July 30, 2010

News & Opinion: Design Is How It Works

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 12:53 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Jay Greene's Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products Into Icons was published this week by Portfolio. It's an interesting overview of companies that have integrated a design philosophy into their business model, releasing products that don't just look nice, but function and satisfy customer interests on many levels.

Obvious choices like Apple and Nike are covered, but the more interesting ones were the less obvious choices like Ace Hotels (turntables in their rooms!), Clif Bar, and Oxo. And I admit I was momentarily transported back to my youth when reading the chapter on Lego.

The concept is really solid: Design Is How It Works. To give our readers more insight, I asked the author a few questions. Hopefully his responses encourage you to pick up a few copies of the book.

Can something look bad, but work well enough to save it?

Jay Greene: Absolutely. But let me step back for a second and define what I mean by design. Design isn’t just the glossy sheen that gets put on a product at the very end of its development. Design isn’t just about aesthetics. Design, as the title of my books says, is how a product or service works.

In many industries, fit and finish is critical - consumer electronics, automobiles, apparel. In those businesses, it’s hard for products to overcome bad looks to succeed. But I’d argue that if you think of design as being merely about looks, you’re thinking too narrowly.

So let’s consider Clif Bar, a company I focus on in the book. Clif Bar makes energy bars for athletes. It’s hard to imagine that any of its products will ever hang on the walls at the Museum of Modern Art. It’d be a stretch to call any of them aesthetically beautiful. For Clif Bar, design is very much about how its products work. The folks at Clif Bar use the tools of designers – a deep understanding of customers, detailed focus on the experience of using the products – to create its products. The company shows how design thinking can be applied to businesses where aesthetics don’t much matter.

How can consumers influence the design of products they like?

JG: This is a tricky question. The companies that do design particularly well study customers and potential customers to understand their needs. Those companies do ethnographic research, observing folks going about their everyday business, to figure out what those consumers want even if they don’t know to ask for it.

The fact is, though, the biggest design breakthroughs are products that customers never really knew they needed. Think about the iPhone, perhaps the most iconic design device of the day. Before it existed, you’d have been hard-pressed to find consumers who could tell you that they wanted a touch-screen phone that offered thousands of applications from an online store. There’s a danger in turning the design process over to consumers, expecting to get the next iPhone, because most customers would never know to ask for it.

What are some ways “non-designers” can better understand design in order to influence it?

JG: I think it starts with a realization that we’re all designers. Sure, there’s a craft called industrial design that requires skills few of us have. But, as I say, design is about much more than the fit and finish of a product. It’s about the experience using those products, and that’s something that everyone can understand.

Think about LEGO, another company I focus on in the book. It has adult customers that border on fanatical. They attend LEGO conventions and subscribe to LEGO magazines. When it was time for LEGO to update Mindstorms, its robotics modeling kit, it asked the most hardcore of those customers to help. Those customers were honored to help and offered valuable insight. LEGO didn’t use every suggestion. But those extreme users knew the product so well that they came up with ideas that more mainstream users would appreciate even if they didn’t know to ask for them.

Most people think of design in terms of a physical thing. How is design important to consider in the business idea itself?

JG: It’s very important. I used a phrase earlier – “design thinking” – to describe the product development process at Clif Bar. In recent years, design thinking has become one of the most talked about business strategies. It’s really the practice of applying the skills designers use to create products to solve all sorts of business challenges, even ones that don’t require a focus on aesthetics.

Industrial designers intuitively use creativity and empathy to help them create something that has an emotional connection with customers. They prototype concepts and collaborate with colleagues to test theories and come up with novel approaches to new products.

Design thinkers apply those concepts to businesses that people don’t typically think of as being design-focused. They use anthropology, sociology and psychology to study customers in order to understand their unstated and unmet needs.

It’s pushed design consulting into all sorts of unexpected areas. One of the most important design firms today is a company called IDEO, based in Palo Alto, Calif. The executives there are big champions of design thinking. They’re pushing it as a management strategy and working with organizations such as the Transportation Security Administration to improve the process of going through airport security.

What is the most surprising discovery you made in researching the book?

JG: I’ve talked a bit about Apple here, and it’s a terrific example of a company that does design well. But I think the most surprising discovery in researching the book – and maybe the most important point of the book – is that the companies that have the most success with design don’t try to mimic Apple. The fact is Apple is not the only company that does design well, and its approach to design isn’t the last word in doing great design.

Just as the companies that thrive most through design don’t copy other products, they also don’t imitate other business strategies. Those companies are management innovators just as much as they’re product innovators. And, in fact, those product innovations wouldn’t likely happen if their business processes and cultures didn’t nurture them.

That’s why I really wanted to focus on companies in a variety of businesses, companies that are large, medium and small, companies that are publicly traded and privately held, and companies from both the United States and abroad. I wanted to make the case that any company can do great design. And I wanted to show that there are many different approaches to doing great design.