IA Collaborative + Chicago Business Designers: Art, Data, and Science

On behalf of Chicago Business Designers, IA Collaborative invites you to join us for an interactive night exploring the important relationship between design and business. Mayur Gupta, CMO at Freshly, will discuss how he fuses data with human-centered design to create brands that people can’t live without.

Register for the event here.


05:30 pm


IA Collaborative
218 S Wabash Ave, #9
Chicago, IL 60604


Working at the Forefront of Design: Insights from IA’s 2018 Summer Interns

Insights from IA Collaborative’s 2018 Summer Interns

Every summer, IA Collaborative invites a class of multidisplinary interns to join the ranks of, collaborate with, and learn from the design consultancy’s diverse talent. Below, two of those interns, Divya Iyengar and Jack Gerber shared their unique perspectives on the experience.

Divya Iyengar: Design Researcher in Training

After graduating from the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, Divya found herself working at a software engineering firm, where she grew into a product management role. Her interest in developing an understanding and advocating for design lead her to the IIT Institute of Design graduate program, where she studies design research and strategy.

During her time as a Design Research & Strategy Intern at IA Collaborative, Divya developed an understanding of the strategic design process, working on a client project that exposed her to research planning, synthesis and video storytelling. She also used her research background and completed benchmarking activities to uncover unexpected innovation opportunities for clients.

When asked how the internship affected her outlook on her profession, Divya discussed the importance of understanding not only her own discipline, but also how it relates to and empowers human-centered design more broadly. “I was drawn to the fact that IA works on projects that require end-to-end execution, as I wanted to experience different aspects of the design process all the way from ideation to implementation,” she said.

IA was the consultancy I wanted to work with because of their innovative approach to research…I (also) wanted to experience different aspects of the design process all the way from idea to implementation.

– Divya Iyengar, Research & Design Strategy Intern

Jack Gerber (center, left) and Divya Iyengar (far right) celebrate their final day of their IA internship program with fellow interns.

Jack Gerber: Exploring Design’s Impact on Business Growth

After earning a history major at the University of Colorado, Jack began his career teaching philosophy and social studies to high school and middle school students. He transitioned into a management consulting role where his innate curiosity and creative problem-solving skills resonated most. He learned how to apply creativity to business and became fascinated with design thinking. In 2018, Jack enrolled in the Chicago Institute of Design’s dual MBA program to earn his Master’s in both business and design.

As a Business Growth Intern, Jack worked with IA teams to identify and propose design solutions to address the complex, and sometimes ambiguous, business needs of potential clients – as well as to evaluate and optimize internal processes.

“One of the most important things I learned at IA was to have a bias towards action,” Jack said. During his internship, he learned that projects move very quickly at IA Collaborative, and often the key to success is in a team’s ability to prototype, learn and iterate in real-time throughout the project.

“If I had to describe IA in three words, I’d say they’re collaborative, fast-paced and supportive. I was able to work with and learn from a lot of different people with unique backgrounds to accomplish my projects. Not only that, but everyone was willing to sit down for coffee and discuss my program or their expertise. Everyone wanted to help, and I was able to learn so much in just eight weeks,” Jack said.

One of the most important things I learned…was to have a bias towards action. I was able to learn so much in just eight weeks.

– Jack Gerber, Business Growth Intern


Although their roles and projects differed, both Divya and Jack said IA Collaborative helped evolve how they think about design and hope to better integrate design thinking practices into their future endeavors. If you’re interested in learning more about career opportunities at IA Collaborative, check out our open positions here.


3 Design Thinking Initiatives Every Company Should Be Leading

Launch Your Disruptor, Eliminate Bad Profits, 
and Break Out of Your Business Model

All around us, there is evidence of how design is shaping the future of business. Design isn’t purely about aesthetics or asking tactical questions – it’s about thinking systemically and answering big, complex and interdependent challenges. “Design thinking” has risen to prominence – and become an imperative in many companies – because things like disruptive growth, brand evangelism, and breaking into future markets are required for every company’s long-term survival.

But how do you achieve these complex and lofty goals? There are 3 Design Thinking initiatives I believe every company should be leading right now…because the future won’t wait. 

Initiative #1: Launch Your Next Disruptor

This initiative is about getting leadership to fund and incubate the company that will put you out of business. It starts with asking two simple questions:

First, where is disruption coming from in your industry? We conducted research with Fortune 500 and global companies like State Farm, Intuit, Honeywell, REI and GE Healthcare, and we got responses ranging from e-payments and robo-investing to subscription retail and AI-powered logistics, pharma and business services. It’s clear that organizations can readily recognize the disruptions around them. But how many are taking action right now to future-proof their organization?

Second, what is your biggest vulnerability in the customer journey? The majority of disruptive new companies and start-ups today were born out of identifying a low point in the customer experience. Imagine if the companies they disrupted had been honest with themselves and gotten ahead of the turning tide? You don’t have to wait for a new business to crop up – you can start building it yourself. From within your own company.

How it Works

Here’s an example of how to incubate and pilot a new business model from within your company – before someone else does.

We worked with a global logistics company to identify and create a new opportunity / product offering within the lowest point of their customer’s journey: the last mile of delivery. Everyone has been a victim of a door tag (“we’ll be here tomorrow, at the same time, when you’re still not home!”), and non-traditional competitors were popping up to create a more personalized, “high touch” experience for customers. To guard against disruption, we prototyped a company that would enable us to learn more about how resolve this specific customer pain point in a differentiated way, at scale, through experience design and a right-sized business model solution.

The goal of the project was to define business models, user needs, and operational strategies to scale – and win. In just 6 months, we stood up a fully functional business prototype, and launched a pilot in two selected diverse locations to learn, iterate and refine the model. Key to developing the business prototype was a digital app experience, which at first was very low fidelity but moved to high fidelity as we tested and iterated the UI/UX; identity and brand collateral to iterate messaging and brand intent; a website with analytics to iterate pricing structures; and educational and training modules to test the value proposition. Then, we isolated the most attractive operating models, prioritized the opportunities and sized key markets, and ran profitability scenarios all through the live pilot. From this, we were able to definitively project platform extensibility to unlock new revenue, customers, and offerings over a 5-year time horizon.

Ultimately, the global logistics company launched the new service offering – now available to more than 34 million people in 1,800 cities – and successfully put its startup competitors out of business.

How to Get Started

Identify your biggest vulnerability, whether that is coming from emerging competitors, new technologies or better user experiences. Conduct human-centered, immersive research to learn your own customer’s workarounds, pain points, anxieties and unmet needs.

Build a better solution from the inside. Prototype new experiences with low-fidelity tools at first, and learn, adapt and iterate to the point that you can prove the desirability, feasibility and viability of your offering. Pilot your new business offering. Make it real, with real employees and real technology, and use the pilot to learn just how much people are willing to pay and what the market opportunity is.

Initiative #2: Eliminate Bad Profits

First, let’s level-set. What do I mean by “bad profits?” When a company makes money at the expense of customer relationships. Think about it: bad profits are all around you. It’s things that you are annoyed to have to pay for, like baggage fees and extra legroom on flights; increased insurance premiums when you have an accident; service fees on your financial transactions. Psychologically, this erodes and destroys brand loyalty over time.

Eliminating bad profits starts by asking a simple question: what do your customers hate paying for? Again, we received a range of answers in our research with top companies: everything from late payment fees to digital subscriptions to software. There was no shortage of things people wished they could stop making customers pay for.

Why do bad profits happen so frequently? First, it happens from a lack of evolution in business strategy. When markets mature and margins erode, its easier just to cut costs, add fees, and charge for things that used to be free. Second, it happens because there’s a lack of connection with end user: When companies scale, it’s easy to lose connection with customers and users. It’s design’s job to continually stay connected. That’s what the “Eliminate Bad Profits” initiative is all about.

How it Works

Here’s an example of how to identify and eliminate bad profits within your organization.

We helped Dexcom—a startup that has grown into a $6B market cap company—eliminate bad profits from diabetes management: specifically, redundant doctor’s visits and unnecessary “pill burden.” Redundant doctor visits happen because of billing codes. Each doctor visit is billed to a specific code; so if you’re at a “disease management” appointment, and you want to discuss “prevention,” you’ll be asked to come back for, and pay for, a different appointment. It happens far too often. Unnecessary pill burden is caused by over-medicating, vs. addressing lifestyle management: most diabetics are paying for and taking way more drugs than they need. In fact, a recent American Diabetes Association study states: High pill burden results in poor adherence, morbidity and pre-mortality.

Dexcom invented a tiny electrode, inserted under the skin, to measure glucose and other biometrics. Wirelessly, it collects blood glucose data including levels, speed and direction. Before we engaged with Dexcom, the data was meant to help you adjust your diet, making you less reliant on medication. But there were two challenges: #1—he data were too complex for patients to decipher. Certainly, doctors could translate the data for patients, but that leads to problem #2: most patients only meet with their doctor a couple times a year—and yet, most patients eat every day.

We had to create actionable data to help users make smart, in-the-moment decisions about what to eat and when; therefore eliminating redundant doctor visits and unnecessary pill burden.

To design a more desirable experience for Dexcom, we became the users; implanting sensors, injecting placebos, observing ecosystems of care, between patient, doctor and caregiver. We found bright spots that inspired our design: folded up pieces of paper – “love notes” – written by a patient’s husband as a reward for taking her medication.

Ultimately, we co-created with doctors and patients to deliver a new, “positive profit” experience for the company: Dexcom CLARITY diabetes management software.

A quick scan of the hashtag #DexcomClarity on social media illustrates the enthusiasm people have for the tool. The financial results are strong, too – following the launch of Dexcom Clarity, Dexcom achieved YOY revenue growth of 42%, and reached $600M in sales.

How to Get Started

Figure out what your customers would be happy to pay for. Become your user. Do what it takes to live their experience. But don’t just look for pain points, look for the bright spots. Discover what is motivating your users to act the way they do, as an indicator of what solution will best channel and amplify that motivation.

Determine how you’ll make money from the new experience, and prioritize positive impact. Build out the business model, and test and iterate to determine what – and how much – people will actually pay for the new experience before broadly launching.

Initiative #3: Break Out Of Your Business Model

Oftentimes, organizations become so engrained in their existing business model that they can’t imagine any other way – or don’t see a reason to change course. But this is a costly mistake; continually re-evaluating who your most important customer is, and who influences their choices, can lead you to unexpected shifts in how you go about reaching those audiences.

In our research, when we asked, “Who is your most important customer?” everyone answered without hesitation. But when we asked them, “are you in complete control of how those customers engage with your brand?” almost everyone said no. Figuring out how to gain more control can help you break out of your business model.

How it Works

This initiative starts with identifying your most important customer – the one that is crucial to the future growth of your business. For example, take Nike. For them, a crucial target audience is the teen athlete. Nike wants to supply all of their uniforms, gear, and shoes. It’s a small industry, but during this formative time, if you put a swoosh on every teen athlete, you’ll see a swoosh on every adult athlete. High school is the key to brand loyalty.

In Nike’s high school business, the model is that local dealers sell uniforms to coaches, and booster clubs raise money to buy them. In this model, dealers have control over how Nike’s brand is presented, and Nike isn’t able to engage directly with high school athletes, fans, and boosters. Nike broke out of their business model and is driving brand loyalty by building a creative digital solution that enables teams to build and create their own uniforms, keeping Nike’s brand at the forefront of the action.

From uniform customizers to completely tailored marketing communications, Nike is delivering a branded experience that makes teen athletes feel like the pros. In the future, a logical extension of the platform could include individual school-branded store portals on Nike.com, where players and fans can design their own uniforms aligned with Nike’s brand standards, vote on them, and directly purchase gear. Other future features could include sales tracking and fundraising platforms for coaches and boosters, custom booster campaigns and robust back-end sales data and analytics.

How to Get Started

Determine who your most valuable customer is for long-term business growth, and identify who influences their choices. Create new platforms for engagement and commerce.

Determine who stands between you and your customers. Eliminate interference and take control of your brand.

Take Action & Lead Your Industry

These three initiatives will help your organization stay at the forefront of your user’s needs, your competition and your capabilities. As you seek to lead, champion or sponsor these initiatives, keep in mind the most powerful way to achieve “buy-in”: capture and document user-centered insights, interviews and observations through highly visual mediums: video, images and compelling storytelling. Create an irrefutable narrative and build a network of internal evangelists that will support your case for bold new direction.


Embracing Design as a Business Value

How to create a culture that leverages design – in the right way – for business impact

Every company is fundamentally built on innovation. In the beginning, each sets out to address a challenge that only their business model or experience can solve. But as most companies mature, the need to drive revenue and generate bottom line results encourages a focus on optimization and scale, over exploring new ways to deliver value, and prototyping businesses for future growth.

This tension between optimization and innovation plagues CEOs and innovation leaders, in every industry, on every continent, with Boards mandating quarterly results and innovation leadership in the same breath.


“Mature corporations are bad at innovation by design. All the pressures and processes that drive them toward a profitable, efficient operation tend to get in the way of developing the innovations that can actually transform the business.”

– Maxwell Wessell, General Manager of SAP.io and Management Lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business


This is one of the pivotal reasons many once-thriving companies fold, and even entire industries collapse. How can a company avoid becoming the next Blockbuster, Xerox, or Blackberry?

Companies that understand and embrace design – not only as a cosmetic or visual differentiator, but as a mindset and strategic approach to business – will ensure they create value for customers and shareholders even as competition and technology rapidly shifts.

Start-ups clearly embrace this notion: 87% of them believe design is important to their business; 85% of them have C-level executives weigh in on design decisions; and 31% of them are even founded by designers.  Start-ups are embracing design to create new value, and disrupt markets, but startups are not the only organizations leveraging design for business value.

Well-established companies are also making bold moves to embrace design as a mindset and strategy to evolve and re-think long-held assumptions – and ultimately protect their leadership positions.


Making Bold (Design) Moves

Half measures are death for big companies, because people can smell lack of commitment. When you undertake a transformation…you’ve got to be all in. You’ve got to be willing to plop down money and people.”

– Jeff Immelt, former chairman, General Electric


Huawei: an innovative organizational structure

Huawei is a 200-year old Chinese manufacturer best known for selling antennas and base stations. However, since 2016, the company has been innovating toward its goal to overtake Apple and Samsung and become the globe’s number one smartphone maker within the next 5 years – and recently announced its ambitions to become a major global player in cloud services. How will they do it? Huawei is employing an iterative organizational structure where three different executives rotate through the company as CEO each year to empower this level of growth. This iterative approach to management is consistent with a fundamental principle of design, most commonly seen in product development. In iterative design a prototype is rapidly created, often in lower fidelity, to learn what’s working, and then iterated again in pursuit of continual learning and improvement. Different strategies are explored with each iteration, and the promise of future iterations makes each cycle less precious and therefore more open to change. Huawei’s iterative structure captures these same benefits, but at the organizational level – enabling the company to regularly learn and evolve the direction of the whole company. The promise of future leadership change makes the company more nimble, and more able to respond to opportunity.


Cisco: aggressive investment in new ventures and technology

This tech giant unveiled a 5-pillar innovation strategy a few years ago to ensure design was at the center of their organization. The pillars are focused on Build, Buy, Partner, Invest and Co-Develop to prioritize their company offerings. While this is a basic framework – the more interesting aspect of it is the staggering numbers related to strategic business investment: a $2B portfolio of investments; 100+ global startup investments; an acquisition rate that would make most corporate lawyers shudder; 180+ company acquisitions and an intense focus on patent development with over 19,000 patents pending – 7,000 of them in software innovation. While the numbers are impressive, the design principles Cisco has employed in activating their 5-pillar strategy focus on disruption and taking smart risks. These two principles are critical for tackling the right design challenges, and while potentially more risky – they have proven pay-off for business model disruption.


Your Path Forward: Creating a Company That Embraces Design as a Business Value

I applaud Huawei and Cisco for their bold actions, and the strategic risks they are taking to achieve business value through design, but I’m not inferring that these examples are right or possible for every company. However, there are some very foundational and practical ways to ensure your company is on the right path to embrace design as a business value. In other words – design as a strategic business value and differentiator has more than arrived…but how do you put it into practice? 

For the leaders at IA Collaborative, these foundational steps are ones we find ourselves guiding our clients through time and time again to put these values into practice:

1. Knowing What “Good Design” Looks Like – And Executing It.

I’ve had numerous conversations with executives at Fortune 100 companies around the basic principles of design. Many times, the first portion of the discussion starts with the question – “what does good design look like?” or point-blank admitting, “we don’t know what good design looks like.” I applaud these executives for their candor, because what they are really acknowledging is an understanding that design is not only an outcome, but a mindset – which is a huge, first step in the right direction towards embracing design for business value.

First let’s address the design outcome perspective. A fundamental challenge related to design deliverables is that a company without designers or design leadership is still forced to make design decisions – and therefore, most likely, they are not making the right design decisions for what that company truly needs. A common scenario I’ve seen in larger organizations is that a conglomerate of agencies is actually making independent design decisions – based on narrow channel vision, subjective “gut” feeling, and an internal team accepting whatever that agency says is a best practice at that time without having the appropriate background and skillsets to make an informed decision. There are no checks and balances. No guiding voice, and thus, a lack of solidly delivered design.

From the mindset perspective, designers approach designing a solution in systemic, iterative and disruptive ways.  The famous Steve Jobs quote embodies this perfectly: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

To create good design, you need to have team members whose job it is to ensure a system of companywide design alignment, checks and balances. You must have a design management structure in place that either sits on the executive leadership team or reports in to it; some type of organization-wide structure related to design decision making, influence, and investment. In 2015, 9 of the top 25 venture-backed startups had designers at the helm (1). Having designers in leadership positions can be one of the largest indicators to ensuring you are executing “good design.”

But where do you go if you’re currently “all in” on the production design / agency model and don’t have employees understanding and embracing a design mindset? You start at the foundation.

We’ve worked with global leaders to dive deep into their current design ecosystems – at various levels of conceptual and design scale – to uncover where their design maturity lies and uncover their potential to execute “good design.” One framework that does a great job breaking down the elements of design decisioning is from “Org Design for Design Orgs; Building and Managing In-House Design Teams” by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner. The framework considers design on many scales – from the broadest 10,000-foot level of a company’s structure, down to the 10-foot view of the designed artifact; things like interfaces, layouts and material finishes.

In considering this framework, we’ve helped companies assess their needs at each of these “feet levels.” This has resulted in everything from redefining a company’s structure to creating a new digital design language to leverage across an ecosystem of a company’s digital offerings.

Take the steps now to help your company consider design as not only an output but a mindset, and understand what good design is and what it looks like for your company.

2. Integrating Customer Insight into Everything You Do.

According to a global study of 1,500 CEOs, chief executives prioritize gaining customer insight far above other decision-related tasks and rank ‘customer obsession’ as the most critical leadership trait (2). At IA Collaborative, we always counsel our clients that customer insight isn’t a phase, a point in time, or a check box – it’s something you do at all times in a project and becomes engrained in your company’s DNA to make the most effective design decisions.

But let me clarify what type of customer insight are we recommending. While there are thousands of methods to gain customer insight, the ones to prioritize as part of your innovation efforts are those that are more exploratory in nature – e.g., personal immersions, ethnography, observational studies and contextual interviews. While more evaluative research methods like surveys, focus groups and usability tests are helpful and have their place in making incremental improvements to an offering, exploratory methods are the ones that lead to breakthrough innovation.

It’s one thing to pay lip service to this notion; it’s another thing to actually prioritize these approaches in your process. It’s pretty common to hear, prior to a project kick-off with a new client – “We already have customer insights to leverage.”  Only to find out that the insights were derived from usability testing or a quantitative survey. Let’s have a moment of honesty here:  how many times have you taken a survey and lied? From the doctor’s office (“I always take my vitamins and exercise 5 times a week!”) to a survey about your home energy habits (“I always turn all the lights off when I leave the house!”) – the reality is more likely that you hit the gym once a week if you’re lucky, and your house is lit up like a Christmas tree because your energy costs are too low to hit you where it hurts.

If a healthcare company took the doctor’s office data at face value, they would think none of their potential customers have bad health habits. By the same token, the home energy company would assume that everyone attempts to be a responsible steward of natural resources. In taking these answers at face value, they’ve missed a valuable opportunity to observe the space between what people say they do, and what they actually do. Spoiler alert – it’s usually different. That’s where the best ethnographers and designers employ observation-based research to understand the real truth around customer needs in order to design the right offerings. Offerings that make a customer say, “I didn’t even know I needed this, but now I can’t live without it.”  And this type of research should not just be employed during an upfront Discovery phase – it’s iterative throughout.

Customer insight should be continually leveraged to deliver the “good design” that every consumer has come to expect – regardless of your company type or offering.

3. Creating an Environment Where Design Can Thrive.

Look around you in your work environment right now. Are you in a space that inspires you to design, to create, to build, to make? Do you have a diverse group of people at your fingertips to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with? Do you have the tools to sketch and draw? Many companies de-emphasize the importance of spatial and environmental design in their efforts to become design-led; and yet, user experience for their employees is just as important as the user experiences they’re designing for! A thoughtfully and strategically designed space leads to better collaboration and better output, not to mention a space every team member is proud to come into and work at every day.

This does NOT mean I’m advocating to immediately knock down all walls and spend millions of dollars on superfluous details like an extreme color variety of Post-Its, foosball tables, or pour-over coffee stations. I am advocating to take a careful look at the way your employees actually need to work to execute good design.

The authors of Ethonomics: Designing For The Principles Of The Modern Workplace believe the workplace is ripe for reinvention. They say we can get there by using a different approach to design, “to explore new ways to create healthy, inspiring, and sustainable places in which people can feel good about where they are and what they do.”

Three years ago we had the opportunity to do just that – create our own office space to be a place where employees and clients alike would feel inspired to collaborate in and do great work as a result.  We turned the “customer insight gathering” on ourselves to define guiding principles for our own space, including considerations for the right areas of collaboration space; be it heads-down work, team work in project rooms or opportunities for serendipitous moments to connect and build; or the need for natural light and long views to directly impact team member’s health and wellbeing. This user-centric design approach to our space named IA Collaborative one of the 7 Most Exciting Workspaces in the World by Curbed in 2016, and we continue to iterate and evolve what the space can do to impact our team and work.

One great aspect of environment and work design – is that prototyping in this arena can cost almost nothing and be iterated on very quickly. Start by observing team member behaviors; see their challenges and barriers firsthand. If the water cooler is the only place for serendipitous interactions that inspire cross discipline collaboration – create more of those spaces. If employees need a mix of “heads down” focus time and active collaboration time; create space for both. If you have beautiful chairs and couches but nobody is actually sitting in them, find out why. Immerse yourself in the experience of your employees and you will be inspired to make more than a few changes.


Make Designing for Business Value a Reality

I’ve provided three actionable ways to start considering your company’s path to creating a design culture for business impact – and admittedly, there are many more interconnected and important steps to take to truly allow design to take root and flourish in our organization. However, I hope this has inspired you to make even one change and stretch the way you consider design in your company. We believe that it only takes one person to start the change, one action to get your team talking, one customer visit or even one day of working differently to be energized to help your company create tangible goals. Starting with any one of these steps – on a small or grand scale, will unlock business value that is just waiting to be discovered.


(1) “Design in Tech Report.” KCPB. 2016. http://www.kpcb.com/blog/design-in-tech-report-2016

(2) “Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study.” IBM. 2014. https://www-01.ibm.com/common/ssi/cgi-bin/ssialias?htmlfid=GBE03297USEN