Good Design. Good Business. From Competitive Advantage to Survival Tool for the New Economy
I hear a lot of people today talk about “design process” and how it is being applied more frequently to more areas of business. I’ve had the luxury of working around some great designers for a long time and have long understood the benefits of “design thinking”. To follow is a piece I wrote for Jacksonville Magazine back in late 2008 that is more relevant than ever, so I thought I’d repost it.
Recently, while driving to work and listening to automotive executives getting scorched by Congress on satellite radio, I found myself shaking my head in astonishment at these embattled CEO’s. Like many, it wasn’t the “spectacle” of their treatment that shocked me, but the way these top-level leaders seemed plaintively disconnected with us ordinary folk-aka, their customers.
While there are no doubt many forces- economic, political and otherwise which have contributed to their troubles, at the root of it all seems to be a gaping hole in their understanding of the consumers who use their products. They’re not connected to us. We’re not connected to their brands. And that’s what I’d call, a “design problem”.
I’m not referencing the lack of aesthetic refinement of any particular American make or model. Perhaps to the surprise of some, great design isn’t just about looks or style. Nor is it an issue related specifically to engineering, price, performance or service following the sale. Rather, it’s about the cumulative nature of all of these qualities and how a company’s products and services make their customers “feel” over time.
Great design emerges from a specific kind of organizational “culture”. It is guided by a commitment to understanding your customers (and your “brand advocates”, including your internal team and supply chain), on a human level, so that you can connect with them there emotionally. It’s a problem-solving process that can be utilized in every facet of your business. And in today’s world, it is fast becoming not only a powerful competitive advantage for those all-too-familiar companies that clearly “get it” (Apple, Target, BMW), but a survival tool for those hoping to compete in a tumultuous new economy — a world where companies are increasingly being forced to choose between operating as standardized commodities, or class leaders. I’d theorize that the fact that American automakers occupy neither space distinctly or consistently is a potential source of their problems.
So, how can we utilize the power of design to its full potential in our businesses? A great way to start is simply understanding what design is and the methodology behind it. And don’t worry– you don’t have to be Steve Jobs or Michael Graves to do this.
While design was one of my responsibilities years ago, it rarely rose above my roles as a writer, marketer, strategist and generalist. But, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside some great ones for many years, and so have come to understand their processes well. Whether you’re talking about industrial, environmental, graphic, interactive or experiential design or whether you’re referencing product development, marketing, branding or organizational attributes, the methodology remains wonderfully, consistently effective.
It is a process based on inquisition; exploration; anticipation; innovation and continual trial and refinement. It is focused obsessively on user-experience (i.e. What’s in it for the customer?). It’s about fostering positive emotional connections with users by focusing on the most sublime details (this is where professional designers are worth their weight in gold and where brands — some knowingly, some unwittingly — often make that choice between invariable “commodity” or “class leader”). Oh yes, and be forewarned: The design “process” never, ever “ends”, because time inherently presents us with new sets of problems to anticipate and resolve.
Many people fail to recognize design as this type of a problem-solving “tool”. They understand it only as one recent prospective client did, when in the course of attempting to pay our firm a compliment, noted our reputation as a creative agency, and said that we are great at making things, “pretty”.
“Pretty”?!! Please!!! Design isn’t about being “pretty”, “good-looking” or even “kinda cute”. Design is about criteria-based problem-solving. And only when a project’s criteria calls for “pretty”, will it be designed in such a way because form follows function.
This is where much public understanding of design tends to get lost.
You see, design is not art. Art is subjective, based on an artist’s personal expression. Design is objective, based on well-organized performance criteria.
Good design is not influenced by the designer’s personal feelings and is only beautiful when it works beautifully — when it effectively achieves what it is designed to achieve.
My iPod is a work of art. But, it works because it can hold a thousand songs in a smooth, elegant case about the size of a book of matches. Same thing with my iPhone. It’s sleek and beautiful and it’s a working computer that’s thinner than my wallet! These things make me feel good about my purchases of them, good about the Apple brand and thus more likely to purchase the next new gizmo Apple puts in front of me.
I trust the company because they provided me with great products and services that have translated into positive memorable experiences, over time. They’ve elevated their brand for me, to the point where I not only use their products loyally, I’ll pay more to get them, because I recognize the value they extend over the long run through the quality of their design. So often, so many companies waste so much money throwing more media dollars after bad brands, when they could have dedicated their budgets to creating stronger brands that require less marketing across the life of their products!
This is not say that good design has to cost more. Just look at Target. They’ve created a design-driven company, whose entire business model is, “great design for less!” Same with IKEA. Their commitment to design runs throughout their products, retail spaces, marketing efforts and no doubt, their entire internal structure.
Meanwhile, American automakers seem confused. They don’t understand their customers and they’ve admitted it. They say they can’t figure out if we want better gas mileage and lower prices; or more room and greater safety for ourselves, and our families.
Hey, how about both?!
If Steve Jobs can cram 1,000 songs into a gorgeous matchbook; if Target can give us haute couture for $19.99, then we know it can be accomplished! And if you want to make sure your brands transcend the competition in lasting, meaningful ways by connecting with us on an emotional, human level —– then by all means, leave the jets parked on your day trips.
Ultimately, not every company has to be a BMW, UPS, Apple, Starbucks, Disney, Samsung or any other of the many organizations that understand “design culture” and employ it throughout every aspect of their businesses. You can choose to utilize design methodology to attack any individual problem and integrate it to whatever level your personal business philosophy begets – or your customers demand.
Regardless of how you use it, here are some handy tips to help keep you “thinking” like a designer:
1. Define the problem: Gather all the criteria by gathering all the stakeholders. Design is a collaborative process. The more brains you involve in problem-solving, the more effective your solutions can potentially be, though someone should always clearly lead.
2. Put yourself in the place of your customer: It seems so obvious, yet is so easy to forget. You’ve got to intently focus on the user, at all times.
3. Inquire: Ask these important questions: What’s in it for the customer? What are their desires / needs / fears? How can I address these wants / needs or anxieties and foster positive emotional connections with users by answering these concerns? How do my products and services make people feel? How can I connect with them on a human level? (Hint: Use your gut).
4. Anticipate and Innovate: As we are fond of saying at Renaissance, “Think forward”. Anticipate change. Study consumer, cultural, media and technological trends and consider how your product or service might intersect with these shifts down the road.
5. No idea is a bad idea: Everyone has a creative gene, from the Creative Director right down to the mail room. Never be overly critical or dismissive of a new approach. Consider all ideas thoughtfully and respectfully.
6. Never be satisfied: Test your ideas, measure their results and never stop refining.
7. When in doubt, consult a professional.
If you elect not to integrate the principles of design into your organizational culture, it doesn’t mean that you’ll end up sweating in front of a microphone, getting flogged by an elected official. But if you do, I promise that your customers (and your people), will notice. They’ll feel that you care. They’ll stick by your class-leading company in up or down economies. And when they shake their heads, it won’t be because you are so woefully disconnected, but because you are so consistently, astonishingly good.
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