Designers: The Key to Business Resiliency

Olga Stella, Design Core Detroit
April 8, 2020
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“Adapt or die” is often heard during times of crisis. But maybe the Detroit region should adopt “Design or die” as its call to action.

“Adapt or die” is often heard during times of crisis. But maybe the Detroit region should adopt “Design or die” as its call to action, especially now.

Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, “Design is not what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.” Designers are creative problem solvers that imagine new systems for objects, environments and activities within a set of constraints.

Now more than ever, every business model, product and service is vulnerable. Not only are businesses impacted by new technologies, artificial intelligence and automation, but also by new social and cultural contexts that no one could have imagined just a few weeks ago.

Design skills and mindsets are the key to adapting business models, products and services that can function in this new context and adjust to future disruptions. Luckily, the Detroit region has a talent advantage over other places. But we must put that talent to work at the front end of problem-solving and not relegate it to styling and aesthetics.

Regional Advantage

In 2015, Detroit became the only city in the United States to be honored for its design legacy and future contributions to the field with a UNESCO City of Design designation.

This designation reflects the fact that the Detroit region is 16-times more concentrated in industrial and commercial designers than the national average. Graduates from design programs at local institutions join the 97,000 people working in research, engineering and design across every sector in our region. Both the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Detroit Regional Partnership have identified this cluster as a unique value proposition to attract new businesses.

Over 60 businesses, institutions and organizations have joined together under the Detroit City of Design initiative to deepen the region’s competencies in inclusive design, a necessary skill to stay relevant in a demographically shifting world.

Relevant Skills

A 2017 report by the United Kingdom’s Design Council found that 43% of workers using design skills were more likely to be in jobs requiring and generating innovation, compared with an average of just 6% for the wider UK workforce. These skills extend beyond architecture, product and graphic design to services and systems, user experience and the interaction of people and products with technology.

Why is this? Because designers are part researcher, part maker, part social scientist and part natural scientist and engineer, as well as social workers and community organizers. They are the people on your team that can scope the problem, ideate solutions, prototype and test them, and then visually communicate the process and results, either in 2D or 3D.

Business Impact

McKinsey and Co’s 2018 The Business Value of Design report found that the companies that were best at deploying design practices increased revenue by 32% and returns to shareholders by 56% more than their industry counterparts did over a five-year period.

Businesses can put their design talent to work at every stage of their value chain. Product designers develop the very physical and digital products that businesses sell, oftentimes translating technology for relatable human experiences.

User experience designers maximize positive customer experiences to engender product loyalty. Visual designers develop the packaging, websites and marketing materials that sell the product, while user interaction experts finetune online sales portals. Design strategists work with company leadership to develop resilient business models and efficient operational systems.

Real Life Need for Design

The COVID crisis offers real life examples today. The Detroit region is building a reputation as the “Arsenal of Health” thanks to its combination of design and manufacturing know-how.

We are seeing this in the quick actions of General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Carhartt, Xenith and others to make ventilators, face masks and other personal protective equipment needed for the health care industry. Companies have pulled together teams of designers, engineers, buyers and manufacturing experts to support product development, material and equipment sourcing and the production process.

Design talents can also be leveraged to develop new services. With in-person health care disrupted by social distancing and increased physical demands on health care facilities, health care services may be radically rethought in the future.

To implement virtual health care services in the future, product designers will need to design new medical assessment devices that can be deployed in home settings. Service designers will be tasked with developing service models that appeal to patients while meeting health care practitioner requirements. User experience experts and web designers will design the interfaces that deliver these new services to patients.

Detroit Designers Can Help

The Detroit region cannot afford to go back to business as usual. Business must reimagine products and services in a world with disrupted supply chains, limited social interaction, heightened health concerns and capital constraints.

The companies that move quickly will thrive and have the resilience to withstand future shocks. These companies need Detroit’s design community as part of their team.

Need help connecting to the right talent to make these moves for your business? Design Core’s Detroit Design Network can help. Connect with us at

Olga Stella, Design Core Detroit
Olga Stella, Design Core Detroit

Olga Stella is the executive director of Design Core Detroit, an organization at the College for Creative Studies that works to position Detroit as a global source of creative talent by supporting the growth of Detroit’s design-driven businesses and their market opportunities. Olga’s 20-year career in economic development spans policy, program development and deal-making, primarily in the city of Detroit. Design Core Detroit organizes a member network of 100+ businesses of all sizes spanning the full range of design disciplines from the built environment to product development to visual communications. It also activates Detroit’s designation as the only UNESCO City of Design in the United States.

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