and original, and complex to make what seems “brilliantly simple” in retrospect. A sensitizing concept is multimodality – combining different methods of communication – because multiple media are often explored by corporate design to invoke the customers’ experiences.
Where To Draw The Lines
Although corporate design can be described in a number of relevant ways, managers may still perceive only a fraction of it (e.g., color choice). Three points can be made. These are related to (1) corporate design’s organizing potentiality to take advantage of the cross-over nature of both design and business enterprise, (2) the enabling of designinspired arenas fostering new connections, projections, and conversations, and (3) the expressive creation of something to flock around or enjoy, something both tangible and intangible.
First, corporate design works in cross-organizational areas, and may include products, services, corporate websites, and e-commerce. In most organizations, the multimodal areas tend not to exist as neatly organized domains. Rather, they have to be enacted and mobilized so as to become relevant and interesting for business unit leaders and project groups (Blaich & Blaich 1993).
Second, corporate design engages not only with a branch of organization areas but with and beyond their respective close networking areas (e.g., suppliers to production, dealers to marketing and sales). A wider scanning and connecting is related to how experienced designers and other specialists working for corporate design can bring in entirely new perspectives, ideas, and technologies from other industries or life-spheres (Kelley 2001) and from sustaining their own experimental work, which can become strategic.
Third, corporate design may work toward a distinct expression and sense-making of the business as well as broader human enterprise. Creative endeavors can lead to extraordinary performances or an aesthetic “schwung.”
Lagging Or Leading Design
Although sparsely researched, reflective practitioners, scholars, and other observers have provided insight into the uneven development of good design and abilities to manage design in business organizations (e.g., Lorenz 1990; Gorb 1990). If well done, corporate design work may lead to increasing returns. Design work can also have external effects – positive or negative “externalities” – for other design teams. Creative design teams may reconfigure quickly to take advantage of new opportunities or otherwise leapfrogging. Corporate design work may seek to protect accumulated values and build on previous steps taken, but traditional ways of corporate design regulation may become reduced in a connectionist society. Employees tend to work in shifting, temporal projects and engage in their own power points and other media. Design management research suggests that design decisions are often made by others than profession-based designers. “Silent design” denotes design-related work by managers or corporate staff, often not thinking of it as design (Dumas 1993).
Whether properly managed or not, corporate design tends to shift over time, space, and situation. What are the most important issues of corporate design depends on the actual business or mission (Olins 1989), as well as the emergent engagements.
Collaboration In Design
Corporate design work can be decentralized, outsourced, or run by mixed approaches, but it can also be neglected as a corporate function (Sparke 1986; Blaich & Blaich 1993). Even in companies that primarily use in-house resources, a new trend of external designoriented cooperation has been registered, e.g., in Japanese corporations (Masuda 1996). Insights into companies’ design collaborations have helped to recognize how corporate design can become expanded through advanced prototyping, new user research, cultural trend work, co-created collections, or other collaborative approaches (Marzano 2005). Research suggests that particular designer/business collaborations may enable the creation and strategizing of current or future products and services, especially if retained as “design alliances” over some time, yet the personalized relations may also remain somewhat fragile (Bruce & Jevnaker 1998).
Design consultants working with managers of other companies appear to connect and mediate in ways that may provide new insight into the focus on more complex co-creative relationships between business and users. Working with particular talents and multidisciplinary teams, and accumulating deeper experiences by collaborating intensely in the short term as well as over time, may lead to increasing economic returns (cf. learning from past failures, virtuous circles of good design work, and cumulative reputation effects). Whereas working with new specialists may lead to fresh thinking and “seen design” or differentiated approaches, it can also lead to bypassing of internal competencies and disruptive efforts (Dumas 1993). The processes and outcomes of design-oriented collaboration thus seem to differ significantly (Jevnaker & Bruce 1999). Also, a design team designing recurrently for and with a business enterprise with shifting customers in several regions needs to think in different ways from an architect who may design something for one customer in one place.
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