The most successful brands in this digital era have something in common — a dedication to design-led customer experiences. For these brands, design is not about a logo, an app, packaging, or a campaign — though it often includes those things. It’s about engaging customers with compelling experiences and stories, so that design takes a central role in every aspect of the business. Design has a key seat at the strategy table.

We recently had the chance to sit down with some of the world’s top design leaders at companies including Chobani, COLLINS, IBM, R/GA and Sonos to get their perspective on the role design plays in their success.

Every leader we spoke with came from different industries and different backgrounds, but we discovered a remarkable consistency in their design philosophy, as well as their practical advice for managing the challenges of digital transformation. Here’s what we learned:

Put customers at the center of design

The secret power of digital experiences is the opportunity they create for brands to forge a new kind of relationship with their customers—one that’s deeper, more informed, more personal and constantly connected.

The challenge is doing it well. Customers expect more. They want brands to know and remember them. They demand access to information, products, and problem solving 24/7. And, they never — ever — want to wait. That’s why good design always starts and ends with the customer.  “Design isn’t about what designers create, it’s about what they enable the customer to achieve,” says Brian Collins, CEO/chief creative officer of COLLINS, a brand experience design firm.

Another fundamental truth? With digital transformation happening everywhere, the options customers have for interacting with brands have radically expanded. There’s a growing surface area of touchpoints that every brand needs to engage with.

“They’re accessing content from Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, on the web, through email, and through small videos,” notes Richard Ting, EVP and chief experience officer for R/GA. Design plays a key role in establishing a coherent, consistent, and engaging customer relationship across this increasingly fragmented landscape.

Design is also important for enabling interactivity and access in every aspect of a brand’s business. Customers expect two-way communication and real-time feedback with relevant information from people who represent the brand. Therefore, design must extend more deeply across the business and the customer-facing experience.  It needs to enable every employee in every part of the business to act with coordination and consistency in support of the customer.

“Every single interaction, across every single touchpoint, impacts the experience,” says Leland Maschmeyer, chief creative officer at Chobani. “It’s not just the researcher’s job to figure out what the customers’ needs are — it’s also the designers, the art directors, and the copywriters’ jobs to tap into that emotional need and to position the company to satisfy that need.”

A common challenge — designing for efficiency, pace, and scale

Placing customers at the center of design may sound like a simple cognitive shift. But the reality of meeting and exceeding customer expectations against the expanding surface of touchpoints in an always-on, always-accessible world is daunting. “There’s expectation on both the brand side and the customer side to have access both ways, 365 days a year. It has to be always on and always accessible,” says Elizabeth Kiehner, global design director for IBM.

It’s a challenge of pace, but also one of scale. Global brands need to engage customers and build relationships with tens of thousands of customers at a time. It takes massive amounts of data and content to engage each customer with personal and meaningful experiences at every step of the customer journey. Effective design needs to be efficient, as well as engaging.

The design leaders we spoke with outlined some common ground for tackling the challenge:

Do your research. To engage your customers, you need to understand them. To do that at scale, you start with research and data. It’s impossible to “know” each customer individually, but you can identify relevant audience segments and develop detailed customer journeys that make it feel as if you do. “It all starts with design research and doing the right level of contextual inquiry, and forensics, and actually going out into the world and talking to people,” Elizabeth says.

Balance virtuosity with velocity. It’s easy to get so caught-up in the need to design with speed and efficiency that it can feel like creativity takes a back seat. But creativity is critical, especially as applied to proactive problem solving. As customer touchpoints expand and transform, brands and designers need to be prepared to anticipate what their customers will need, and work hard to get to that experience first. It requires efficiency and scale, balanced with customer-focused problem solving and creativity.  Or, as Brian puts it, “you need virtuosity with velocity.”

Tell amazing stories. Brands who do design well transcend the appearance of the experiences they’re creating. It’s about the underlying stories they are able to tell through design. “There’s a musicality to great design that is intangible. Good design is functional, but great design has a rhythm and an emotion to it,” Leland says. “What that means is that every single thing we do has to be infused with story. Formal beauty is great, but there has to be story and meaning behind all of it.”

Leverage collaborative brand-agency relationships. Brands and agencies need to work together to move into the adjacent markets and opportunities created by digital transformation.  That takes relationship building, collaboration, and trust. “So many of the new opportunities that our clients bring us are based on the client’s trust in us. That trust is a bridge to the future, to new work, and to new disciplines,” Brian says.