Banks have new designs on design in the digital world.

Once regarded by some as trivial, design is becoming central to banks' efforts to differentiate themselves on mobile and other electronic platforms.

BBVA's acquisition last week of user-experience and design firm Spring Studio, and Capital One's purchase last fall of a similar kind of company, Adaptive Path, put a fine point on the new reality. Both targets are relatively small shops in San Francisco that employ skilled, relatively young design talents.

To be sure, banks have been customers of digital design firms for years. But bringing the function in-house underscores how the race within digital banking is quickly gaining momentum as more people interact with their banks through screens of varying size.

"Acceptance of design thinking is spreading like wildfire throughout the industry right now," said Daniel Van Dyke, a research specialist at Javelin Strategy & Research.

The approach demands much more than expert advice on what fonts to use. Rather, designers are helping banks develop experiences their customers want at a time when more threats are emerging from tech giants like Google and Apple.

Mark Jamison, BBVA's director of customer experience and business intelligence, said digital platforms' look, feel and usefulness can provide a competitive edge in an industry whose products are increasingly commoditized.

"The best design is done far in advance," Jamison said. And it can be applied to more than new-product development, he said, by using it to improve existing services such as online account opening, an area that banks widely recognize to be in desperate need of a makeover.

Design thinking demands a focus on customers' needs and a willingness to embrace trial and error — all of which is gospel in Silicon Valley but newer to traditional banks. Such techniques also jibe with the larger trend of big financial services companies like Wells Fargo and FIS running innovation labs test new ideas and collaborate with promising entrepreneurs.

Smaller banks, which typically lack the budget to acquire design firms, are also working to finesse the digital experiences they deliver. Some, like Lincoln Savings Bank in Iowa, are partnering with startups like Qapital, which has developed a user experience for acquiring savings accounts through digital channels. Others, like Eastern Bank in Boston, have carved out budget for experimentation.

The standards for good experiences are being set by varied industries, said Jim Simpson, the founder and chief strategy officer of digital banking consultancy agency FinTech Interactive.

"If it's not up to par with [customers'] Uber or Pandora app or Mint.com site, [they] scream tired and boring," Simpson, a former community banker, wrote in an interview by email.

The user experience will gain even more importance as additional features come to mobile banking apps.

Javelin's Van Dyke, for one, describes BBVA's purchase of Spring Studio as a natural fit for a bank that already offers more mobile features than most of its rivals, including letting people sign up for accounts, search for data within the app and use smartphone cameras to enter in biller information.

"What good is a range of capabilities if consumers can't interact in a way that's pleasing?" Van Dyke said. "Turning attention to design makes perfect sense and plays into [BBVA's] core strength and is a cherry on top."

Plus, the firm it has acquired is versed in the industry. Spring Studio has helped Flexscore pursue its digital money management vision. It has also helped Rabobank, a Dutch financial services company, create a Web experience that can be tailored to local communities.

Spring Studio, which will operate independently, will be tasked to design products and services for BBVA's U.S. and South American markets. Spring Studio reports to the global design team, but it is primarily dedicated to BBVA Compass and accountable to that business, Jamison said.

Jamison sees the acquisition as the latest example of the bank's strategy to accelerate toward its ultimate ambition as "the best digital bank in the world."

The Spring Studio team also helps BBVA continue to raise its profile in a city recognized as a rich source of digital talent. "If you want to be a great digital bank, you need a presence in San Francisco," Jamison said.