What is a design-led brand?

The term is growing in popularity, but what does it mean to be ‘design-led’?

I guess that the great majority of people would like their company to look good. For design-led businesses, however, design is not simply a decorative add on, it is an integral part of their proposition.

Creating a logo, producing attractive packaging, and starting an Instagram account does not make your business ‘design-led.’ There must be a strategic decisions about your approach that become inseparable from the product or service. Whilst there is no one accepted definition of ‘design-led,’ it must necessarily involve giving design the primary position in the value creation process and appropriate consideration to the end user.

If you give equal weight to everything, then you emphasise nothing. Design-led businesses deliberately use design thinking to solve problems and to distinguish themselves, as opposed to simply following consumer demand.

The visual aesthetic could be particularly distinctive or strikingly simple, but it must be appropriate to the brand’s personality, consistent in application, and beautiful in appearance. It does not slavishly follow trends but expresses a central creative idea.

An elegant identity design system is crucial, but the giving design a fundamental place in the brand strategy reaches beyond the boundaries of graphic design. The overarching goal is an experience that delights customers. An experience that they are willing to pay a premium for.

Apple Watch, iPhone, and MacBook

In a design-led product business, there is no battle between form and function, but a pleasing relationship that brings joy to the user. Apple are the obvious contemporary example. Every aspect of the consumer’s journey from research, to purchase, to packaging, to the product itself is the result of careful editing and attention to detail. Apple include free stickers with their products because people use them. Samsung and Dell are very successful companies, but would you put their sticker on your journal or skateboard?

On a smaller scale, Bang & Olufsen built a reputation in the 1990s with radically different audio-visual products than the generic ‘black boxes’ that their competitors were offering. Apple doesn’t need to compete on processor speed alone, and B&O don’t need to compete on the power rating of their amplifiers. Both are able to charge a premium.

B&O Beogram 4000c
B&O Beogram 4000c - Recreated Limited Edition. A snip at £9000 for a turntable.

Service businesses can also make use of this approach by developing a proven process that solves problems, adds value, and that clients actually enjoy. Behind all of this is a belief that we can truly make the world better, by design.

There are of course many profitable enterprises pursuing different strategies. Competing on features or price, for example. The exacting standards required at every level of a design-led operation are not for everyone, and the approach that delights some is derided by others.

A design-led brand deliberately differentiates itself by aesthetics and customer-experience to such a degree that this strategy becomes intrinsic to the offer.

If you’d like help with building your design-led brand then drop me an email to book a free consultation call.