Surviving the Ills of Design Fever

Everyone talks about how design is finally becoming recognized as an important part of building businesses -- of any kind. People have gone from thinking that good advertising and the right "branding" are what sell products to understanding that well-designed products sell themselves. But it's critical that design doesn't become simply the business strategy du jour. If design becomes "design" -- an aesthetic add-on emptied of emotion and ideas -- then we will lose the impact that made design powerful to begin with.

When I hear A.G. Lafley, the president and chairman of Procter & Gamble (PG), declare that "mass marketing is dead" or have another Fortune 100 client tell me that advertising budgets 10 years from now will be half of what they are today, I wonder: Where will that money will go?


  My hope is that investments will go toward innovation -- more specifically, toward financing the costs and risks demanded by innovation: New infrastructures, operation changes, and manufacturing facilities. Good design starts with good R&D.

My fear is that companies will jump on the "design" bandwagon, bringing a lot of resurfaced, shiny objects to market in an effort that will inevitably fail when these products neglect to deliver on the promise of a better experience and long-term brand attributes. This would give design a bad name. Unfortunately, we already see this happening with the proliferation of me-too iPod products, messages, and marketing. When design is skin deep, it fails to build anything of long-term relevance.

So, how do we -- as a profession -- avoid this? It's not easy. It means giving up some short-term design contracts and going cold-turkey on the idea that there's even such a thing as a quick design fix. What follows is what I call a "design-for-design's-sake recovery program"

Step 1: Say no to "me-too" briefs

If the client asks for the next iPod, your answer should be, "Are you the next Steve Jobs?" Original thought is what defines Apple (AAPL) and what every company needs. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, every other booth showed a different take on the popular MP3 player -- none of which brought any significant innovation to the market. Original thought and unique strategy was completely and obviously absent from those me-too products. Why? I'll get to that, but first my next point.

Step 2: Design from the inside out

The word "experience" is overused these days, but it is clear that people are not looking for just another product, they want emotional connection with what they own. According to research presented by nVision at the Future Foundation Conference in 2004, people today want to "fulfill themselves." In the last 10 years, the ranked value of "new experiences" moved from ninth to fourth place. Conversely, "owning things" dropped from fourth to ninth place.

To return to the me-too iPods, the main reason for their failure is the fact that they all work around the same basic platform. By letting Microsoft (MSFT) dictate the internal workings of the units, designers are reduced to making endless new book covers for the same story. In contrast, look at the new Apple Shuffle. The designers did more than just remove features, they created a new category of music player with a totally new story -- and inevitably another hit for Apple.

Step 3: Go for the fringes

The fringe is the new middle. Mass marketing is dead because the mass is being displaced by varied and divergent small groups. These new consumers, (dubbed "prosumers" for their proactive stance by Bruce Mau in his Massive Change project), are globally informed, sophisticated, and, most of all, will not accept being treated like a mass. Conventional marketing measures can't predict their taste. The mediocre middle -- the so-called mass market -- is shrinking as early adopters and cultural creatives increasingly influence the mainstream.

I assure you that no focus group told Apple that what they really wanted was a digital music player that held less music and had fewer features -- including no screen. Besides, what was the last successful product that actually passed this mighty test? Not the Aeron chair, not the iPod, not the laptop.

Besides, clients spend way too much time and money on focus-group testing. They would be better off looking beyond the answers given by consumers today in order to try to anticipate the needs and wants of tomorrow. A company's CEO or president needs to exercise the responsibility for art direction. CEOs might tell you that they are in touch with the world and know what consumers want, but do CEOs have the vision to make creative decisions two to four years out?

That's our job as designers. Today in the design profession really means several years from now, because technology development and product innovation take years. The development of a unique vision and the ability to resolve and direct the evolution of that vision is a priority that is often delegated rather than harnessed by top management. Looking into the future is easier than it sounds, but to see it coming you must first...

Step 4: Stop looking at what everyone else is doing

How many times have I seen and heard about businesses and marketing folks so focused on competing against each other that they lose any character of their own in the process? So here's another piece of advice: Invent your own strategy, your own product specs, your own character. The time of the faceless, aimless corporation is over: What people want is personality, point of view, and character.

Designers are so used to this "fact of business" that often they themselves have forgotten the road to originality. We need to stop judging designs by the Eames scale. The genius of Charles and Ray Eames was in the way they responded to the social and industrial contexts of their time. Today's contexts are different. Designers face new and different challenges that require new processes and different ways of solving problems.

The impetus for our work is not found in what others do, but in the fundamental blend of personal belief and vision, and the empathic understanding of the client's unique challenges.

Step 5: Focus on culture

All businesses need to focus on culture. If your product or design is not participating in the culture, you are on your way to irrelevance. Designers must remember who the real client is -- the culture at large. And if you practice design with the meter running, solutions will soon be detached from the culture they are hoping to reach. We must not forget that the main reason to be a part of culture is that it makes us better at what we do -- touching the emotions and desires of the public.

Recent attempts to codify what good design is fail to educate the public and corrupt our sense of what makes our work successful. Let's stop using whatever we can find to evaluate what good design is or to justify our work. If it made money, it's good design. If it's in a museum, it's good design. If it cost less to make, it's good design. These parameters are so obtuse, they reduce the very diversity that makes design work influential.

Now that design is being recognized as a business driver, we as a profession have a great opportunity. If all of us, together, recognize that each problem we are brought in to solve, each strategy we are presenting, is not about short-term gains but about creating new sensory experiences and bringing stories to life, we all will prosper. And design will take its rightful place at the crossroads of art and commerce, the center stage in the world in which we live.

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