top of page

Design-led innovation in the service sector

Be honest: when you see the word ‘design’, what do you think?

People often think of design as purely aesthetic; in truth, it’s practical too, a matter of form and function. The phrase “form follows function” is attributed to Victorian polymath William Morris, or modernist architect Louis Sullivan, or sometimes to Braun designer Dieter Rams – who insists that he never said it, and that his career has emphasised functionality.

Whoever coined it; the idea is that in good design, everything works together. Form doesn’t follow function, or overtake it; the two work in harmony. Engineers, designers and managers create objects and processes which are beautiful and operate beautifully. It’s not a new idea – but not every brand gets it right first time.

Successful service industry brands approach every aspect of their operations with a design mindset, asking themselves what they’re trying to do, how they can make it work, and how they can do it like nobody else does. The three brands under our lens here have all adopted a design-led approach which focuses on functionality – designing an experience which works for their customers, without giving up on aesthetics – and they’ve all profited from it.


Ibis pride themselves on delivering an affordable hotel experience, but they haven’t scrimped on design. New Ibis hotels are designed, built and run under the ‘Ibis Styles’ brand.

This brand isn’t about a solid, predictable aesthetic that ultimately becomes drab after you’ve stayed in your third Ibis hotel. It’s about individual designers creating tailored environments, making hotels that harmonise with their locations and don’t look or feel “budget” in the slightest.

Designer Philip Watts – whose vision has transformed Ibis’ latest acquisition, the Portland Street Hotel in Manchester – says it’s about rejecting the “po-faced luxury” of designer hotels. According to Watts, Ibis puts “an emphasis on design but without the pretension.”

Ibis’ design vision is to have every Ibis hotel harmonise with the city around it – it’s a far cry from the identikit aesthetic and experience offered by other budget hotel brands. Accordingly, the Ibis hotel in Leeds looks nothing like the Ibis in Manchester.

The result? A lively, engaging brand which manages to offer the consistent quality of a brand identity, and the bespoke aesthetic of an independent hotel. It pays off, too: Ibis’ brand owners, Accor, reported 4.6% growth in 2016.


While Ibis’ vision is focused on aesthetics, Metrobank’s design innovation is all about the user experience. The first new high street bank in a hundred and fifty years has broken the rules and redesigned the process of banking for customers.

Metrobank branches open later, to suit customers who aren’t free during the usual working hours. Their managers are trained to remember names. Machines and counters are accessible and easy to use. The service is integrated fully with Apple Pay and online functionality, rather than bolting them onto the old way of doing things.

What are the competition doing? Changing their logos. Addressing form, but ignoring function. Metrobank is making changes that customers want and need – and after a rocky start,  Metrobank is set to report its first full year of profits. And with that success, so other banks have followed suit: Barclays, Natwest, Nationwide and more announcing branch redesigns and customer-focused projects in the pipeline.


Design-led innovation can also help a beleaguered brand turn itself – and its reputation – around. Ryanair has a history of dire customer service and experience, motivated by an attitude some way south of contemptuous. After a £28.7m loss in Q3 for 2013, Ryanair was effectively forced to redesign the experience of flying.

Unlike Metrobank, this meant being more conventional – introducing allocated seating and straightforward booking, and removing the fines for customers bringing a surfeit of luggage. Like Metrobank, however, Ryanair designed its new process and operations around the customer experience.

The new and improved Ryanair experience is smoother, less sales-driven, and makes a point of accommodating families and early morning fliers, altering its process to accommodate their needs. They’re letting people sleep on early morning flights, not waking them up for hard sells; they’re offering discounts for children’s luggage and bottle warming services. The result? A 66% leap in profits during the new service’s first year, and a polish to their tarnished reputation.

User experience is a huge part of brand loyalty. A brand that can guarantee individuality like Ibis Styles hotels, accessibility like Metrobank, or personalised services like Ryanair is in a stronger place than one which puts itself before its users.

If you need another example, consider what happened when Apple started making software and hardware that were easy to use as well as looking different. Brands can’t change the way their sector works by looks alone.

The message is clear. Design-led innovation in form and function helps. It makes brands stand out from their competitors, and it has a solid benefit at the bottom line.

What will you do to adopt it in your business?

bottom of page