The economic, environmental & social benefits of beauty in business
Ugly. I think we’ve all had enough of ugly, because it’s not doing us any good. We have lost the language of beauty especially in business. Beauty has become separated out of commercial activity, seen to be expensive, non-relevant, superficial, even a drain on the bottom line? Data rules all. Efficiency rules all. Fastest to the finish line of profit whatever the cost.
Recent global uncertainty and catastrophic events that engulf our world have made us all wake up to the fact: we have all had enough of ugly.
The act of creating something of beauty is a way of bringing good into the world. Infused with optimism, it says simply: life is worthwhile. The effort to create enduring beauty is not dependent on style but truth. Beauty is what lends things their immortality. Beauty therefore gets us out of surfaces and into the foundations of things. The time has come, I believe, to rethink the role of business in our world and its overall contribution on our society. We need to reframe business in the context of beauty.
This raises important questions around beauty. Two of the most prominent are: can beauty translate to all business sectors and can it yield high financial returns?
The answer is yes. We get to beauty through the philosophy and practice of craft. We always have a choice of what it is that we create, since everything we create is imagined, then made — crafted. What constrains us is our imagination and the will to apply it. A craftsman asks two simple questions — is it useful and is it beautiful? We can use these two principles to reshape the world we live in. Craftsmanship has always been good business. As designer William Morris wisely shared in a lecture in 1880 entitled The Beauty of Life ‘‘have nothing in your house that is neither useful or beautiful’.
So, what might businesses in sectors we may perceive as ‘non-beautiful’ do to create a beautiful business? Here are a few thoughts:
Multi-story car parks are not the nicest places to be. They create their own unique social and economic problems; frustrating queues to get in and out; generally unwelcoming to women and an insurance nightmare. It is a design challenge.
How to design something more beautiful?
The city of Aarhus is home to Europe’s largest AI multi-story car park. Drive your car into one of the 20 booths. Step out. Shut and lock the door then press a button. The car is transported below ground. The automated, pallet-free system offers some 1,000 parking spaces spread across three floors. From the moment the driver presses the button everything is automated. Nothing is touched on the vehicle except the wheels, and the AI system calculates throughout the day the likelihood of your return and ensures a fast recovery of the vehicle when you want it back.
Recently, I watched people drive in, deposit their cars and then pick them up. Young and old alike were intrigued and delighted by this incredible piece of design and engineering. It is in itself a beautiful thing to see. The utility is beautiful having solved the problems of personal safety, time efficiency, insurance etc., in such an elegant and intriguing manner.
Flute Office is a pioneering company that is producing an entire suite of workplace products along with a groundbreaking business model to change the way we think about what we sit on, and what we work on. The product is designed and engineered to high standards, from upcycled cellulose and is 100% recyclable. Rather than buying a desk, you buy a service, personal to each customer, with a no-quibble guarantee, rapid delivery, and end-of-use buy-back.
But it’s not just the design or manufacturing model that is of interest. It is how this upcycling can displace cost inefficiency. Taking fixed costs that are redundant allowing capital to be placed elsewhere to be more productive.
For example, it costs the NHS £84m to deal with waste. Upcycling just half of this material the NHS would save £135m per year. Moving from a capital purchase to a subscription model, a further £100m could be saved. That is almost half of the entire annual NHS budget for new equipment.
20% of all landfill comes from office furniture, it takes 540 kgs of raw material to make one desk, so why not make something that addresses those issues of waste head one? Large corporations have warehouses full of desks, it takes 20 minutes to fully install a desk, Flute office desks take 2 minutes.
Businesses that are beautifully restorative, always give back more than they take. They provide benefits, which are economic, environmental and social. Nature has been around for a long time, why not borrow from her playbook? 73% of CFO’s agree that there is a strong link between sustainability performance and financial performance.
Businesses that create the beautiful will reap the rewards of that commitment to take a common object and turn it into a work of uncommon grace. It could be a car park, a spoon, a film or a phone. People that design for beautiful utility, create wonderful, optimistic life enhancing experiences in big and small ways, and always sell out.
It is therefore unsurprising that a growing number of Fortune 100 companies now see design as the top priority to their business evolution over the next five years.
A CEO asked me the other day if any business could be made beautiful? I replied, “why would you want to do it any other way?”