MDes Talks: The Strategy of Design to Adapt Versus Built to Last

Design as a Strategy

The world is changing faster than ever, thanks to uninterrupted connectivity, reducing travel times and availability of infinite information. There is a risk associated with increased uncertainty and unconventional competition. To mitigate such risks, there has been a shift in the paradigm from ‘built to last’ to ‘design to adapt’.

Change can be scary, but is natural. However, those who resist or can’t withstand the change don’t stay relevant for long. Blackberry couldn’t keep up with the changing competitive landscape, and finally, had to exit the smart phone market that it once helped to shape and define1. Once synonym with mail and search, Yahoo could no longer maintain its relevance with younger, mobile-savvy generation2. Similar is the story of General Motors3, Kodak4 and many others who failed to embrace the change and move with the time.

On the other hand, those companies who respond to change positively and adapt, continue to thrive. They are resilient by nature and understand how to re-organise themselves with changing times. Apple5 started by making desktop computers, but shaped itself into a consumer electronics and digital distribution company. IBM almost failed but survived and remodelled itself from majorly a hardware manufacturer to a leading integrated IT solutions company now6. Similarly, Amazon that began as an online book store, now operates an online marketplace, distribute digital content and is a global leader in cloud solutions.

Leaner and agile organisations with innovative business models are pushing the boundaries of what is possible and redefining the way a business can be structured and carried out. PayPal disrupted the online transaction space. Similarly, Uber and Airbnb have greatly influenced the on-demand economy and are defining the way we share and consume, making it a new normal.

Consequently, there is a profound realisation that user-centeredness is much more critical than ever. Organisations are leveraging design as a core strategy to become more user-centric, resilient, nimble, relevant and thus economically sustainable. Sectors, that till now, had little incentive to change such as banking, insurance or healthcare are re-thinking and re-designing the way they interact with their customers. Telematics may soon become industry norm where insurers, by monitoring their customers’ motoring habits, can distinguish between safe and rash drivers and thus can lower their risk and at the same time reward better drivers7. Manulife, a global insurance company, has integrated health-protection solutions with an activity-tracking fitness tracker to help users track their progress against set goals, and enjoy discounts8.

Recently, a number of so-called innovation labs popped up across the world such as Visa Innovation Lab and DBS Asia X to support new initiatives and drive strategic and design-led innovation within the organisation. For example, one of the projects Visa is working on is a connected car technology that allows seamless communication between mobile phone and car, and turn cars into payment vehicles9. DBS is collaborating with startups to create customer offerings such as digibank, a mobile-only bank that uses artificial intelligence and intelligent budget optimiser10.

However, transforming internal culture is one of the biggest hurdles organisations face while going through any kind of change. Widening skill gap11 makes it even more challenging to find the people with right skills and mindset to enable the transformation. One of the key reasons for the skill gap is the use of outdated educational methods to train the future workforce12. In the context of design, conventionally, designers are expected and trained to be independent, creative and skilled in making things. However, today, a designer should not only be creative, but empathic, critical and collaborative with sound business sense to solve problems and create user-centric, viable and feasible solutions.

Though in minority, some of the well-known design and business schools across the globe have been nurturing such strategic design and design thinking skills and many more are expected to follow. For instance, Master of Design (Design Strategies) at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University is more than a decade old. The programme trains designers in a design-led business model for innovation using user-centered design methodologies to deliver solutions for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Design as a Strategy

Given the rapid pace of change and uncertainty, no doubt, more and more organisations will adopt user-centered design methods and rely on designers to drive a part of their core strategy. Designers will gain importance and grow within hierarchy. Though, there exists a skill gap between demand and supply, design and business schools have been quick to incorporate design thinking and strategic design into their curriculum. In a nutshell, we can expect more user-centered design solutions to follow as a response to changing individual, social and economic conditions.


1. The fatal mistake that doomed Blackberry (2016)., Retrieved 28 December, 2016, from

2. The decline of yahoo in its own words (2016). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 28 December, 2016, from

3. Why GM failed (2009). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 28 December, 2016, from

4. How Kodak failed (2012).Forbes. Retrieved December 28, 2016, from

5. Apple products through the years (2016). NBC Bay Area. Retrieved 28 December, 2016, from

6. Why did IBM survive (2011). Forbes. Retrieved December 28, 2016, from

7. How’s my driving? (2016). The Economist. Retrieved 28 December, 2016, from

8. Manulife: Track your fitness, pay less for insurance (2015). Campaign Asia. Retrieved December 28, 2016, from

9. Connected Car (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2016, from

10. DBS furthers commitment to shape future of banking with launch of new innovation facility (n.d.). DBS. Retrieved December 28, 2016, from 

11. Skill gap has been widening (2016). Business Insider. Retrieved 28 December, 2016, from

12. Is An Outdated Education System Failing Students? (2016). Educationtechnologysolutions. Retrieved 28 December, 2016, from

Photo Credit: ©2017 PolyU Design 

Posted by Aditya Kedia – Aditya Kedia is a strategic design consultant and researcher with expertise in human-centered and design thinking methods. Aditya graduated from Master of Design (Design Strategies) programme at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and has experience working across sectors such as retail, e-commerce, banking, insurance, telecom and hospitality. Aditya has worked for global organisations such as EY, Standard Chartered and Sapient as well as several startups. Aditya has also organised and facilitated many design jams, events and workshops and is active within design and startup communities. 
MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.