Transforming companies by design
Sven talks to Management Magazine

The global economic meltdown has been good to Designworks.

“It’s counter-intuitive, I know,” admits CEO Sven Baker, “but because what we do becomes more valuable in difficult times, we’ve experienced greater demand for our offering. In fact, the past two years have probably been the busiest period in Designworks’ history.”

The service the company provides these days is markedly different to what it was when it was established in Wellington in 1978 as a publications design firm. During the intervening years it moved into identity development, and now – with offices in Auckland, Christchurch and Australia, in addition to the capital – describes itself as a “brand design firm”.

“Our passion and purpose as a business is very clear,” says Baker. “To design the most successful New Zealand brands in the world.”

Which does not mean the company’s work begins and ends with producing catchy logos for its clients – far from it.

“We’re not talking about the aesthetics here,” says Baker (although aesthetics do play a part). “We’re talking about helping organisations transform; about the reengineering of a business to reorientate itself in the changing world, which is something I think every New Zealand business needs to do.”

A stint spent working in Australia helped clarify Baker’s views about the challenges that NZ Inc must meet if it’s to be competitive.

“What struck me when I returned home is how dependent a small economy like New Zealand is on getting its position within the global market right, and getting the innovation process happening more efficiently and effectively.”

While Baker points out there’s no one approach employed to meet the needs of its clients – which range from such large corporates as Air New Zealand and Telecom to SMEs like air conditioning company HotChilly and “water systems innovator” Leap – all Designworks’ assignments involve what he describes as “an alchemy of logic and magic”.

“The logic is about understanding how a business or its product is currently positioned relative to the competitor set within its category, or in the global marketplace in terms of the niche opportunity that might exist,” he says. “There is some quite deep analysis that’s required to really understand what’s needed in any particular situation, and the process of getting those little gems of insight is universal to most projects we work on.

“The magic part of the equation is how you translate that opportunity, that differentiated position, into something quite tangible. And that requires bold and creative thinking.”

This “design thinking”, as Baker calls it, is “the ability to see a latent or present opportunity and then bring that to life in terms of a product or an offering. It often requires taking a lateral view, which right-brained people like designers are maybe more adept at doing.”

What’s also required is the committed buy-in of those leading the client organisation because, to prevent the process from being just another fleeting, flash-in-the-pan management exercise, the ‘design thinking’ needs to be embedded in the company’s culture.

“It is challenging and usually takes visionary leadership within the organisation to do it,” says Baker. “It’s not something you can impose, you can’t legislate for it, you just have to build an excitement and enthusiasm within a business.”

Fortunately, in his experience, “most New Zealand companies are led by people who are receptive and open, and do want to do new things. And there are plenty of examples of visionary leaders who understand the role that design needs to play in successful organisations – you see it in practice at Air New Zealand, Methven, AMI…”

What’s also necessary is the acceptance that this design-led approach “is not an overnight panacea”, notes Baker. “It’s very different from, say, advertising, which can give you a very short-term tactical lift. It’s more institutional and so it takes longer to realise the benefits.”

Just how long is influenced by the scale and complexity of the business: “A company like Telecom takes a lot of time, whereas with a small owner-operated business of 15 staff members it can happen very, very quickly.”

The concept of ‘brand experience’ is an important part of Designworks’ reengineering toolkit.

“Brand experience is to do with the relationship the organisation ultimately has with its customer,” explains Baker. “It’s not marketing as such, it’s not about communication, it’s about what the customer experiences from the business – service, product, complaint resolution process, and so on – and how you choreograph all those experiences, if you like.

“It’s looking at the design of everything from a customer’s perspective, understanding what their needs might be, and then translating that back into how you engineer and organise your business.

“So it’s very much about taking the business strategy and translating it into a physical, tangible experience.”

This process can point up the chance – and, indeed, the need – to transform the company in question, something Baker and his colleagues clearly relish.

“We love it when we work with a company that has an appetite for change and sees the opportunity that change brings: to fundamentally rethink its market position to a more competitive, unique place that then offers greater opportunity in terms of customer growth, customer loyalty, share of wallet.”

Sometimes this kind of transformation is the result of Designworks helping an organisation lift its gaze beyond its current circumstances via “blue ocean thinking”; in other cases it’s in response to pressing challenges presented by the environment the company operates in.

An example of the latter is the work Baker and co did with South Island-based PPCS (Primary Producers Co-operative Society). The most immediately visible change was the adoption of the much pithier name Silver Fern Farms, but this was but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“It was a matter of recognising that in order for them to survive, let alone prosper, they really had to transform from being a cooperative meat processor to much more of a global marketer,” says Baker. “That meant designing their product to the appetite of European consumers, which pointed to a whole different way to think about how they prepare their product for market – packaging, the brand, the brand story, the story of origin so the consumers in the Northern Hemisphere can track the origin of what they’re eating – as well as the company culture and the sales channel.

“That project was a fundamental transformation of that company in terms of its business model and where its future lies. Now, rather than being very much focused on the farm gate, it’s much more concerned with the consumer’s plate.”

Ask Sven Baker what the key to Designworks’ success, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s a cliché,” he says, “but it’s about having great people in the team, people who all share the same purpose and are inspired by that, and are passionate about doing great work.

“So motivating people is a critical part of our business, as is keeping them fresh, which is about making sure they get exposed to different places and thinking.”

To this end, the whole company of 55-plus staff is brought together as often as possible (in practice, yearly or bi-yearly), while every month each office gets together to debate and dissect a current trend, “which is to keep our minds agile, so we’re not just in the trenches doing the hard yards”.

There’s also the acknowledgement that in order to retain talented staff it’s necessary to reward them appropriately, both in terms of remuneration and providing challenging, stimulating work for them to get their teeth into.

Providing “a broader horizon and bigger field” for staff to operate in is one reason for Designworks’ current growth strategy, which Baker describes as “both ambitious and measured” and will see it expand its Australian presence, as well as push into Asia.

Another is to help the brands the company works with to expand their reach.

This evolution, which also involves the recent creation of an interactive division and a soon-to-launch spatial design business, is off the back of a major restructure of the business.

“It had been an owner-operator/partnership model where there was quite a lot of variation between the cultures of the different offices, and you kinda had a handbrake on – there wasn’t a lot of appetite for growth or risk. Now we have a group philosophy with a single strategy under a CEO,” say Baker, who took up the role last year, having previously been heavily involved in the practitioner side of the business.

“So there’s quite a lot going on that will really provide the platform for the next five years of this business, and that’s pretty exciting.”

Winning the supreme award at last year’s Vero Excellence in Business Support Awards “was confirmation that we were starting to head in the right direction, and gave us the confidence to keep going,” says Baker.

“That process of self-examination – which involved assessing our own business processes, as well the positive impact we had on our clients – was very illuminating to go through.

“It was,” he laughs, “very much a case of eating our own cooking.”


Nick Grant, a former deputy editor of NZ Management (www.management.co.nz), is a freelance journalist. nof.grant@gmail.com

This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of NZ Management (www.management.co.nz).© Management magazine; republished with permission.