10 inspiring examples of design-led brands – Econsultancy

Brands that employ design thinking are perhaps easier to spot than they used to be.

That’s because we interact with many fast-growing digital businesses primarily through our screens.

So, for a service like Deliveroo (which delivers somebody else’s product), aside from meeting the delivery person at the door, we know the brand purely as an app experience (and from noting the colourful riders in the street).

Of course, there are plenty of design-led brands that don’t usually interact with their customers via a digital interface, only through a product. The famous ones are easy to call to mind – Dyson, for example.

Then, most interestingly, there are brands that are trying to digitally transform their businesses, such as in financial services. In many of these rapidly changing businesses design is starting to gain greater influence over business strategy.

Having already tried to get the bottom of the theory around design thinking ( see previous articles), we thought we’d round up some examples of brands that employ design thinking. Here are 10 of them…

1. Capital One

Capital One raised eyebrows back in 2014 when it acquired San Francisco design and UX consultancy Adaptive Path. This was (fairly obviously) Capital One’s attempt to quickly bolster an internal digital design consultancy.

Adaptive Path co-founder Jesse James Garrett wrote of the buyout, “You can see where this is going, right? Somebody came along who finally, truly, seemed to get it.”

He continued, “A company with a great culture that shares and values our intellectual curiosity and design sensibilities, that wants us to continue doing great work inside their organization, but also continue helping others do great work too, by fostering dialogue and teaching what we have learned.”

The following year, Capital One acquired another digital design firm, Monsoon, which specialises in product development. Techcrunch reported that this was partly an attempt at influencing culture.

In the same article, Sandeep Sood, co-founder of Monsoon, describes the company as an intentionally small team where individual ownership is the norm. “There’s very little centralized management…we let developers make design decisions on a daily basis. We expect it from them, in fact.”

So, over the past few years, Capital One has invested considerably in its design chops. View the company’s Labs website and you’ll see plenty of evidence of design-led culture, including the obligatory Medium blog posts that transparently discuss the brand’s approach to design and development.

In 2013, Capital One appointed Scott Zimmer as its first head of design, and in 2016 the brand appointed a head of design in the UK team, Aline Baeck, who moved from eBay’s design team.

We can get a good idea of Capital One’s burgeoning design culture through Clair Byrd, formerly of InVision, and her 2016 interview with Ryan Page, Capital One’s head of design for card partnerships.

Ryan says “Designing with a human perspective is key to developing a human strategy. To develop a strategy in the absence of a strong human need or a perspective on how real people see the world, well, that’s a strategy that won’t be as powerful as it might be if it’s created in collaboration with design.”

He continues, “We’re not saying design should create strategy by itself-we think design should be a co-creation between design, engineering, and the business. You can’t move forward without business value, but if the business value doesn’t prioritize human desirability, then we’d certainly feel like that strategy isn’t going to be as successful as it could long term.”

2. Airbnb

Airbnb was founded by two designers (Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky) and there has been lots of coverage of its community focused approach.

Age of Design, an ongoing series by Design Week, includes a sneak peek of the Airbnb offices in which Joe Gebbia discusses the creation of a design-led business.

Each project team at Airbnb incudes a project manager whose explicit role is to represent the customer.

In February 2018, Chesky announced the biggest changes to the design of the Airbnb platform since its creation, making it easier to find an ideal property and reliable hosts. This included Airbnb Plus and its Experiences platform in a push to become ‘a 21st century company’.

In the first hour since we launched Airbnb Plus there were 1,000 host applications just in our 13 launch markets. We will be expanding quickly

– Brian Chesky (@bchesky) February 22, 2018

On Airbnb’s design news blog, VP of design Alex Schleifer said of the changes, “We know that millions of people search homes on Airbnb and never find the right place.

“…With new categorization functions, we’ve designed a system that fundamentally changes the platform, allowing people to search at a whole new degree of granularity. We’ve also helped define home types so hosts can better understand the difference between, say, a cottage and a bungalow.”

On what it means to truly be a 21st century company, he continues, “20th century companies are structured to benefit shareholders, and make decisions to support that.

“This served companies well in the last 100 years, but we believe 21st century companies need to broaden their definition of stakeholders. In our case, we’re serving a community of millions of people who we’ve invited in to build this business with us. It’s an entirely new type of organization, with new, community-driven behaviors and values.”

By shifting their design focus to put user experience first, Airbnb has created one of the most navigable, informative and enjoyable platforms to use, whether accessed from a web browser or the app.

3. Dyson

Founded in 1991 by engineer Sir James Dyson, the company reinvented vacuum cleaning with its cyclone technology and then with a cordless, handheld model.

Now the brand has branched out; from hand dryers to hair tools, and air purifiers to heating systems in an attempt to propel their pioneering technology into more areas of everyday life.

In an interview with Recode in 2018, Dyson gave insight into his evolving design strategy:

“Technology is now moving so fast and is becoming ever more complex. Even we, who started off as hardware engineers, now employ more software engineers than hardware engineers. And vision systems people, artificial intelligence people, robotics people. We now have five times the number of engineers to do a product than we were doing 10 years ago. It’s a massive change.”

Whilst they’re certainly not the cheapest products around (a Supersonic hair dryer will set you back around £300), quality engineering, iconic design features and rave customer reviews make its products a luxury that many are willing to shell out for.

Their demo concept stores encapsulate this luxurious brand identity perfectly; providing an immersive look into the technology behind its products, as well as live demonstrations and personal recommendations.

NOW OPEN! @Dyson first UK store with a first Dyson Demo space for you to pick pick up, test and experience the tech! pic.twitter.com/Xkb3MfRB2T

– Oxford Street W1 (@OxfordStreetW1) July 6, 2016

Furthermore, the future sounds exciting for Dyson. In September 2017, they revealed a team of at least 400 people were working to produce an electric car by 2020, backed by an investment of £2bn.

James Dyson just announced to @Dyson employees that we’ve begun work on a battery electric vehicle, due to launch in 2020. pic.twitter.com/yUZNvIsYIi

– Dyson (@Dyson) September 26, 2017

Other ongoing projects include Breathe London, a joint case study with Kings College London on air quality around the streets of the capital. For this study, the brand developed a wearable sensor attached to a child’s backpack which then monitors the air quality on their journey to school. The data gathered helps to pinpoint particularly highly polluted areas around London schools in an attempt to find ways of combatting it.

It seems Dyson can turn its hand to anything with its innovative approach to design and engineering.

4. Ikea

Now, reader, your authors are two of those people that consider a trip to IKEA a fun day out. Call us crazy if you will, but we cannot get enough of the beautifully put together prototype rooms, playful colour schemes and the warehouses full of soft furnishings. The clever layout and tactility of it all is incredibly immersive and though obviously self-serve retail, it feels not far off experiential marketing.

Ikea has a lot more to offer than just its showrooms, however, and is becoming increasingly more design-led in its approach as technology advances, the housing market changes and demand grows. Indeed, Ikea’s total sales rose by 5.9% to £1.965bn in the UK alone in the year to August 2018. That’s a lot of allen keys in households across the nation.

Here are a few of our favourite innovations from the retailer in recent years that make the brand really stand out as a pioneer of design-led thinking for the modern household.

A changing business model

Profits are down at IKEA as the retailer invests in ecommerce and its new city-centre store formats.

These new stores still include mocked-up rooms, also tech supporting multichannel shopping that Ikea has quietly been perfecting. Customers can order a delivery or a click-and-collect from a touchscreen, as well as booking assembly via the recently acquired Taskrabbit.

Ikea is moving with the times to recognise that out-of-town footfall has plateaued and younger customers want central showrooms and convenience over a big day out at a warehouse. This is a difficult thing to get right and brings with it many design challenges.

Space saving solutions

If there’s one thing Ikea excels at, it is space saving design. The brand has risen to the challenge in response to the increasing need for smart storage solutions in a world where space in the home is limited and the rental economy is booming.

The ‘Small Spaces’ tag is one section of their website dedicated to making the most out of the room you have, featuring case studies and ideas for different living spaces depending on your own situation. From fold-up tables to cabin beds in living rooms, modular wardrobes and even fitting a laundry area into your bathroom, customers are free to explore endless options.

Smart technology for a better price

The furniture brand first ventured into the world of the smart home back in 2017 with its Tradfri smart lightbulbs. When the bulbs are hooked up with the Tradfri app, you can set up and save ‘moods’ for different rooms and activities (by adjusting light brightness and warmth), as well as timers for waking up and for when you’re out of the house.

Tradfri bulbs are available from £7-£22, and accompanying ‘dimming kits’ from £10. Sure, it’s no £5 coffee table, but compared to many other smart bulb offerings it’s pretty affordable.

Other examples of innovative technology from Ikea include its AR furniture fitting app ‘ Place‘, lamps with built in wireless charging and a collaboration with Sonos coming in August 2019.

All in all, Ikea combines great design with practical solutions for any space, at a price that won’t destroy your bank account. It’s very rare for a furniture company to tick all three boxes at once.

5. Netflix

According to Forbes, even as far back as 2001, Netflix founder Reed Hastings was spending $10m a year on research into streaming.

That is as good a fact as any to show just how design driven and customer driven Netflix is. The same article puts Netflix’s design-led approach down to four rules:

  • Think Big – Netflix wasn’t afraid of disrupting its existing DVD delivery business
  • Start Small – The company didn’t rush headlong into a new product, until the time was right
  • Fail Quickly – Early attempts at streaming were abandoned. Know when to fold your hand
  • Scale Fast – Netflix has done this by quickyl moving into original content, putting pressure on networks

We’re all familiar with the excellence of Netflix’s platform – card design, AI-led recommendations, great UX – but Netflix’s design-led approach is more than digital design. It encompasses partnerships across the entire customer audio-visual journey.

A post on LinkedIn by Haydn Sallmann demonstrates this, highlighting the way a friend was turned from DVDs to Netflix after discovering the Netflix button on the remote for his new internet-enabled DVD player.

There is even evidence of Netflix’s focus on customer experience in their more fun and gimmicky marcomms. For the release of the new Gilmore Girls series, Netflix produced a binge candle, which releases a different scent every 90 minutes to coincide with each episode.

6. Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic has a reputation for value and for a brand that comes with a certain nod and a wink, a vibrancy that you don’t see from other airlines.

As Lee Coomber put it back in 2016, ‘a commitment to having fun and absolutely knowing its customer.’

‘This can be seen in the end-to-end customer experience: from the way the cabin crew chats with customers to the on-board bar, designed purely to facilitate that conversation; or from seat design and the edgy safety film to advertising and airline lounges.’

Luke Miles, former head of design told Design Week in 2012, “The design team are not only responsible for all project work, but are also tasked with ensuring the overall experience is joined up and well-curated. This involves taking projects right from inception, through to final launch and also to review the product life cycle.”

A pretty succinct definition of the function of a design team, we think you’ll agree.

More recently, Virgin Atlantic announced that it was growing its in-house creative agency to focus more specifically on storytelling through creative content. Speaking to Marketing Week last year, Michael Stephens, head of brand and creative stated, “Digital doesn’t stand alone as a department anymore and needs to be woven into everything… These roles will mean we can be reactive with social content and not rely on an agency. We’re being requested more and more for animation and motion graphics and we know that photography and film are more important than ever.”

The decision to expand the team was made in preparation for their most recent rebrand which launched in autumn last year, giving up the slogan ‘Let it Fly’ and replacing it with ‘Depart the Everyday’.

Since the relaunch, some great creative content has been shared by the brand, including the new ‘flying icons’ campaign, which aims to replace its former ‘flying lady’ with a more diverse range of British representatives.

Say hello to the new faces of Virgin Atlantic, coming to our A350-1000 aircraft soon: https://t.co/34GD5tTYpf pic.twitter.com/rClXJtGQZr

– Virgin Atlantic (@VirginAtlantic) April 2, 2019

7. Tesla

The most notable pioneer of the commercial electric car was founded in 2003 by a group of engineers and visionaries, including its infamous CEO Elon Musk.

Like many tech companies from Silicon Valley, Tesla is not yet out to make a vast profit. Instead, Musk revealed he uses profits from past vehicle sales to develop more technologically advanced, affordable models the next time around.

This strategy certainly seems to be keeping the brand on-track to fulfil its mission statement ‘ to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy‘. Initially developing the original Roadster electric sports car in 2008, of which just a few thousand were sold at $100,000+, Tesla now offers a range of zero-emission vehicles, including the family-friendly ‘Model 3’, available from a reasonable $35,000. This severe reduction in retail price, combined with an acute emphasis on combatting global warming in the past few years, has seen an impressive hike in sales (up 138% globally in 2018 compared to 2017), though there have been concerns over delayed delivery and Tesla has announced it will only take orders over the phone or at dealers.

The brand is thought to have greatly disrupted the automotive market by spurring on rival automotive companies to develop their own electric vehicles. This disruption seems to come in many forms, all of which are design-led:

Form and function

The desirable design of Tesla’s electric cars is a far cry from its rivals’ gimmicky hatchbacks that have recently been gracing city streets. They’re sleek and luxurious as well as practical, with the S and X models boasting the longest range in the market.


Automatic ‘ over-the-air’ software updates are sent straight to your Tesla, decreasing the risk of the obsoletion whilst also adding new features over time. Although OTA software updates are not unheard of in the automotive industry, Tesla are certainly pushing boundaries (as evidenced by this tweet late last year):

Car will drive to your phone location & follow you like a pet if you hold down summon button on Tesla app

– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 1, 2018

Ease of access

For those unconvinced of the practicalities of owning an electric vehicle, Tesla have made quite the effort to persuade them otherwise by installing thousands of branded charging points globally. Many of these are ‘superchargers’, which recharge your car battery at a faster rate, and can be used abroad by customers regardless of their original purchase location.

The app

We could probably write an article just for the Tesla app itself. Among its many features, you can check the status of your car, including whether any doors are open/unlocked, how much battery charge is remaining (and your estimated mileage before your next recharge) and check its location. You can honk your horn remotely, summon your vehicle from a parking space or garage, and there’s even a ‘dog mode’ which sets your car to a comfortable temperature and lets passers-by know that your furry friends are being monitored.

8. IBM

“There’s no longer any real distinction between business strategy and the design of the user experience.”

That’s what Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services, has previously stated in the press and it’s a fantastic quote.

As IBM has a history of design (‘good design is good business’), provides design services, and invested $100m in building a design-led organisation, you’d expect it to be eating its own dog food, and indeed it is.

Phil Gilbert, general manager of design at IBM, has discussed the company’s approach on his blog, saying that ‘Design is everyone’s job. Not everyone is a designer, but everybody has to have the user as their north star.’

This focus is evident in IBM’s training of its staff, 100,000 of whom took part by the end of 2016. Designers have more than tripled since 2013, now numbering around 1,600, distributed among its 42 design studios.

As Quartz points out in an article on the brand’s restructuring, IBM now also employs design researchers – ‘formally trained ethnographers with MFA degrees to probe how their solutions are working in the real world’.

Following its design investment, in 2018 IBM announced the launch of its ‘ Enterprise Design Thinking services‘, meaning its clients can delve directly into their wealth of expertise and creativity. According to IBM data, the platform has helped users increase their productivity by up to 75% and double the speed of their project execution amongst other benefits.

9. Barclays

Though traditional banks haven’t traditionally been associated with design culture, they have adapted quickly to changes in the media habits of their customers.

Barclays, alongside digital-first startup banks like Monzo, is arguably recognised as one of the leaders of digital transformation in retail banking.

For some time now, the bank has had a chief design officer and an in-house design department that brings together business, technology and control to focus on customer needs. In a post on Medium, Daniel Santos highlights how circumstances have dictated this focus:

“The financial crisis and the increased tight regulation keep challenging the banking sector. This forced banks to think more out of the box and being more creative about their services and products.”

“Barclays reframed these circumstances as opportunities to connect with customers and their needs.”

In addition to its mobile banking app, Barclays has delved further into the world of fintech with its popular transfer app ‘Pingit’ and bPay wearable contactless devices (such as watches, key fobs and wristbands). Pingit has garnered 3.6 million users since its launch in 2012, as well as considerable praise for its UX. Although bPay has had less success, likely due to competition from smart watch and mobile payment methods which are more multifunctional, Barclays announced plans in March 2019 to merge the two platforms into a single transfer app

10. PepsiCo

In 2012, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi appointed Mauro Porcini (formerly 3M) as Pepsi’s first chief design officer, with a growing team based in Soho, New York.

In the short video below, released in 2017, Porcini and his wider design team explain their methods of design thinking and collaboration to produce innovative new brands, products and experiences.

This means rethinking snacks for women, for example, including a stacked crisp that comes in a plastic tray so they can be eaten easily and cleanly and don’t have to be consumed in one visit. They’re also less noisy to eat.

Pepsico has also been pushing a test and learn approach in the Japanese and Chinese markets. In China, the Pepsi brand has introduced new limited edition versions and flavours, such as the elaborately decorated Pepsi China cans and a salted caramel flavour, promoted by rapper and influencer Jackson Wang.

Nooyi spoke to Harvard Business Review about the challenge of creating a culture of design across such a large organisation:

“In the past, being decentralized was our strength, but also our weakness. It’s a fine approach when the whole world is growing and life is peachy. But it doesn’t work when things are volatile globally and you need coordination.”

“We’ve given our people 24 to 36 months to adapt. I told everyone that if they don’t change, I’d be happy to attend their retirement parties.”


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