Design thinking. Design still comes first.

For many businesses, design thinking is their best bet to keep them ahead in a rapidly changing and increasingly challenging world. And here’s the thing, it actually works.

Design thinking. Everybody’s doing it. Retailers and logistics specialists. Management consultants and accountants. They’ve all torn a leaf from the designer’s Moleskine notebook and adopted design thinking as the new MO.

There are good reasons for this. For one thing, design thinking promotes a more collaborative, more agile way of working. It gives businesses the freedom to prototype, test, revise and repeat, quickly. And crucially, it places the customer at the centre of everything that company does, and helps to raise that consciousness all the way across the business.

For many of these businesses, design thinking is their best bet to keep them ahead in a rapidly changing and increasingly challenging world. And here’s the thing, it actually works.

According to Deborah Dawton, Chief Executive of the UK’s Design Business Association, “You only need look to the brands leading the field today – businesses that have strategically embedded design across their organisations to drive their success – to see how fundamental design will be to all thriving enterprises of the future. In fact if you x-ray the most successful start-ups in the last 10 years, you can see design sitting at the very heart of their organisations.”

So we’re all agreed, design thinking is a good thing. It’s worked pretty well for us as designers for the past 40 years. But let’s be clear – it is the process, rather than the product. And that product is, and has to be, strong, enduring, iconic brands.

Design thinking is not to be confused with design. Sure. You can drag your people out of their silos, hand them a stack of Sharpies and Post-Its and let them loose on the company’s whiteboards, but introducing design thinking into your business won’t in itself guarantee a brilliant outcome.

“Design thinking is nothing more than our way of thinking and doing as designers. Without talented thinkers and doers there is not good design thinking [sic].” So says Mauro Porcini, Chief Design Officer at Pepsico.

In short, it takes a designer – someone who understands the power of design and what it can achieve – to create truly distinctive, durable brands. And that’s increasingly important if those brands are to survive and succeed in an ever-changing and uncertain world. These are extraordinary times. They demand the extraordinary power of design.

Great. But what does that actually look like? When we apply the power of design to a brand, what happens? What makes it extraordinary?


It’s no longer good enough to be the best of the best. You have to be the only ones who do what you do. Thus spake Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. And he was right. There’s no point benchmarking your brand against what’s already out there, trying to compete on performance or price. You’re setting yourself up for a future watching your margins steadily shrinking. Instead, be a one-off, inimitable. That way, you get to lead the market, set your prices and control your own destiny.


Extraordinary brands put people first, of course. But more than that, they engage with people at an emotional level. It’s that emotional connection that grants them a place in people’s lives, and encourages loyalty among their consumers for longer.


The power of design, is the power to change things. Design challenges the way things are done, it can fix things, break things and make them better. At its very best, design can raise expectations, shape culture, and ultimately transform people’s lives. Wow.

Brands that achieve all three are, in our experience, also the most effective – delivering extraordinary results in terms of sales, reach and growth. Because in the end, that’s where the power of design is measured ­– at the bottom line.

Of course, we would say this wouldn’t we? We’re designers after all. But we’re not the only ones advocating the extraordinary power of design. Out there, among clients and their agencies, there’s a wider and still-growing recognition of the need to get back to the values of design.

Commenting on the opening of the new London Design Museum, ex-Grey CCO Nils Leonard said, “In a world full of challenge and change, we have never been more in need of what design and great designers can make happen. For the ad world, an industry in a messy divorce with the real world, design philosophy is more relevant than ever. Design learned long ago what advertising still hasn’t: that people ignore design that ignores people.”

The time for design is now. In fact, it’s never been more now. So for designers, that means the pressure’s on. How do we make certain that the power of design is always delivered to maximum effect? By being hard on ourselves, always to create brands that are:


To be meaningful, businesses and brands must engage with their audiences rationally and emotionally, with real clarity of purpose. Meaning is built upon winning insights, not mere observations, capable of driving an idea that’s born out of a human truth.


For a brand to be memorable, it must be built around a powerful, single-minded idea. From that foundation, it has to build mental availability, amplifying its presence at every opportunity, across every customer experience.


What is the absolute irreducible essence of the brand? How does it reflect the purpose and the values of the brand? And how can it be dimensionalised to work effectively at every point across the entire customer journey?

Fundamentally, these are the criteria we apply, the questions we ask of ourselves and our clients. Yes, it’s part of our process. But the difference is, as designers, how we interpret the answers and how we take what we’ve learnt and use it to create extraordinary brands. So embrace design thinking by all means. But think first about the power of design.

Nick Hynes is Head of Verbal Identity at Elmwood.