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Design Is Eating The World

2014 September 10
by Greg Satell

Henry Ford famously said that his customers could a car painted in any color so long as it was black.  Many people misunderstand that quote.  It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his customers needs, but that manufacturing efficiency trumped style.

Yet our generation’s greatest entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, considered design so important that he cited a calligraphy course as his most important influence.  For him, design wasn’t just a product’s look and feel, but its function.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a radical shift toward design as a fundamental source of value.  It used to be that design was a relatively narrow field, but today it’s become central to product performance and everybody needs to be design literate.  To get an idea of where its all going, I looked in on how Autodesk is promoting design as a basic skill.

The Evolution Of Design

The industrial revolution democratized consumption.  By rationalizing the production process, things were made vastly cheaper and more plentiful.   The average person living in a developed country today has access to more products and services than even royalty did a century ago.

Yet there have been some trade offs.  In earlier days, craftsmen created products from start to finish, but now each part of the value chain is now highly specialized.  As Leonard Read so aptly pointed out in his 1966 essay,  I, Pencil, even the manufacture of a simple writing implement is beyond the reach of a single person.

This has been especially true of design.  In the days of craftsmen, each product was a singular event.  In an industrial environment, however, a design is repeated thousands or even millions of times.  That leaves no room for whim or fancy, because each element is tightly integrated into a massive industrial complex.  Errors are profoundly expensive.

That, in essence is how Autodesk built its business.  It pioneered software for computer aided design (CAD) so that teams of highly skilled engineers could create, alter and collaborate on designs to make products that perform better at lower cost.

When Atoms Become Bits

We are now in the midst of a new industrial revolution.  In the previous industrial age, design was a somewhat secondary concern.  Production, logistics and marketing accounted for the bulk of a product’s value.  Yet in the new industrial age, bits have replaced atoms as the primary source of value.

In the age of atoms, we prized how products manipulated matter and energy.  A good car went fast, handled well and was made of durable materials.  Yet today, information produces value.  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.

Moreover, distribution is becoming less of a factor as well.  Many products today are purely digital, but we can now also 3D print replacement parts for physical merchandise.  Future technologies, such as 4D printing and programmable matter, will allow us to download entire product lines from the Internet.

The effects of the design-based economy will be highly transformative.  While industrial era firms had the benefit of lags due to retooling and shipping to plan and strategize, design era firms have to perform in real time.  The gap between design, production and distribution will narrow until it disappears altogether.

As Brynjolfsson and McAfee have pointed out, this will create scale without mass.  Firms will go from zero to market dominance in the blink of an eye, only to be usurped by the next design, which will also be simultaneously developed, marketed and shipped.  Design is no longer something applied to products, it is becoming the product itself.

The Drive Toward Design Literacy

Autodesk predicts that the demand for STEM professionals will rise sharply in the years to come—to 8.65 million by 2018—and sees that as a big opportunity for the company.  To help meet the demand, it created the Design the Future program in September 2013, which gives free software access to students as well as curricula and training for educators.

Fred Joseph, a Senior Director at Autodesk, sees the program as crucial to the company’s long-term success, “American companies,” he says, “including many of our customers, have high-paying, yet unfilled positions due to the lack of qualified U.S. high school and university graduates.”

In the short time it’s been in existence, Design The Future has already had some incredible accomplishments.  One 8th grade class used the program to design a prosthetic for a man in their community.  After an experience like that, it’s easy to see how the students would be excited about a future STEM career.

The company has committed $250 million to the program and 3,600 middle and high schools have taken advantage of it so far.  It has also been recognized by President Obama as part of his ConnectED initiative.

How Design Will Eat The World

In 2011, Marc Andreessen wrote an influential essay in The Wall Street Journal titled, Software Is Eating The World.  His argument was that with cloud computing and more advanced development tools, software is vastly more efficient at creating value than hardware and other physical assets.

Yet, if that holds true for software, then the argument is even stronger for design.  As Diego Tamburini, an executive at Autodesk notes, design no longer just applies to physical systems, but “has permeated to other non-physical areas such as software, services, and the overall “emotional experience” of using a product that also require designers.”

He also points out that, in many firms, the application of design skills has broadened significantly.  Steve Ellis, who runs Wholesale Banking at Wells Fargo, agrees.  He told me that “our design group has not only become far larger, but much more intrinsic to our operations.  You can no longer separate design from functionality.”

We’ve come a long way since the days of Henry Ford and his black cars.  Design is no longer something that we add to enhance a product, it is the product.  The future, will not be made as much as it will be designed and anyone who wants to have a successful future, needs to learn design skills.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Moin Rahman permalink
    September 11, 2014

    “Software Is Eating The World” mentioned in the article is hyperlinked to the wrong page (goes to White House).

  2. September 11, 2014

    Thanks. Fixed now.

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