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The Design Ladder: Four steps of design use
6. May 2015
Companies’ use of design may take on a variety of forms. The Design Ladder is a tool by the Danish Design Centre for illustrating and rating a company’s use of design.
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The Design Ladder

The Design Ladder was developed by the Danish Design Centre in 2001 as a communicative model for illustrating the variation in companies’ use of design.

The Design Ladder is based on the hypothesis that there is a positive link between higher earnings, placing a greater emphasis on design methods in the early stages of development and giving design a more strategic position in the company’s overall business strategy.

The Design Ladder consists of four steps:

STEP 1: NON-DESIGN
Design is an invisible part of, e.g., product development and the task is not handled by trained designers. The solution is driven by the involved participants’ ideas about good function and aesthetic. The users’ perspective plays little or no role in the process.

STEP 2: DESIGN AS FORM-GIVING
Design is viewed exclusively as the final form-giving stage, whether in relation to product development or graphic design. Many designers use the term ‘styling’ about this process. The task may be carried out by professional designers but is typically handled by people with other professional backgrounds.

STEP 3 DESIGN AS PROCESS
Design is not a result but an approach that is integrated at an early stage in the development process. The solution is driven by the problem and the users and requires the involvement of a wide variety of skills and capacities, for example, process technicians, materials technicians, marketing experts and administrative staff.

STEP 4: DESIGN AS STRATEGY 
The designer works with the company’s owners/management to rethink the business concept completely or in part. Here, the key focus is on the design process in relation to the company’s business visions and its desired business areas and future role in the value chain.

Design is good for business
Companies that work systematically with design have higher earnings and bigger exports than companies that do not use design. That is the main conclusion in the survey ‘The economic effects of design’, which was carried out in 2003.

The economic effects are more pronounced in companies where design is firmly rooted in both internal and external design investments. With regard to the companies’ position on the Design Ladder, a higher placement on the Design Ladder is associated with a positive effect on gross earnings and a clear positive effect on exports.

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