A New Book on Business and Design
Space Doctor’s Malex Salamanques continues to assert her expertise in the field of design and research; featuring in Carola Verschoor’s Change Ahead. Verschoor, founder of GROH!, deploys a compelling read focusing on the emerging practices at the intersection of business strategy, research, and design.
“Design creates culture. Culture shapes value. Values determine the future.” – Robert L. Peters
Brands must always keep an eye on the future, and as the rate at which the future seems to be arriving, the need for keen perception has never been more important. In her new book Change Ahead, Carola Verschoor invites us to dive into her analysis of how research and design are transforming business strategy. She articulates a vivid illustration of the changes taking place within the business environment, changes that require brands to review their research methodologies and incorporate design thinking into their process. Space Doctors’ own Malex Salamanques is featured as an interviewee, discussing her thoughts on how semiotic research and design thinking can work in synergy to offer invaluable insight to inform business strategy.
Verschoor sees strategy as analogous with sea navigation in an age in which business are subject to ‘waves’ of new technology, societal change, and economic instability. These waves come too fast and without sufficient warning for companies to follow traditional models of annual strategic planning, requiring instead that they react, adapt and change dynamically.
Verschoor posits that design and research (primarily qualitative) have traditionally been called upon to make things pretty, to make things work, and to verify that things are pretty and/or work. However, whilst achieving ratified beautification, both disciplines are also integral in creating meaning, and ensuring that that meaning connects with increasingly varied consumption in a world in constant flux. The ability to leverage real creative insight requires deep understanding of the market (research), how to create relevance and meaning (design), and how to form these into business propositions (strategy), and Carola provides compelling arguments as to how this creative insight can be generated.
Research must become more responsive and focus on providing not just raw data, but explanations in narrative form that allow immersion into a market and the deep understanding required to extrapolate from existing emergent trends into picturing and mapping out the future. “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”, but semiotic research methods provide the tools to draw together disparate emergent threads and form a coherent picture of what’s to come. This doesn’t mean jettisoning traditional market research such as surveys, analytics, and focus groups, but rather understanding its limitations. Where traditional research seeks answers to questions already formulated, research methodologies like semiotic analysis provide insight into how and why people’s attitudes and behaviour are changing and evolving, and the research itself can adapt continuously based on its findings. In rapidly changing, competitive global marketplaces this form of iterative, adaptable research is necessary for innovation. Focus groups and the like are all too likely to lead to information saturation, a point at which more data won’t provide more insight, only more corroborative evidence for existing ideas. Ultimately, what is called for can be achieved through semiotic research which, as Malex puts it, “goes beyond the surface, to reveal layers of meaning”. Semiotics “allows you to understand what is relevant… and importantly it also allows you to know how to break paradigms, where to innovate”.
Semiotic research is fruitful in part because of how it gels with design thinking, described by Verschoor as the designers’ mindset separate from the specific skills of ‘making’, including visual thinking, creativity, and a focus on the end-user. Applying design thinking during the research process, one can simultaneously generate new questions for the research to answer and possible solutions to problems encountered along the way. The user-centricity of design thinking is also in line with semiotic research’s focus on consumers. Traditional market research often sidelines user experience by assuming users can communicate their desires when, as Malex points out, “very often, consumers can’t articulate what they want or need”, a standpoint that’s increasingly accepted due to advances in behavioural science and deeper understanding of consumer psychology.
Overall, what Verschoor provides through Change Ahead is a topography of the current business landscape and her thoughts as to how businesses might best navigate into the future. She calls for better integrated design, research, and strategy, and appears to envision the future much as Malex does – a situation wherein “things are interrelated and interconnected, where business is listening and tuning into its environment and where design is shaping things with a purpose”.