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What do Apple, GM, and P&G share? Design.

Companies increasingly are turning to design to boost the bottom line, but the transformation isn't always easy.

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"Design has played a huge role in Apple's success," says Josh Linkner, chairman of ePrize, a brand marketing company based in Detroit whose clients include Coca-Cola, AT&T, and Microsoft. "It's proof that design drives economic gain."

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Other corporations have seen big gains from design. "I see us being in the art business," General Motors's design guru, Robert Lutz, told The New York Times when he took over at floundering GM in 2001 and brought pizazz to the Chevy Camaro, Volt, and Cadillac CTS.

Procter & Gamble, under former chief executive A.G. Lafley, doubled sales and quintupled profits from 2001 to 2009 by hiring design staff to inject "wow" into stale product lines. Mr. Lafley rejuvenated dowdy Oil of Olay by rebranding it to dispel the suspicion it was greasy. Then he launched a consumer-driven packaging and marketing campaign for Olay Regenerist, now the world's top antiaging cream. The make-over boosted sales from $300 million to $2 billion.

Making money with design is not just for big corporations. A 2003 study from the London Business School found that for every 1 percent of sales invested in product design, sales and profits rose by 3 to 4 percent.

Turning design into dollars "has become an enormous trend in the business world for really good reasons," says Kelly O'Keefe, professor and former managing director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter in Richmond. "The commodity that becomes most valuable is the ability to design new, fresh, exciting, innovative products that change the game."

Perhaps that's why a 2010 survey by IBM of more than 1,500 global chief executives in 33 industries found that executives rate creativity the most crucial factor for success. The idea "has flipped over from something that's a bit fringe to a company being defensive if it's not incorporating design," says Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. "They have to explain why they're not hiring designers."

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