Design and Business Strategy Have One More Thing in Common – Both Are in the Business of Dealing with White Space

futurelab default header

by: Idris Mootee

In business strategy and visual design, both need to work with white space? White space is both a design and a business strategy term. In design and other art (architecture, cinematography and retail display etc.) it refers to space that isn’t occupied by text, images, or other visible elements. The amount and use of white space is a key component of a page’s readability and legibility in graphic design and in photography it is about the treatment of visual flow. 

In interactive design, a page with too little white space makes people feel uncomfortable because the page seems so cluttered and hard figure out how to get what they need or what jobs they want to get done. On the other hand, pages with too much white space seem empty and as if there’s nothing to explore. So both the brand strategy and usability strategy guides the direction and hopefully come to a balance. The same can be applied to retail design. The same challenge remains as every dept wants their spot on the homepage and wants it above the fold. Or they want to optimize every inch of their homepage real estate for ads. This is common debate and most of the time designers can’t win and that’s why all the sites out there are filled with stuff. More is NOT better and Less is often not enough. In the retail world, look at Apple stores which they have the highest sales per-square-foot among many retailers including Radio Shack, which has a lot of stuff if you know what I mean. So white space management is an integral part of any design both for usability and branding (and often they are in conflicts with each other).

In business strategy, we also use the phrase “identifying white space” which means finding opportunities necessitates exploration into areas adjacent to but outside your core business. Unconventional approaches are required to uncover these high value opportunities and to convert them into attractive businesses (and cash flow). We call it innovation. And if it affects the organization in the way it competes both from an economics, channel, brand, product and user behavior and requires significant adaptation from a competencies and operations perspective, then we call it “strategic innovation”. To explore these white spaces, we have to apply “design thinking” concepts to business strategy development.

Managing the white space often requires a dual focus – exploring the intersection of emerging trends and at the same time defining how the convergence of multiple technologies or capabilities might satisfy powerful latent consumer needs. Whatever the idea is, you need to continually engage in continuous learning around new consumers, channel partners, suppliers, competitors, business models and other emerging marketplace dynamics. Endless rounds of spreadsheet modeling won’t make it more robust.

No one will disagree that there is less and less differentiation among brands, companies, technologies and channel. Therefore, from a manufacturer perspective, while white space may exist within the core brand portfolio or even the contiguous area which are more likely to contain products and brands that are similar, interchangeable, and adjacent and offer low incrementality, however it is in the most outer sphere that offers the biggest opportunity and usually associated with most risks (internal and external).

Bain’s consultant and author Steve Coley notes in The Alchemy of Growth, "What distinguishes the corporations that carry on growing is…they can innovate in their core businesses and build new ones at the same time." This is not to say that profitable white space is only in new markets and categories. It can certainly emerge and be identified in a mature marketing landscape, as consumer needs change and brands mature and the whole landscape begins to transform or is redefined; look at the impact of change when Starbucsk first exploited the "third place" market by the white space. They are now struggling with finding the new white space. They need help from outside people because any great companies carry a legacy that works against them. Starbucks is a brand many still loves and deserves another decade of success. It is still a great company.

In order for an organization to exploit "white space", it will need to make bold strategic moves, invariably requiring significant development of new capabiltiy, commitment of people and investment, and possibly new brand creation or even a company wide transformation. Therefore, capitalizing on white space is unlikely to be a tactical quick-fix.

White space and the identification process (in our case the Nodleplay process) that accompanies it should not be viewed in a vacuum; it is sometimes can a bi-product of industry structure. There is a lot you can do by applying “design thinking” approach and starts with customer unmet needs, but performing a landscape structure analysis should be conducted more frequently for markets experiencing rapid disruptions and a number of aggressive new entrants. Although structure analysis sometimes require large-scale quantifications, input from exploratory qualitative research can be beneficial in determining whether all consumer issues are being covered and appropriate language in terms of underlying attitudes, functional, and emotional benefits, key drivers, triggers and barriers, and aspects of brand image and equity are identified. The goal is to attempt to get beyond the obvious and look for more subtle and perhaps more predictive underlying motivations.

Any strategic innovation initiatives require more than creativity and new product ideas, it needs to look at an industry from economic structure perspective. Combining both requires skills from B-school meets D-school and that’s where our company is building upon.

Four key questions before any strategic innovation begins:

– What are the industry dogmas and the “impossibilities” of your industry and are they really what we think they are?

– How can we best leverage our existing competencies to create new growth opportunities within (and outside) our industry? Or do we need to redefine our industry?

– What new competencies will we need to pursue these new white space opportunities – either through in-house ideation or through new partnerships with innovation consultants?

– What technological innovations will support new applications that either ride the emerging trends and address unmet consumer/customer needs?

Original Post: