Introducing design ethos to a company routed in bottom $.

I am the Lead Product Developer for a trade show exhibit company. I climbed to this position from being an in house Exhibit Designer. The position gives me a level of freedom and the ability to provide design input, but requires a large deal of babysitting of upper management’s ‘me too’ concepts. (Me too as in keeping up with this small industries’s latest product offerings as oppose to coming up with original product offerings)

I would like to introduce more design thinking and aesthetic development to the company’s work process, with the intention of developing a new product offering that would make an impact on the overall market. The problem is, the existing mantra of a strong engineering/marketing/bottom dollar force is deeply ingrained in the VPs of this company. It is very difficult to introduce the benefit of design thinking with upper management so unwilling to ‘taste’ the new process.

I have begun by offering concept development on an annual trade show called Exhibitor where Modular trade show companies can ‘show off’ their latest offerings. My argument was that a compelling design would better sell the company’s products. I offered a series of sketches of potential booths (example)

Does anyone else have experience with changing the gears of a company? Any must dos or best practices on making this impact?

Would you make any changes to the example sketch to make it ‘easier to swallow for the execs’?


My biggest piece of advice it to get an executive sponsor to help you to infiltrate the VP level. Perhaps go higher. At my company we injected design all the way up to the board room level, but sponsorship came from the CEO and President levels, which encouraged faster acceptance for the rest of the C levels and VPs.

On your sketch, it is a little more atmospheric than I would present to a non designer.

I would present:

  1. Tighter render
  2. animation of the fold out
  3. list features in side bar
  4. show competitors and point out why this is better
  5. break down cost
  6. put it all in a powerpoint, present it directly to a C-level one on one and get feedback, tweak, show to several other c-levels VPs one on one, and tweak, then present to group (this is a Japanese concept of alignment and buy in called nemawashi)

Thank you very much for contributing your experiences, Michael. I need to ask did you have a team of designers with similar intentions? Did you run into any problems with ‘herding’ the designer’s efforts (and faith in themselves) to make an impact on CEO/president levels?

Forgive my ignorance, what do you mean by atmospheric? I’m assuming you mean the ‘colorful elements’ of the environment, but would you leave a white background? Would you tone it down but still have some stylistic elements?

Nemawashi, that is new to me. I am going to look into that. Recommend any further reading/sources on the subject?

Just my additional .02.

Many who are focused on the bottom line typically forget the top line. From the two, you determine ROI. Gently remind your VPs of that fact. Make the case that a small increase in the bottom line will have a larger corresponding increase to the top line, improving ROI.

Also, there has been plenty written that focusing solely on bottom line is not a strategy for long-term growth. Pursuing an innovation strategy is the source of organic growth. Sorry, no recommendations for a book, but there such be plenty out there.

You are right you would just have a white background…

But that is the point Yo is getting at - create a sketch that is more communicative vs trying to do a persuasive “stylish sketch” which can be distracting for non-designer or less appreciative creative types.

A good book is MBM the science of success which talks about long term investments tied with innovation vs short term bottom line approach.

The Koch book? I thought that was focused on management philosophy and not implementation practices. But I certainly can be mistaken.

Why not going for a fast 3D mock up and render in Keyshot or similar? Good results, easy to do exploded views to show the parts and assembly. You’ll get better material finishing plus can integrate it in a trade show environment with some extra non detailed stands

@yo That kind of insight of what to show and how to do it when you are dealing with non designers it´s interesting. I´ve been trying to improve that kind of presentations, since many times they focus on unimportant details and forget about the bigger picture. If you had any more suggestions, I’d really appreciate it

“Nemawashi” - literally, digging around the roots, as in transplanting a tree.

Wonderful concept and word. Thank you.

You are right Iab at its core it is management but not only how to manage people but also how to manage your business at various levels. it also talks about allowing the experts you hire to be experts and also shows how we need to challenge our models of how and why we do things “we do it this way because we have always done it this way and it works”… it makes x number of dollars but by not challenging your model are missing out on xxxxx number of dollars. It also gets into creative deconstruction of our current habits in order to build upon them and grow.

I have been reading it and discussing it and trained on the principals for the last 6 months as Mr Charles is my end boss…

That makes sense. Thanks!

Sounds like a good buzzword to seek out; innovation strategy. Danke!

I am actually avoiding this, because this is pretty typical to the current process. The industry jumps from a napkin sketch (and only one) which is developed into a full blown render/bill of materials quote. Any revisions involve an updated render. Big waste of time, in my opinion.

That right there is the essence of why I love design.

Thank you all for the comments and advice! I have a good bit to learn.

I’ll put it on my list. Thank you.

Yo’s suggestion of Nemawashi can be a good way to go about your challenge, and I believe the key is to find the right first person to discuss it with, I find that person is usually someone who is all about company growth and being disruptive in our industry.

You have a significant challenge in front of you, but it’s an admirable one, and certainly not uncommon in our industry. Your success in this can be measured proportionately against your leadership’s desire for growth. A “Me Too” product focused approach can certainly keep a company afloat in the industry, so in order to implement any kind of innovation strategy there has to be a desire to be better than that and seek growth. This is a much bigger fish than attempting something more innovative at Exhibitor and so I would say start small and and push that agenda first, like a litmus test. That said, pull out all the stops with your design process by conducting competitive exhibit design research from Exhibitor AND Euroshop, do use 3D renderings (it is not a waste of time), create an exhibit animation, and put it together with a polished presentation that you and your backers go in and pitch.

As a competitor I’m happy to offer some advice if it improves the industry as a whole, but I can’t provide much more to you other than we start our Exhibitor project in October which multiple designers provide concepts and revisions for. Hopefully that can offer you some perspective.

I definitely worked with designers who were burn out and didn’t believe. Usually they either get on board or leave one way or the other. I don’t have much tolerance for working with risk averse creatives.

I mean it is too sketchy for a non designer to likely be able to comfortably read. I would either draw it tighter, or mock it up in CAD. make a quick animation or storyboard of the pivoting set up, and then also show it as a number of different customers might kit it out.

The CEO of the company I currently work at used to work for a Japanese company and he introduced this term to me and said it is a frequent business practice in Japan. Essentially working the concept with each individual decision maker so they all feel vested and confident and then presenting as “new” in a big meeting with all the stakeholders where they all then approve because they all feel they have ownership. I realized I was doing this long before I ever heard the term…

I researched the term a little bit more, and it has parallels in ‘Western’ business practice but not quite as eloquent and without the cultural context. The idea of “digging around the roots”, individually caring for each root as a phase in the process of transplanting a tree, as part of a greater task, is a good visual. The cultural context of “saving face” or “not losing face” is of paramount importance in Japan - making it essential to work the concept with individual stakeholders before briefing the group, because of the risk in a top-level executive being surprised in a meeting, or being out of the loop. The Japanese term makes the process feel much more essential, than is connoted by the ‘western’ words of “getting buy-in”.

It also works the other way, meaning if you present a bad idea informally it won’t make it past that, meaning YOU won’t lose face by presenting to the group.

Described more eloquently in the book “A geek in japan”, I copied the essential from the authors’ blog:根回し/

Nemawashi is a very important concept you need to know if you want to understand how Japanese companies work. The way decisions are made, the way changes in the system are introduced in Japanese companies follow the Nemawashi process. In the old times Nemawashi 根回し was a word used by farmers when they had to transplant a tree: 根->root, 回->round; the literal meaning would be “to go around the roots, that means to dig around the roots of the tree we want to transplant. Let’s see the meaning of Nemawashi – 根回し used nowadays.

Let’s suppose a Sony employee has a great idea, he decides that it could be cool to eliminate the Sony Timer from a certain new device. The procedure in a European/American company would be to just make the proposal in front of everybody when having a meeting with the bosses. In Japan is more complicated, you can’t be so direct, because you could destroy the harmony. Before making the formal proposal you have to make sure that everyone agrees, this process where you ask for everyones opinion is called nemawashi (You could translated as “prior consultation”). I sounds stupid, but the advantages are multiple: if your nemawashi succeeds then your proposal will be accepted for sure, if there is some people who don’t like your proposal you can improve it adding/modifying stuff until everyone is happy, if your idea is “bad” it will be destroyed before the big bosses know; the nemasashi process implicitly deletes proposals that don’t have many success possibilities.

The Sony employee would consult all his department people, once he is sure his proposal is ok with everyone he will talk with the department boss/es . His boss would proceed one more time to do nemawashi, but at a different level, this time he would all the bosses from the same division, once all the bosses agree… If nemawashi succeeds it would continue until the big guys know about it (If it’s a big decision, or to the convenient level if it’s not so important). As I said before, you can see with this example that if nemawashi fails, the idea won’t flow to the top of the pyramid, but if everyone agrees it will continue moving and improving the original idea.

Once the process of nemawashi is completed, the department where everything started has the permission to make a formal proposal, and then start implementing the new idea/process/product/business. Nemawashi helps to keep the group harmony and kills discrepancies, both very important for Japanese people. Everyone have to agree.

But what the hell, this is slow! very very slow! Japanese companies are famous because they do things slow and patiently. It’s very difficult for them to make decisions, they usually make very little changes and everyone have to agree, many times even for insignificant things. For example, if I would want to change the font size from‘s top page (Where I’m working right now) and I suggest it in a casual way they would look at me with a suspicious face and ask me “Who decided that change?”. I would answer joking/laughing “I decided”, and they would look at me laughing and thinking “What the hell is this foreigner guy telling us, he has no idea how nemawashi works”. I learned to do some nemawashi, asking everyone, then talk with my boss who would talk with the bosses above him… and if everything was ok the we would start thinking about changing our top page. All the process lasts some weeks, and even months, the good part is that we have usually scheduled everything almost six months in advance. If you don’t want to die before you finish a project in a Japanese company, the trick is to start nemawashi as soon as possible, that means you start showing your cards some months before you need to start playing.

Thanks to nemawashi, Japanese companies don’t usually commit mistakes, they always improve step by step, always going forward and makinb their processes near to perfect (This process of continuous improving is called “Kaizen”). For example, one company that has applied nemawashi and kaizen effectively during the last 50 years is Toyota, in 2006 they earned five times more money than the sum of all their 8 worldwide nearest competitors.