“The real job of design is changing organizations and charting a path to the future.”

-Karl Fast

The quote above was part of a recent article that talks about the role of design in society. Design emancipation, free of the current position of servitude, will help us flatten the path to a kinder future. The only thing designers have to do is to use their skills, mindset and methodologies to look beyond the established tactical framework that business and technology assign them, and find ways of critically define their own models of interpretation and ask their own questions about the invisible systems that surround us.

Design is defined as the dynamic convergence of creativity and empathy, the key role of designers is to manage the relationship that people have with the artificial world. Defending a position based on empathy, representing the human side of this relation, is becoming more and more difficult but also more and more critical.

Design is political or it isn’t. We have to recover the transformational promise of modernism and with renewed principles, we must find ways of acting as a Trojan Horse within organizations and question everything that goes against our promise of empathy and compassion.

The article below tries to do this in a very humble way, written as an alternative interpretation of the relation between organizations and people. It’s a simple way of reframing the definition of businesses by applying new metaphors, an interpretation that we hope can inspire you further, deeper and useful thoughts.


It looks like capitalism forgot to take into account one simple fact, humans are social animals, we need to work in collaboration with each other in order to ensure the survival of our tribe, our group or our complex society. What is beneficial for the group is also beneficial for us as individuals. While we managed to build political institutions that somehow take into account the wellbeing of society as a whole, the economic system that defines most of our relations with the world is based on one single principle: the only legitimate driver of human behavior is “self-interest”. This principle is also applied to the “corporation”, which is understood as the organizational projection of the unquestionable principle of self-centered individualism.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

-Adam Smith

The relation between us and the world of business is divergent, we are two entities driven by forces that go in opposite directions, we want to extract as much value as possible from each other, giving shape to a utilitarian relation that leads to systemic exhaustion, alienation and the environmental drama, a relation that places us in a position of mutual and self-exploitation, in a constant, unstoppable and uneven negotiation against our own desires.

When we look at it from a design perspective, something seems to be out of place. We were supposed to represent the interest of people, to design products and services around human needs, expectations and dreams. We talk about designing meaningful experiences, you know, about bringing “meaning” to the relation between brands and humans, we committed to innovate for a future worth living, but all we do is to work to enhance the divergent dynamics, feeding the machine with efficiency, seduction and engagement tricks.

At the end of the day, it seems as if a human need is valid as far as it fits inside the pre-defined business framework.

The good news is that, in order to survive, the market has to be smart enough to respond to the very issues that it is creating. We are starting to see how people are demanding a new deal, a new way of understanding their relationship with businesses and technology, not based on results, but on outcomes. We, as consumers, expect commitment on sustainability and a responsible attitude towards social and environmental issues, we demand from brands a bit more empathy and also a more transcendent meaning.

From Transaction to Relation

Some time ago, while working on the design of AI-powered conversational interfaces for media, I found useful to change the design paradigm, to stop thinking in terms of “usage” and start applying instead the metaphor of a “relationship” in order to identify the different variables in play. The key questions that drove the exercise was: how can we establish a valuable, relevant and trustful relationship between a bot (in representation of a brand) and a human?

The resulting “relational” model can be used to describe a new framework of interpretation of the dynamics between people and brands. A model that instead of focusing on optimizing the chances of transactions, focuses first on managing a relationship built on shared interests.

This model can be applicable at a broader scale, we can use it as a way of reframing the very definition of what an organization is. We do it by placing the business in direct conversation with people, with the social context and with the whole system.

It’s what Alberto calls the Relational or Share Value Model:

The key components of the model are the following:

The main actors:

The OrganizationThe organization has to be understood in its totality: culture, employees, processes, history, products, identity, technology and vision. From this holistic perspective, we should be able to synthesize core concepts that help us to visualize and interrogate the brand. It’s useful to “humanize” the brand, it will help us to visualize a face-to-face relationship.

PeopleIn front of the organisation, we have people, the co-subject of the relationship. People has also to be seen in all their complexity, as individuals, as communities and in relation to their socio-economic, cultural and environmental context.

A good way of thinking about it is by looking at future experiential scenarios: what if the brand purpose is materialized successfully? What effect will have on people and on the overall context?

Both core areas are dynamically co-dependent. The brand defines itself in relation to people and people’s behaviors and identities are also defined by the relation (The Design designs).

The Drivers:

PurposeThe whole model depends on one single action, the capacity of the business to define itself towards the others, this is, in terms of outcomes and in terms of purpose.

A purpose-driven business is the one that embeds the interest of their customers in the very definition of the business itself.

A well-crafted purpose is both relevant (capable of providing tangible value for both, customer and organization) and meaningful (engages people at a level of personal and social significance).

EngagementThe positive consequence of a purpose-driven strategy is the activation of the opposite convergent vector: people engagement.

Trustful, lasting and meaningful engagement becomes the key business goal. The relational strategy focuses mainly on managing engagement as the result of operating the brand purpose.

A business transaction is the positive outcome of a good relation.

The playground:

Relational spaceThe convergence of purpose and engagement creates a zone of shared interest, an experiential system made of existing and potential touchpoints, their flows, their connections and their projections.

The relational space is the space of Experience Design.

The principles:

Affinity of BeliefsBuilding a purpose-driven business implies taking a subjective stand. Organizations need to be defined by a set of values and principles that are projected towards the world. Organizations develop their own belief system.

Brands and people meet in a space made of shared principles.

This is, by the way, the space of Brand Experience.

Harmony of BehaviorsAt the same time, organizations and people have to develop a harmonic relation in terms of habits and behaviors. Organizations need to learn to be when and how they are needed. People also adapt to certain brand behaviors and create new habits when the provided value is relevant for them.

Here is where User Experience Design thrives.

The stuff:

Innovation, Products and Interactions

When running the relational model is interesting to see how innovation is no more than the identification and activation of new relational touch points. Innovative products (and services) emerge from the dynamics between what the brand believes (affinity) and how the brand behaves (harmony). Innovation is culture in action towards a purpose.

This is the space reserved for Service Design and Innovation.

At the same time, we should not make a clear distinction between products and interactions. We should consider touch-points as feedback loops, in which people and products recurrently enrich each other as their objectives are shared.

“Companies could bring business and society back together if they redefined their purpose as creating “shared value” — generating economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges. A shared value approach reconnects company success with social progress.”

Porter & Kramer, Harvard Business Review

By applying the relational logic, we move from a value extraction model to a shared value one, from “self-interest” to “shared interest”, from divergence to convergence.

The metaphor to describe the mechanism is the “relationship”. The main goal of a business is to establish a lasting, trustful and meaningful relation with people, a relationship that will evolve into a tangible exchange of value, both for the business and for the clients.

Relational Strategies

“Share your own sense of purpose and find ways for everyone to take part in it, and to amplify it. In achieving this purpose, see yourself as not a sole operator, but part of an ecosystem. Think less about selling to people, more about enlisting them.”

-Wolff Olins, Game Changers report

If we change the metaphor, we also have to change our strategic approach.

The key goal of the model is for organizations to establish a meaningful, lasting, trustful and value-based relation with people, a relation that if successful, can be easily translated into brand perception and transactional KPIs.

A meaningful purpose works as the center of gravity of the whole system of experiential touch points. Our strategic aim is to “cultivate gravity”, ensure the power of attraction of the purpose and the coherence, consistency and cohesivity of the experience.

One way of thinking about it is by establishing levels of relational engagement and develop tactics to achieve them step by step. A literal play with the relational metaphor gives us the following engagement levels:

Engagement Levels:

Level 1: Meeting Brands manage to reach people in relevant channels with the relevant message.

Level 2: Sharing Brands and people start to show and share common interests (driven by purpose).

Level 3: Feeling There’s a sense of emotional attraction, this is where brand identity plays a key role.

Level 4: Belonging People “buy” the brand purpose, they become part of the brand community.

Level 5: Meaning People and brands are linked through a trustful and meaningful connection.

Our goal is to create ways of moving people to one gravitational level to the next one. The whole effort depends mostly on the relevance of the purpose.

In order to activate the relational engagement funnel, there are set of key actions that we can follow:

Engagement Cycle:

(First!! Make sure that there is a meaningful purpose at the end of the funnel).

Step 1: Inspire Ensure your purpose reaches people, that is understood and shared. Create incentives for people to believe and get inspired by your story.

Step 2: Enlist Once the purpose is understood and “bought-in”, let people engage with it. Bring people in, create a movement.

Step 3: Engage People are in. Let’s make sure that the conversation remains active. Exchange real value by providing relevant products and services oriented to materialize the brand purpose.

Step 4: Transform Materialize your brand purpose and radically change the role of businesses.


“The recent turn of design towards new business is leading to a focus of capitalism as a social movement, and a promise of charisma and embodiment generating spectacular experiences that enable and delight.”

-Bruce Nussbaum

As we said, thinking in terms of relationships, instead of transactions, implies an interesting and deep ideological change: we question self-interest as the only driver of capitalism and place shared-interest as an engine for our relationship with the world of economy. Maybe it worth exploring the consequences of this change of paradigm. There are large brands that are embracing a similar mindset at least at a identity and communication level. What if we speculate with applying the model across the whole organization, from culture to product innovation?

What type of company would we end with, what type of economy, what type of deal?

As we said, thinking in terms of relationships, instead of transactions, implies an interesting and deep ideological change: we question self-interest as the only driver of capitalism and place shared-interest as an engine for our relationship with the world of economy. Maybe it worth exploring the consequences of this change of paradigm. There are large brands that are embracing a similar mindset at least at a identity and communication level. What if we speculate with applying the model across the whole organization, from culture to product innovation?

What type of company would we end with, what type of economy, what type of deal?

REFRAME is the process of moving from the traditional model to the shared value one, it implies rethinking every element of the business from a relational perspective. The reframing process starts with a deep understanding of the overall context and the redefinition of the organizational purpose. Then, the purpose must serve as the engine for speculative design processes that projects the organization into the future: what happens if we succeed in the materialization of our purpose? What are the outcomes?. This projection can help us to retrospectively define roadmaps of relevant, innovative and transformational initiatives.

This is a process that only works if model transformation goes hand to hand to personal mindset transformation. A mindset that help us to be ready to embrace and manage the complexity of the world and the complexity of a meaningful relationship with people. The four poles of this mindset are Systemic Thinking, Creativity, Adaptability and Sense-Making.

But above all what the reframing process must become a reflection of the whys behind an organization, and effort to reinsert responsibility and empathy at the very core of the definition of what a businesses is.

…in the end this is what Design is all about.