Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.

Concept Design (a.k.a Strategy Design, Business Design, Service Design, Transformation Design, Innovation Consultancy etc...)

A quick review of a thought provoking study, ‘Concept Design, How to solve complex challenges of our time’ by Jørgen Rosted, Tobias Lau, Casper Høgenhaven, Pernille Johansen, published by FORA, The Danish Authority for Enterprise and Construction’s Division for Research and Analysis

I’ve extracted some of the key insights here, and included some observations of my own:

  • Overview – Core competencies for concept designers
  • What they say – Top line and verbatim
  • What the people interviewed said – Inspiring quotes!
  • Key observations for the future
  • 1. Demand side pressure will increase
  • 2. Supply side pressure is the bottleneck
  • 3. Differentiate the offer between concept design (doing projects) and innovation process design (building client capacity to do projects themselves)
  • 4. New entrants create new competition
  • 5. Integrate and specialise to succeed


The study identifies 'concept design' as new field. Concept design means consultancy firms working on the 'what' not the 'how'. It means using lots of post-its, and concentrating on developing several key, connected knowledge competencies:

  • Rapidly understanding the business context
  • Generating insights using qualitative field work
  • Synthesising insights into new ideas/briefs using workshopping methods
  • Turning ideas into propositions
  • Communicating the propositions to delivery partners (internal and external)
  • Note, it generally does not include
  • Delivering the concept as a product, service or combination within the business.

The study has plenty of interesting graphs that explore the backgrounds and locations of the firms interviewed:

What they say:

"Previously, innovation was often considered to be the same as research and development of new technologies and new products. The ongoing efforts of renewing and adapting products to customers and markets and the development of various service offerings were not regarded as innovation per se, but more as an important element in the company’s marketing and branding.

Previously the company’s own technological resources often served as the basis for company innovation. The purpose was to develop products with a technological edge that distinguished the products from their competitors’. It was then up to the market-orientated departments to determine how the product could be adapted, designed and marketed to reach the consumers.

Those days are over. Today, companies must focus their efforts on user needs and identify non-recognised needs with a large market potential as the starting point of innovation.

This study has identified a number of different business strategies for concept design companies. As mentioned earlier, no evidence was found to prefer one business strategy over another; rather, it is the expectation that different business strategies may thrive side by side. However, the competitive situation may be different depending upon the company’s choice of specialisation."

What the people interviewed say:

“It’s more common for clients outside the executive suite to ask big, open-minded questions about how to disrupt the category. Maybe they were asking those kinds of questions a long time ago, they just didn’t know where to go.”
Steve Diller, Partner, Cheskin

“I think that what this new industry has in common is that there are complex problems out there. And clients don’t know who they should call to get them solved. Normally they would call their advertising agency, market researcher, design house or what have you, and today a lot of these people are handed complex problems by clients because it’s not quite clear who should be doing them.”
Dinesh Goburdhun, Senior Team Lead, Gravity Tank

“An increasing number of clients come to us and say ‘We don’t know what products to bring to market – tell us what to do’. So the recommendation we do is around the clients’ products, services, financial models and customer experience.”
Stuart Hogue, Strategic Director, Frog Design

“I think that if design firms aren’t prepared to learn more about strategy and growth, they are going to lose the field to strategy consultancy companies. Then the strategy consultancy firms will just buy design firms, strip out the best from them and integrate it into their offering – and design firms will have lost their place in the sun.”
Roger Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Management

Key observations for the future:

1. Demand side pressure will increase
"We can expect a substantial increase in the business world’s demand for concept creation on the most abstract and strategic level – i.e. the answers to the question “what?”. A growing number of companies will find it necessary to work with the future in a strategic manner. Where will they be in 10 – 20 years? Which unsolved user and social problems will they need to find new and better solutions to?"

2. Supply side pressure is the bottleneck
"The significant growth in the application of concept design in its most abstract and strategic form is taking place at a time where the supply of concept design is most limited."

3. Differentiate the offer between concept design (doing projects) and innovation process design (building client capacity to do projects themselves)
"The strategic concept design company will develop concepts for the client company which it will subsequently leave to others – the client company itself or a design company – to concretise. But the strategic concept design company will also work on the client company’s innovation processes; that is how the company should be organised, which competences the company requires and how the company should collaborate with its users to become better at concept creation. Today, we are witnessing that some strategic concept design companies concentrating on offering advice on the companies’ innovation processes, while other strategic design companies are concentrating on the actual concept creation."

4. New entrants create new competition
"It is also expected that companies from across many different industries will enter the field of concept design. We are already seeing the advertising industry moving into the market for concept design. Also consulting engineers, architects and - not least - management consultants are expected to take interest in this emerging market. Design companies have been among the first to move into concept design, but in the coming years one should expect increased competition from both entirely new companies and from companies in other industries. There will undoubtedly be room for many different types of concept design companies with different specialisations and business models, but there will also be tough competition."

5. Integrate and specialise to suceed
"If it is true that the design competence is central to concept creation, then design companies are presented with a special opportunity. To utilise this opportunity requires first and foremost that the design companies succeed in integrating business management and social science competences with the design competence. That concept design will be a strong growth market does not mean that the market for traditional design will decline; on the contrary. Global competition on innovation will also lead to a growing need for concrete design solutions. However, here we also find new competitive patterns and specialisation."