I have always been fascinated by beautiful things: architecture, furniture, tools, books, even businesses. Beautiful things are prepared with love. The act of creating something of beauty is a way of bringing good into the world. Infused with optimism, it says simply: Life is worthwhile.
The effort to craft enduring beauty is not dependent on style but truth. Beauty is what lends things their immortality. Beauty therefore gets out of surfaces and into the foundations of things.
The time has come I believe to rethink the role of business in our world and its overall contribution to our society. We need to re-frame business in the context of beauty.
What does it mean to be a beautiful business? Beautiful businesses are transformational in the universal and valuable utility they bring to the world, joyful in experiences they create. All sourced from an embracing of clear purpose of how to serve their customers well. Beautiful businesses are restorative to people and planet. Businesses with beautiful cultures are attractive – to employees, and customers. Consequently, people want to belong, to enthuse, and support them.
This raises important questions: what is the process for making retail beautiful? What does beauty mean in software? Can beauty as a lens help guide us to arrive at better answers? Can beauty scale? Can beauty provide durability, and opportunity? Can a beautiful business be adaptive? Can a beautiful business yield high financial returns and still be ethical? Should beauty be a commercial duty? Does beauty require us to think more holistically? What would be the language of beautiful business? Do we think differently about our environment if we see it as beautiful?
So, how do we get to beauty? It is through design in its broadest terms. We always have a choice of what it is that we create, since everything man-made is designed. What constrains us are our imagination and the will to apply it. Designers ask two simple questions — is it useful and is it beautiful? We can use these two principles to reshape the world we live in. Good design has always been good business. As William Morris might say, ‘have nothing in your house that is neither useful nor beautiful’.
So what might companies do to craft a beautiful business? Here are a few thoughts:
Aesop is a retail business that sells products for the hair and body. Created in a minimalist style it has 42 stores worldwide and is renowned for its commitment and attention to design and detail, “why make something ugly when it can be interesting” says its owner Dennis Paphitis.
Creating the business in 1987, Paphitis already understood that a commitment to the ultimate customer experience is what would make his company sustainable and profitable. In the same spirit, Apple rewrote the rules of retail through its iconic store design and customer experience.
The million dollar question, is this: Is it architecture, marketing or some spiritual experience that these products and stores embody?
I guess who you are will determine your answer. Maybe it’s all three?
There is something else though that joins Aesop and Apple – they are both masters of their materials. They push engineering, manufacturing, even accepted levels of service, beyond what was considered possible.
This is the foundational work, the hard work of making beautiful products, delivered in exceptional retail environments. Apple may no longer be too cool for school for some, nonetheless, their commitment to design, exceptional design and exceptional retail experiences means they have more cash in the bank than the US Government.
The beautiful experience matters today – get out of the car at a Four Season hotel and the staff know your name; order something from Amazon and you get an almost instant email to say your package is on its way. These are all designed experiences. And we are seeking experiences.
What we call experience reflects meaning, authenticity, and an opportunity to recapture a lost essence in modern life. These are values that are difficult to represent in accounting terms. Yet they all have an important and increasing role to play. Look at the rise of artisan everything; beer, gin, cheese, clothes etc., Street food fresh and fast food cooked to high levels of quality without the retail overhead. Street food vendors, without shopfronts or or retail accouterments, nonetheless have a fanatical following.
The reason is that people don’t just want experience, they profoundly need experience to be meaningful and to make life joyful.
My local butchers, who won ‘Butcher of the Year’ award, run ‘sell out’ butchery workshops. Whoever heard of butchery workshops? Do people go to learn how to cut meat? Yes they do. They are not the only ones passing on experience to customers. From spoon carving in a forest to making gin in a London distillery. Workshops are a form of ‘getting closer’. It is becoming additive to the retail experience but it does so in a way that renews our capacity to enjoy life.
Other recent developments have also had a profound effect on the quest for a high quality experience. We use our smart phones at a minimum 150 to 200 times a day. Touch screen technology and intuitive and simple to use apps mean our expectations of experience have increased as our ability to access new information, relationships and interests increases. Designing meaningful customer experiences becomes a key business activity.
Design as ‘experience’, for example, understands that designing and creating for our tactile selves — things that are intuitive, easy and joyful to use — will sell more products and services at a higher value. In a Temkin survey 6x more people were likely to buy with a positive emotional experience, 12x more likely to recommend the company, and 5x more likely to forgive a mistake.
Our world runs on software, programmed lines of human formed code. We design it. Increasingly the design of software is mirroring the need to redesign life more generally. That is why the Blockchain is a beautiful thing. The blockchain is a universal utility to facilitate low-cost, near immediate transfers of value anywhere in the world – digitally. It comes without the need of a third party, such as a bank with all its own selfish needs and flaws. Specifically the blockchain is beautiful because it is a trust-generating engine, which is highly scaleable.
The Blockchain is like DNA / the hidden infrastructure that is life giving. The blockchain is designed to be distributed over many networks, it has no central power and is therefore social in its design.
It has a universal ledger, a database that contains every transaction ever made and that can never be tampered with. An inviolable time stamped record of transaction. It is this transacting of value that is the forbearer of what happens next: money, land registry, cultural artefacts, etc., any situation in fact where there is a transfer of value and where deeds of ownership are vital to document and record, it is in these circumstances that blockchain technology will play a defining role.
The growth will become exponential because its protocol is open, allowing others to build new commercial, financial and transactional products and services. For example, the Linux Foundation is running the Hyperledger project an open source collaborative effort created to advance cross-industry blockchain technologies. It is a global collaboration including leaders in finance, banking, IoT, supply chain, manufacturing and technology. Currently 95 organisations are involved including; Accenture, Deutsche Börse, IBM, and Fujitsu.
Importantly, Hyperledger is an open collaborative effort. Openness is the new global operating model especially in software where it now powers hundreds of thousands of projects and the most significant infrastructure.
Software is beautiful for several reasons that we can learn from. First, it is incredibly successful at changing the world. Second, it arises from open human interactions and collaboration where greed is suppressed for the greater good. Third, it has begun to simplify the commercial world and mediate trust in profound ways. It excludes wasteful third parties who role has been simply to create friction in order to make money. Increasingly software takes the friction out of life and helps us realise new experiences at lower cost.
The culture of the workplace is the humus for how an organisation works well. Happy staff, like rich soil, produce, yield and deliver better quality stuff.
The more a culture is focused on what it wants to do the more it can be restorative in helping its employees grow as people and as professionals.
If a business can find the point where its people are happy to produce, it will make more money. Its staff will be more productive, whilst saving the cost of sickness, stress related illnesses, and retaining talented staff.
Telus is a telecoms, TV and mobile company with a very rich workplace culture characterised by a generalised learning programme. They have a toastmasters’ chapter, a book club, guest lectures and so on. The idea is people need to approach work through the prism of learning. By encouraging learning in a broad cultural way, the company believes it is more adept at switching on specific learning needs when business changes. So they do more than most firms to bring that idea to life.
Gransfors Bruk make axes. They say they make the best axes in the world – their culture is one of craftsmanship. This is about how one have designed and built a successful company predicated on quality. A quality of product achieved through a holistic approach to design and manufacturing that incorporates a process to bring out of the workforce a commitment to craft and ethics.
The individual axe maker is given the time he or she needs to forge an axe head to the point where they are satisfied this is their best work. Then, and only then, will they stamp the axe head with their monogram. The process means men and women are personally dedicated to give their creative best. An engaged craftsman is a committed craftsman, ergo an engaged workforce is a committed workforce. Meaning is created through a craft approach to life. You have to love the work you do. Both Telus and Gransfors Bruk are ‘crafting organisations’.
Businesses who make beautiful cultures become very attractive, because they are, ‘authentic’. People — employees or your customers— want to belong, to go the extra mile, enthuse, endure, support, and invest. No amount of incentives or motivational talks can match the power of people feeling they’re involved in something a little bit special. Indeed, that they actually have a part in making it happen. We embrace what we create.
Pixar make much loved animated movies. Pixar are extremely successful at making great films, not only because what they create are masterpieces of animation, but also because they tell compelling, universal stories that are often groundbreaking in the themes they explore: love, life, death, relationships as well as fantasy.
But this is not easy. After the phenomenal success of Toy Story, Ed Catmull and his team agreed there had to be a way of openly and tenderly holding a creative idea so that it could evolve to its true potential of excellence every time.
Achieving this required the creative idea to be open to scrutiny in every aspect of its script, design and production. So, Pixar created the Brainstrust,
This is how it works for every movie Pixar makes. Members of Pixar regularly come together to openly test the development of a film. The rules are: only constructive criticism, and to speak with candour. It requires great trust to do this, to speak plainly and honestly and for the director to listen to all feedback. Without trust there can be no creative collaboration.
The focus of Braintrust meetings is on solving a problem. Individual knowledge morphs into collective intelligence, highly valuable in examining how one gets from mediocre to world class.
Catmull believes every movie they start with sucks in the beginning. In his words, meetings are filled with ‘frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love’; they are there to excavate the truth in a movie.
The other rule is that the director is never instructed to do something. The director listens and develops his or her own interpretation and understanding of feedback.
It is unusual for a creative company, or any company, to work so rigorously in an open, collaborative environment.
It takes patience and time – virtues that Pixar is willing to give. To create enduring beauty requires intense collaboration between people who share the purpose of creating truly unique experiences.
What lies behind this concept of Braintrust is that, actually, leadership decisions, those that we might previously have left in the hands of the director or the CEO of a company, are better when they are informed by the group and are better again when that decision is left open to the last possible minute. A similar development can be seen in software architectures where microservices allow CTOs to hold programming commitments to within minutes of a go-live, where previously they were committing months ahead of a release.
Anyone no matter in which industry they work, can create their own Braintrust. In fact you might need to. It might just get you from mediocre to beautiful.
Businesses practising beautiful leadership know how to bring great potency to their organisation by empowering their people. Equally leadership that engages people in thought and deed can energise all that are invested spiritually, emotionally and financially in that business. Muhammad Ali was once asked what his shortest poem was? His response, “Me, We”.
Multi story car parks are not the nicest places to be. They create their own unique social and economic problems; frustrating queues to get in and out, they are particularly unwelcoming to women, and an insurance nightmare. It is a design challenge.
How to design something more elegant, more beautiful? The city of Aarhus as the Europe’s largest AI multi-story car park. Drive your car into one of 20 booths. Step out. Shut and lock the door then press a button. The car is transported below ground. The automated, pallet-free system offers some 1,000 parking spaces spread across three floors. From the moment the driver presses the button everything is automated. Nothing is touched on the vehicle except the wheels, and the AI system calculates through the day the likelihood of your return and ensures a fast recovery of the vehicle when you want it back.
Recently, I watched people drive in, deposit their cars and then pick them up. Young and old alike were intrigued and delighted by this incredible piece of design and engineering. It is in itself a beautiful thing to see. The utility is beautiful having solved the problems of personal safety, time efficiency, insurance etc., in such an elegant manner.
Businesses that create beautiful utility will reap the rewards of that commitment to take a common object and turn it into a work of uncommon grace. It could be a car park, a spoon, a film or a phone. People that design for beautiful utility, create wonderful, optimistic life enhancing experiences in big and small ways, and always sell out.
Flute Office is a pioneering company that is producing an entire suite of workplace products along with a groundbreaking business model to change the way we think about what we sit on, and what we work on. The product is designed and engineered to high standards, from upcycled cellulose and is 100% recyclable. Rather than buying a desk, you buy a service, personal to each customer, with a no-quibble guarantee, rapid delivery, and end-of-use buy-back.
But it’s not just the design or manufacturing model that is of interest. It how this upcycling can displace cost inefficiency. Taking fixed costs that are redundant. allowing capital to be placed somewhere else to be more productive.
For example, it costs the NHS £84m to deal with waste. Upcycling just half of this material the NHS would save £135m per year. Moving from a capital purchase to a subscription model, a further £100m could be saved. That is almost half of the entire annual NHS budget for new equipment.
20% of all landfill comes from office furniture, it takes 540 kgs of raw material to make one desk, so why not make something that addresses those issues of waste head one? Large corporations have warehouses full of desks, it takes 20 minutes to fully install a desk, Flute office desks take 2 minutes.
Businesses that are beautifully restorative, always give back more than they take. They provide benefits, which are economic, environmental and social. Nature has been around for a long time, why not borrow from her playbook?
What makes a beautiful business?
So what makes a beautiful business? It’s purpose, it’s process, culture, utility, leadership, enterprise design, manufacturing and system design. Is it possible have all in one company? Yes. Is it hard? Yes. Creating beautiful things is the hardest thing we will ever do. Ugly is easy. But there are clear benefits to creating beautiful businesses. Here are some key points that we can apply.
- The joyful and meaningful experiences it creates for employees and customers.
- Culturally attractive to its customers, employees and investors.
- Optimistically works to a higher order purpose.
- The transformational value it delivers as beautiful utility.
- Engenders trust for all those who work for, or buy from, the business.
- Is restorative. Giving back more than it takes. Restorative to employees, restorative to the world from which it takes, buys people’s time or harvests raw materials.
- Understands its vision lives daily in everything it is and does.
- Is a crafting organisation, always curious, always trying stuff out to make sure it stays relevant as the world evolves around it.
- Is design led, constantly asking, ‘is it useful and is it beautiful?’
- Values intuition. Hand, heart and mind.
- Is lovingly disruptive.
- Understands great work can take time – the time it takes to make it inevitable.
Everything we make in this world follows the same process. We must think it, imagine it, dream it, then we make it. Everything is designed. And if everything is designed then we have the opportunity to make it beautiful, restorative, engaging, valuable and meaningful. We all need something to believe in so why not make it with beauty and grace.
What would your business look like if it were more beautiful? You can find out more in my book Do Design!