I have been a big believer in design and the benefits not only to consumers, but to the bottom line. There are various studies out there which show that there are direct financial benefits to “good” design but its interesting to see which companies are heading down the design path and for what reasons.

In a recent Bloomberg article, HP is focusing on design to help it widen its lead over 2nd place Dell in terms of sales of computers. With an eye to Apple, it has started producing machines in a variety of colors and materials that challenge previous wisdom that computers are “boring beige boxes.”

Taking a page from one of its competitors is nothing new in the PC business but HP is aiming to deliver “lighter, more stylish laptops at prices that beat or match those of Dell. With little to separate the machines’ performance, design may be the tipping point.” As Roger Kay president of researcher Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland, Massachusetts explains, “They’re not charging a premium for design — they’re just doing great design.”

What is really interesting is the way HP is introducing design to its line-up. Since the company started to understand that design is a differentiator, they have made “cultural shifts” in order to foster this type of thinking within the ranks. In an early meeting with designers, PC chief Todd Bradley told employees that PCs should be an “object of desire and possession” and that designers had permission to explore form and function not just cut costs. “Not only did they have the permission to be creative and design beautiful products, it was a mandate,” said Bradley, 49. “We made design a very visible priority.”

The team even has a different physical environment in which to work reflecting the increased focus on design with frosted glass Hermann Miller partitions rather than the grey cubes housing workers in the rest of the company.

The team is challenged to think about all aspects of the value chain, not only the end product. For instance, the company is re-thinking its shipping process, slimming down the amount of packaging used not only to cut costs and get more units on a skid but using less polystyrene is better for the environment. In looking at the way colors and designs are laid down on the laptop cases the company switched to a process called imprinting which is used in car detailing and fuses the designs right onto the material. This has improved the yield of units coming off the assembly line to 90% from 60%. In fact HP is working with BestBuy to offer special edition notebooks to target groups such as students, gamers and women.

This focus on design is estimated in a recent Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. report to help boost sales 6% over its rivals in the coming year as customers in challenging times become more discerning in their PC purchases. Not one to be outdone, Dell has introduced new colors to its laptop line and is rumoured to be completely revamping its line-up within the year.