Lessons from America: How to Be a Design-Driven Company

Jaana Beidler rose up the ranks of Patagonia and Nike design management and leadership.

Photo: Kati Björninen

Heidi Hammarsten, 11.02.2016

Now she wants to share what she has learned during her twenty-year design career in the United States.

As a young designer Jaana Beidler decided she wanted to try her luck in the American clothing industry. What was supposed to be a short stint ended up as a 20-year career with Esprit, Patagonia and Nike. Beidler was a member of Nike’s global footwear design leadership team when she was invited to return to Finland and join the Nokia design team.

Since Fall 2014, Beidler has worked as an associate professor of color and materials design at the Department of Design at Aalto University. Now she wants to share her insights and learning from the years in the United States: how leading corporations use design to succeed in global markets – and what it takes from designers to use their skills and talents in a design-driven organization. Let’s hear her advice.

Be ambitious and think big

After returning to Finland, Beidler has been surprised to learn how risk aversive we are. “Of course Americans have the advantage of a big home market,” Beidler admits, “but we all have access to the global marketplace nowadays.”

“In the US everything is possible – I never heard there ‘That’s a crazy idea’ or ‘No, it can’t be done’. If you have an idea, you will be encouraged to develop it into a product. And if you meet a problem along the way you can’t say ‘No, I can’t solve it’ – it isn’t an option. As a designer and a creative person you are a problem solver.”

Beidler firmly believes that where there is a will, there is a way: You get it done and into the collection, no matter what. Nike presented a collection per month, each collection consisting of hundreds of different products.

Beidler is very impressed by the skills of her students in the Department of Design. She says that their portfolios would be among the very best if they were placed in the huge pile of works by young designers applying for internships in Nike. But she was surprised when she started at Aalto with a business-oriented design course last year and asked her students to share a project they wanted to develop for market.

“They had brilliant, cool and commercial ideas. But when I asked about their goals and ambitions with the ideas, many of them were very modest and mentioned wanting to sell them at the Christmas Market. Ever since then I have encouraged all my students to dream big, think about the world as their oyster and go after their dreams with confidence.”

Work as a team with business leaders

Beidler has noticed that in design-driven companies – both the ones she has worked for and others – there is often a pair of leaders at the top.

“There is an operational and business leader who understands the numbers and knows how to get the goods to the market. And alongside him or her, there is also a creative leader with a vision for the future of the company. They work together as a team with mutual respect leading the company.”

According to Beidler the role of the creative designer is to show the way to the future.

“The business type leader doesn’t really see what’s happening tomorrow, but the creative leader sees the opportunities ahead.”

Beidler admits that this kind of cooperation doesn’t always come naturally. Every profession has its own way to think and communicate.

“It takes time to learn how to work together. But once you see the benefits, the success you can create together and realize how much the results improve, you embrace the cooperation.”

Good enough is not good enough

It seems to Beidler that in Finland there’s a certain ambition level set for a product or a service – we are like “Oh, it is good enough.”

“But nowadays good enough is not good enough, you need to aim and be the best. The companies I worked for in the United States wanted to be the best and lead the market. In Finland only very few companies dare to think like this and aim high enough. That’s why we are in this situation where many of our products are not appealing to the foreign market.”

What separates the best from good enough? According to Beidler, it’s all about bold ideas and innovation and obsessing about the details. If the idea is too easy to push forward inside the company it may be just good enough. Truly great ideas probably divide opinions and create a bit of uneasiness. Which in turn makes the product creation team work even harder on the idea and finesse every single detail.

“Usually the kind of ideas that turn out to be the best are those that make you think whether you even dare to bring them to market. As a designer you have to help the others to see the vision and the opportunities.”

Don’t be afraid of numbers and measuring

“In the United States, commercial success is an equal measurement of good design to artistic and esthetic recognition by museums and design competitions,” says Beidler. “So it is possible to measure design and creativity as well and that is not a bad thing. Data and design knowledge can be a killer combination.”

Beidler tells a story from the time she was working with Patagonia. The design team had problems with getting the buyers to purchase the new color of the season – this time it was bright green and it was offered in puffy winter jackets and accessories.

“We designers had done a lot of research for the seasonal color palette and consumer preferences. So we felt super strong that green was going to be a big color, but because we didn’t have any recent sales history about green they bought very little of it.”

Together with their own brand retail stores and data specialists, the designers were able to create a model based on the sales figures of the first three days forecasting the sales performance and how the products would do for the rest of the season.

The bright green color sold out after the first week, and based on the first days selling data, the design team could calculate the amount of lost business – how many green products the buyers would have sold if they had had more inventory.

“With this we elevated design into a more strategic role in the company and from then on cooperated seamlessly with the buyers and other business functions. Numbers talk and we designers should feel comfortable using them strategically when communicating and influencing business people with our creative choices and vision.”

Jaana Beidler is an Associate Professor of Color and Material Design at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. She is also training at Aalto EE's Aalto CEO Circle program. 
Also Aalto EE's Design Thinking for Business Innovation will give you the skills to design new solutions that create value for the customer and your business. 

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