Return on design investment and why everyone should measure it

Over the last fifteen years or so there has been a steadily increasing desire for design to prove its commercial value, to demonstrate to clients that their investment is tangibly worth it.

This has been driven by a number of factors: the recession of the early 1990s demanded that design stake its claim to straitened budgets; above the line advertising reaches fewer and fewer people, so companies are looking for other routes to achieve a return on marketing investment; and perhaps design is growing up as an industry – recognising itself, and being recognised by clients, as a commercial tool, not just an exercise in beautifying. Other areas of marketing communications already operate on a strictly commercial basis, so why shouldn’t design?

More clients are asking tough commercial questions of their design projects, measuring and assessing as they go. And switched on designers will talk in terms of business objectives right from the outset, maybe before the design brief is actually nailed down. But even so, measuring return on investment (ROI) is notoriously difficult. So why bother?

For designers, understanding the return delivered to clients can help in demonstrating the commercial benefits of using design services. This can establish designers as a credible business service, like the legal, marketing or advertising teams clients already employ.

For businesses, understanding how different investments profit the company is an obvious aid in planning and allocating budgets most effectively. An empirical ROI measure may also help to convince financiers to take a risk and release money for a design and development project.

Even if it is hard to achieve, attempting to gain some measure of ROI in design is of value to both consultancy and client because it creates a mutually supporting commercial framework.