Skip to main content

Angelo Perri sees one problem with the way people react to new ideas in business: "They're always saying, 'That's just not going to work.' "

Traditional business thinkers "almost seem to have blinders on," says Mr. Perri, who himself has a background in business. But as managing partner of the design and marketing firm MHz Design Communications in Toronto, he's learned a few things about being a business-type in a creative world.

"They won't see beyond what's straight ahead. But if you look around in a more holistic way, you'll say, 'Hey, I never thought of that.' "

A holistic approach is at the centre of design thinking, a philosophy that refers to applying design principles to business. It encourages business leaders to explore solutions by imagining what could be, rather than what they know.

Mr. Perri partly credits design thinking with the success MHz has had since its launch in 1993. What started as a traditional design agency producing packaging and promotional material has morphed into a strategic digital marketing firm. Along the way it has received international awards for its innovative marketing techniques, and its roster of clients includes such names as Rogers and Research In Motion.

Design thinking helped his firm adapt to new technology, says Mr. Perri, and to work across multiple media, from print to television advertising to social media.

That's the approach the firm took when it revamped the branding for the Alberto European hair-care line last year. The campaign included print and television advertising, in-store and direct mail materials, as well as a social networking strategy using Facebook. Soon after its launch, the Alberto fan page boasted more than 15,000 fans.

One key to a holistic approach is keeping the personality of the brand front and centre across platforms. "From the way the receptionist answers the phone to the way an ad looks, to the website design, the personality must always be consistent."

And getting to the core of any brand's personality hinges on working with those who know it best: the clients. Design thinking would not be possible without close collaboration with them, Mr. Perri says. "The client knows the product better than you do and should be perceived as a partner," he says.

MHz addressed this by holding lunch-and-learn sessions with Alberto staff. The firm even has become part of its clients' organizations for short periods through shared-staffing.

One client that MHz collaborated extensively with - and holds up as an example of design thinking at its best - is Rogers. In 2008, the telecommunications giant asked MHz to help it reduce the number of calls to its wireless help centre as a means of cutting costs.

"They knew they needed a website to address this, but they didn't know what they wanted on that website," Mr. Perri says.

MHz explored the possibilities and went beyond creating a site that simply answered frequently asked questions about cellphones.

"We featured how-to videos where they could learn more about things like how to set up voice mail," Mr. Perri says. "But we also made it a place where they could opt in for e-mail communications and learn about additional products, creating the opportunity to up-sell. It wasn't just a stand-alone, single-page website. It evolved and that's where the [design thinking]came in."

What's more, they created a site that is also easily read from mobile devices, a trend that's becoming more commonplace in today's digital world.

According to an Ipsos Reid poll commissioned to determine the usefulness of the site, 48 per cent of people who visited it did not need to contact the Rogers call centre after their visit.

Another campaign that benefited from design thinking is that of Electrolux, which makes appliances under that name as well as Frigidaire. The idea was to employ new tactics to reach appliance buyers. The company had previously done this through broadcast and print media.

MHz worked with the client to develop an award-winning e-mail campaign that would target readers of particular Canadian magazines.

"Using e-mail as a tool set Electrolux apart from their competition," he says. An added bonus: e-mail marketing is considerably less expensive.

Design thinking means realizing there is never a final answer. Circumstances always change, whether it's new technology, a shift in consumer taste or emerging competition. So the need to evolve - and be open to every potential evolution - holds true every day, Mr. Perri says.

"We didn't go from being a traditional design practice to an innovative strategic digital marketing practice without an openness to change," he says. "And without that, we couldn't stay competitive."