Thursday, September 25, 2008

Re: Core 77 - rough guide to the future

Do You Matter? How great design will make people love your company certainly isn't afraid to demand attention. All of the details -- bright orange cover, too-tall proportions, monster san-serif titles, limited color-palate, grid-adherence so obsessive that even the cover format is the same as the pages within -- just scream "I've been overdesigned to look simple!" Combined with the existentially accusatory title, it certainly succeeds in demanding audience participation, but it's a book, not a graphic design experiment, and for it to matter to the audience, it needs to keep the reader's attention too.

Robert Brunner, an industrial designer for some of Apple's most iconic products, and Stewart Emery, author of Success Built to Last, pose a deceptively simple question: Do you (as a company) matter (to your customers)? Perhaps a more intuitive phrasing of their titular interrogative might be, "If you were gone tomorrow, would your customers miss you?" That's nothing new in business circles. It's just a retelling of product differentiation, a mainstay of marketing and competitive landscape analysis. The added value here is in the subtitle: "How great design will make people love your company," and Brunner and Emery are here to explain the role design can play in the competitive arena. The book is targeted at corporate America rather than designers, so Core77's readership ought to be familiar with the design side of the material. That said, design and business overlap, so while designers might benefit from the business side more than they might care to admit, the real benefit would come if a few more middle managers read material like this.

These days, even the pages of the Wall Street Journal and Forbes are singing the praises of design and Business Week even devotes a whole issue to the Best Product Design of the Year. Do You Matter? highlights this newly recognized collision of business and design. Structured as a series of topics by way of case studies on companies who have found relevance through innovation, the book spends a lot of time on the usual suspects: Apple, Nike, Apple, BMW, Apple, and finally, as a coda, OXO, just to make sure the last five years of IDEO and Smart Design consulting work were well covered. While it might be new to some in business, this material should be old hat for Core's readership.


Occasionally the book's endless coverage of the Steve Jobs juggernaut makes it seem like an extended infomercial, but since Apple is one of the clearest examples of a design culture in the world and Brunner happens to be intimately familiar with the company, I can't fault him too much for his Applephilia. The rest of the media is, after all, on the same bandwagon. Trying to explain Apple's success in terms of Apple products, however, winds up sounding more like a string of aphorisms and accolades than a corporate roadmap. Along the way, design laypeople might learn some interesting lessons about the need to be customer oriented and about the way design needs to be a cultural shift rather than an afterthought, but although the design emphasis is new, the core business concepts have been well covered before.

Instead, where Do You Matter? gets interesting is when it addresses companies struggling to figure out just how design can help them matter. The contrast between Samsung's ascension and Motorola's failure to follow the RAZR with another breakthrough product makes for a far more interesting tale than hearing about companies we already know have strong design narratives.

Although the middle of the book labors through a string of somewhat repetitive examples (BMW is an aspirational brand, Whole Foods is a nice place to shop, etc.), the authors close with actionable advice, formulating the acronym "FLAVOR," meaning Focus, Long-term, Authentic, Vigilant, Original, and Repeatable, which actually gets to the heart of what values businesspeople should try to instill in their companies to make them relevant. The real trouble with talking about "Authenticity," a design culture, or mattering from the customer's perspective is that the concepts are elegant and simple to understand, but extraordinarily nuanced and difficult to execute.


What seems to be missing, actually, is the methodology for successful design. Everyone can recognize the artistry in a Rembrandt, even if they can't paint it. Likewise, it doesn't take a professional industrial designer to appreciate the elegance of the iPod interface or the way that all of the controls in a European sports car seem to be in just the right places. Intuitive recognition of design seems to be an innate human ability (certainly of the buying public) and yet bad design prospers. What's needed is a clear and iterative process for making sure that products are refined and developed until they become good design.

Designers already know this process: prototype, test, revise, repeat (Donald Norman's Emotional Design covers the user experience that Brunner and Emery treasure from a design rather than a business perspective). Sadly, business often expects or reaches for a shortcut, trying to tack design on as an afterthought, where it needs to be addressed from the very beginning. Do You Matter? won't exactly be an eye-opener for most industrial designers. Indeed the author podcast makes it clear that business leaders are the target audience. Fortunately for Core's readership, from a personal perspective, the answer to the title question is a resounding yes. Brunner and Emery have literally written a book saying that industrial designers are the answer to corporate irrelevance! So while designers may not learn much from Do You Matter?, it would be in all of our best interests to get a copy in the hands of senior managers everywhere.

It's heartening to think that large corporations would make sure that their products/services/sales offices are aesthetically pleasing as a business plan. But the main problem isn't that big companies don't want their products to look good, it's that no one can agree exactly what "good" looks like. Taking chances just isn't in their blood. Imitating the prevailing trend is. So as long as companies like Apple, Nike, et al are making money while pushing the envelope, there's a chance for designers to make headway creating products that aren't just functional, but worth keeping in a portfolio. Here's hoping the message goes through.