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A Radical Shift Toward Design

2011 October 2

Henry Ford reportedly once said, “People can have the Model T in any color – so long as it’s black.”

The quote, at once a tribute to the man’s practicality as well as his cantankerousness, lives on because it’s such a quintessential a sign of both the man’s life and times that it seems quaint today.

In our own age, the shift is becoming complete, radical even.  Design, once a nice touch, is emerging as the product itself.  Where once nations scoured the earth looking to import raw materials in order to manufacture products, the future will belong to those who can generate the most powerful ideas.

The Industrial Age

Henry Ford, of course, didn’t exist in a vacuum, but was a product of his age.  In 1900, few had indoor plumbing, the average life expectancy was 46 and even the concept of the atom was still controversial.  Life was, by contemporary standards, nasty, brutish and short.

Progress meant improving the basic functionality of life.  The cars that Henry Ford built were difficult to use, but they got you where you needed to go.  The challenge was to produce them in mass quantities at a price that would spur adoption.  Black paint dried quicker than other colors and therefore helped him do that, hence the famous quote.

Many other entrepreneurs of the 19th and early 20th century, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, worked on similar principles.  They increased quantity, quality and functionality while lowering price.  That, in essence, was what the industrial age was about.  Life got immeasurably better, but uglier and less natural too.

Atoms vs. Bits

Clearly, things have changed.  We no longer worry very much about basic necessities. That doesn’t mean that we’ve conquered global poverty, but it’s much less of a problem. Go to even remote parts of the world and you will be sure to see people walking around with mobile phones, a wide array of consumer products and houses with satellite dishes.

Further, we’ve begun to value products differently.  In the industrial age, we prized how they manipulated matter and energy.  A good car went fast, handled well and was made of durable parts.

Today, however, we prize products that move information well.  Google’s algorithms don’t cost any more to run than anybody else’s nor do they depend on special materials.  It is the ideas behind them that make them powerful.

However, the trend goes far beyond the software/hardware dichotomy.   Factories today are less Dickensian sweatshops (although those still exist) than they are hi-tech complexes of robotics and code guided by highly skilled engineers.   Information has become the ultimate raw material, creativity the “killer app.”

Manufacturing On Demand

The next step in the trend is products that can be manufactured at the molecular level with the press of a button.  Take a look here to get an idea what’s ahead:

The capabilities of 3-D printers are moving fast.  Previously only for plastic resin based prototypes, they are now being deployed to use super-strong titanium alloys for aircraft parts and, just like Star Trek, even food.

Crossing the Chasm

Looking at history only gives half of the story.  The shift to design becomes even more apparent when you look what happens as products move up the adoption cycle.

When an early innovation comes to market, there will undoubtedly be a small amount of people who are excited about it.  After all, it can do things nothing else has been able to do before.  That’s cool and the “cool crowd” gets it immediately.  They are enchanted by their new toy and start advocating it to friends.  Adoption increases.

There is, however, a problem.  The new product doesn’t work very well, it’s hard to use and it’s expensive as many disruptive innovations tend to be.  Many people can’t see the point in shelling out big money to buy a product that confuses them, makes them feel stupid and the final product experience doesn’t seem worth the effort.

That’s when a change in the basis of competition happens.  Success begins to become less a matter of features and functions and depends more on the interaction with the user.  In other words, less on engineering (in the classical sense of the word) and more on design.

This is called crossing the chasm and it usually results in a change of category leadership. Much to the chagrin of early innovators, consumers will often buy inferior products that offer greater convenience.

Why We Love Apple

By all rights, we should hate Apple.  Steve Jobs, as I’ve noted before, can be a prickly sort. The company rarely brings anything truly new to market.  They weren’t the first digital music player, the first smart phone or even really the first tablet.  In fact, they usually come late, don’t play well with others and jack up the price.  Ugh!

Yet we don’t hate Apple.  We love them!  Why?  Because their products are an absolute delight to use.  Their Apple stores teach even the most hopeless Luddite how to use technology easily and integrate it with their life seamlessly.  Their products seem pioneering because they are the first in their category that most people can easily use.

In short, they win not by innovation or even (to a certain extent) better engineering, but by design.  The look, feel and user experience of their products so far surpasses their competitors, we almost wouldn’t think of buying anything else.  That’s what made them the world’s most valuable company.

The Passion Economy

Design then, is taking on a new importance.  As Seth Godin notes in this post, design has become much more than making things look pretty, but a source of greater efficiency.  It’s cheaper to design quality into a manufacturing process than it is to inspect and fix errors. It’s cheaper to design an easy-to-use product than it is to spend more on customer service.

However, great design is easier said than done.  Creating and disseminating ideas through bits, constantly and continually improving products and getting people with diverse skills to work effectively toward a common goal requires inspiring and focusing passion more than anything else.

This is the essence of what I call the Passion Economy.  Excellence is no longer only about efficiencies and capabilities, those have become prerequisites.  Great companies and great products now depend on beliefs and desires embedded in design.  It’s no accident that Steve Jobs attributes his extraordinary success not to engineering, but calligraphy.

In today’s marketplace, function will only get you to the game, it takes passionate design to win.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. September 26, 2012

    You are a very astute dude.

  2. September 26, 2012


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