Are You a Design-Led Company?



Make me look like Apple. Help me feel like Nike. Build me a brand like Google. These are very common wishes we hear often when engaged by a new client to create a brand. We don’t shy away from this idea—we dig right in. We want to understand out of the gate how our clients perceive the connection between business value and design.

Recently, a client we worked with proposed an interesting challenge—the CEO asked that their startup feel like a “tech company” but not look like a ”tech company”. It was important they fit in and, important they stood out as a tech solution for a very niched industry—one far from the typical startup coming out of Silicon Valley. We took them through our d5 Brand Design Process, and, together,  we designed a brand identity system that matched the innovation of their product with the authentic and trustworthy attributes of the brand.

If the CEO is present in the kick-off meeting, we know that we are working with a design-led brand. Design is as important as sales, operations, and finance. Apple, Airbnb, and Google all lead with design and maintain a significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 211%. McKinsey, the highly regarded management consulting firm, suggests there are four common themes of good design, which they formed into the McKinsey Design index. Companies are rated by how strong they are design-wise and how design links up with their financial performance. In short, the companies that performed best financially understood that design is of top level importance.  

In our 17 years of business, we’ve seen companies succeed and fail. While there are many outside factors that contribute to longevity and growth, companies that use design for problem solving, experience shaping, and aesthetics stand out in their competitive landscape. Design-led companies begin and end with design. While we typically help our clients with the deployment of their brand design, we recognize when companies successfully embrace a design culture and use it to inform all of their decisions at inception.

Design can guide process and experience, but more importantly, it is where the “rubber meets the road”—where we make the emotional connection and generate the “I gotta have it” (at any cost) mentality. Apple, Airbnb, Google, and our newly branded client all embrace design from the top down, guiding the way they work, interact, and present themselves to the world.  


Are your competitors capturing more market share because they lead with design? Take our assessment tool adapted from the McKinsey article, “More than a feeling: Ten design practices to deliver business value,” to find out if you are handling design right.

For each question, score your answer with: A-1, B-2, C-3

  1. Where do you utilize design?
    A. We have a graphic designer
    B. We have multiple design teams
    C. Design is an expertise required in all departments
  1. Where do you design teams work?
    A. We use a freelance designer that works remotely
    B. Design works out of a central office
    C. Our designers sit in all of our offices?
  1. Does design fit into your development process?
    A. We do not have a design phase in our process
    B. We have a clear design phase
    C. Design is involved throughout the entire lifecycle
  1.  When do you prototype?
    A. We have a prototyping phase
    B. We may have more than one prototyping phase
    C. We iterate from start to finish
  1. Who leads design in your company?
    A. The graphic designer
    B. The marketing director
    C. A chief design officer who is a peer to other board members
  1. How do you track design performance
    A. We do not track
    B. We review customer feedback post-launch
    C. We track pre-and post-launch as rigorously as we measure quality, cost, and delivery


Design isn’t considered mission critical for your business or to your customers. You have the most to gain commercially from investing in design, especially if your competitors don’t.

Design has a role in your company but in this range it isn’t a top priority. Your company could benefit from utilizing design to understand what your customers want when developing new offerings.

You recognize design capabilities and may see design as an integral part of your brand but still have an opportunity to structure your processes to use design as a commercial resource.

Design is core to your business model and strategy. You are likely to have design literate board members and consider design worth heavily investing in.

Alysha Smith
Alysha Smith is the chief executive officer and creative director at modern8, a strategy focused design agency in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The execution and world deliverance of your brand that is produced with intention with thriveability for the future of what can be and beyond.