Health-care companies, nonprofits and industrial giants are among those tapping these and other designers to conceive not just gadgets but new software, business strategies and even school systems. The expansion has happened gradually but is accelerating as firms seek to connect with design-savvy customers.
IDEO, a prominent 21-year-old Bay Area-based design firm, says that today less than half of its business comes from designing products, which was once its main focus. One recent project involves a private school system in Peru called INNOVA Schools. The work, backed by Peruvian businessman Carlos Rodriguez Pastor, includes designing a curriculum, classrooms and its business model.
"People are probably thinking: Those are the guys who created laptops, and you wouldn't think they would be designing a school system," says Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. But he says that as businesses get better at delivering great experiences, consumers come to expect that from everyone.
At the same time, the growth of design-focused technology brands such as Apple Inc. AAPL -0.30% has made design trendy. "Steve Jobs has definitely given us credibility in the business world," says Yves Behar, founder of San Francisco-based Fuseproject Inc. and chief creative officer at Jawbone Inc.
Fuseproject's client base now ranges from start-ups to furniture maker Herman Miller and a birth-control distribution project run by the New York Department of Health "I see every segment of the economy being very concerned about design," says Mr. Behar, who earlier in his career helped design Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HPQ +2.78% first home-computer business.
Designers at IDEO worked on early designs for the computer mouse in the 1980s.
Frog Design Inc., which designed some of the first Apple computers in the 1980s, is seeing growing demand from the public sector. The San Francisco-based design firm is currently working on about half a dozen projects in this sphere. A few years ago, it only had one at a time, says Robert Fabricant, vice president of creative for Frog.
The firm plans to expand its work with Unicef in Rwanda to a mobile maternal and neonatal health system. The system allows workers to register pregnant women, text-message their symptoms into a system and receive alerts if they have reported anything that suggests a woman needs urgent medical help.
The Unicef project is being funded in part by General Electric Co.'s GE +0.84% foundation. GE is a client of Frog. The partnership is an example of the new type of funding arrangements, where clients support nonprofit projects.
"The relationship is mutually beneficial," says Erica Kochi, who jointly leads Unicef's innovation unit. She says Unicef needs to be able to offer forms and products that are easier for on-the-ground workers. "Frog has a growing number of clients in mobile space, and it allows them to have more of an edge over competitors," she says.
Moitreyee Sinha, a manager at the GE Foundation, says working with Frog helps the foundation "understand what is really going to be helpful for the health workers instead of creating a burden." She added that the foundation is always looking to bring "good business practices" to development work.
The design firms declined to comment on what percentage of their business comes from the new areas or on their fees, which vary widely based on the project and arrangement with the company. Many of the new public-service-related projects are pro bono or funded by clients, and they aren't expected to be big businesses.
But the number of new types of clients is growing fast, as businesses taking cues from tech firms are trying to make their products and services more intuitive and appealing.
Cancer-diagnosis company Foundation Medicine Inc. turned to Frog about a year ago to design new ways to present its tumor-sequencing data to oncologists. They plan to release their latest collaboration—a website that will provide doctors with an array of information such as the genomic alterations causing the cancer to grow, and new clinical trials that may be relevant to their patients—in the coming weeks.
Mike Pellini, chief executive of the Cambridge, Mass., firm, says Frog championed the idea of designing the website around the data formats and work flow oncologists are accustomed to. "We have to be more user-friendly," he says.