The Relationship Between Business and Design

Making the connection between design and the bottom line is essential for client satisfaction

05/01/2015 By Julio Braga, IIDA, LEED AP

“Good design is good business.”

This quote by David Mourning, founder of IA Interior Architects, tells the real story of our industry very succinctly and precisely. Historically speaking, those firms that offer a consistently high level of design and top-notch client service also enjoy long-term business success. It is a winning formula—the success of which can certainly be seen in IA’s 30-year history and 19 international offices.

Good design is good business. However, in an age when fast-tracked projects are the norm and project budgets (including designers’ fees) are value-engineered to within an inch of their life, producing consistently high-quality design is a challenging endeavor. Under current marketplace conditions, corners are almost always cut and opportunities to do our best work occur less and less frequently. Identifying promising opportunities should not rely solely on our good fortune in finding client partners who are particularly or personally sensitive to design, or who incorporate design as an integral aspect of their brand DNA (Apple and Audi, for example). In fact, for each and every client—design-driven or not—every project should be an opportunity to do our best work, to stretch our limits, and to innovate.

To achieve this type of marketplace condition, it is essential for individual practitioners and design firm managers to make a clear and direct connection between “good design” and a client’s improved business performance. Only when quantified positive connections between design and the bottom line are demonstrated will clients buy into the benefits of longer schedules and healthier budgets.

Take for instance a case study about online retailer Zappos from "Design, Leveraged" published by IIDA in partnership with BIFMA. Zappos’ company culture is odd, fun, and unconventional. The company was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for $1.2 billion, and its old downtown Las Vegas headquarters (occupying a formerly abandoned old City Hall) feels like a young startup. Movable desks, hanging Internet and power cables, and tchotchkes abound. Over 1,500 employees are each allotted 70 square feet of working space. It’s packed. The design reflects some of the company’s core values: efficiency and “chance collisions” (there is only a single pathway to the cafeteria). “We’re efficient because we cut down on meetings and phone calls just by talking to each other,” says Brad Tomm, sustainability manager at Zappos.

So what does this have to do with Zappos’ bottom line? Its workspace design doubled the occupancy of the building, and its design and cultural choices enable employees to connect with customers in a truly flexible environment (no call center scripts or conversation time limits) that yields impressive results: Calls and online chat requests are answered within 20 seconds on average, and emails within two hours.

Other case studies about companies like Coca-Cola, Quicken Loans, and 3M further conclude that clients expect design professionals to be apt business strategists—true partners in the creation of brand, space, and meaning. In fact, according to Tomm, Zappos rejected a number of big-name architects because they “just wanted to design for design’s sake; they wouldn’t listen to our needs—they wouldn’t try to understand who we are.”

When developing and honing the “good design is good business” mantra, we can look to the management and consulting industry for cues and tips. The McKinsey’s of the world know how to quantify the value of their intangible, intellectual capital as effectively as their tangible work product. Designers can and should do the same. We should value our ideas as dearly as our work product. To begin with, we can keep enhancing and repackaging our core competencies to offer added-value services and products to clients. Customized programs of research, strategy development, prototyping, testing, post-analysis, and so forth can complement and inform the design process, help to ensure a high-performing final product, provide clients with valuable business insight, and allow designers to generate additional fee income. We as designers should continue to gather, compile, and publish quantified and anecdotal evidence of the positive effect of good design on business performance, i.e. employee productivity, efficiency, turnover rates, sales increases, and so on. It is hard to argue with the persuasive combination of data and personal testimony.

Another major IIDA publication called “What Clients Want,” a series of books that features insight from clients about how design excellence is achieved, examines the relationship between good design and good business through personal testimony. In dozens of conversations with client and designer, “What Clients Want” is a record of the design solutions that have shifted business models—evidence of the value of design in the marketplace. Exploring and highlighting the impact of client culture through a number of published channels reinforces the message that design and business are intrinsically linked, a testament to the commitment of IIDA to elevate interior design.

Images alone—glamorous photographs of beautiful spaces—can go a long way in selling the talents of a particular designer or design team. But a cogently written case study of a successful project will seal the deal. Detailed and well-written case studies make the design evaluation process about more than just aesthetic subjectivity. They can drive home our point: Good design is good business—for clients.

International President of IIDA Julio Braga, IIDA, LEED AP, is a design principal at IA Interior Architects. You can reach IIDA Headquarters at (312) 467-1950 or at