July 2005  
Mind Your Own Design Business

Business and design. Design and business. It seems you can't open up a business or design magazine these days without seeing the pairing of these words somewhere. Whole companies are starting up around it. We get presentations where designers are "emotional and non-linear" and business people are "rational and linear." We hear the buzzwords "Design Thinking" bandied about without any definition of what that really is. Design is the new savior of business, and business people need to think more like designers. Business is from Mars, Design is from Venus.

Stop. Just stop.

Look, I'm happy that design is getting a lot of press in magazines other than I.D. I'm glad business people (who are these generic folks in their suits?) are understanding what design can do for them and their business. But I think there's a fundamental disconnect going on, and it's not between design and business: it's between perception and reality.

Talking about design and business as two separate entities sets up a false dichotomy where there is actually none. Design has always been about business, and business has always been about design. Perhaps not good design or good business, but they've always been intertwined. Incessantly breaking them apart for the purpose of selling magazines or services does a disservice to both. I'll say it again: design is business and business is design.

Yes, they are distinct subject areas with distinct points of view. Yes, the people who are in them have some different skills. Yes, one person might wear a tie, the other funny eyeglasses. And yes, you can see how quickly this argument dissolves into stereotypes.

Ever since it became a profession (which I'd say happened in the 1930s with industrial designers like Raymond Loewy), design has been linked to companies. Industrial means "a product of industry" after all. Designers don't work for themselves; we're not artists; we design things for people, for companies, for use (often by or in companies). In all but a handful of cases, designers aren't the ones doing the final making, the production of their designs. Other people (read: other companies) do that; most of the time, we just do the prototypes. We need the collective resources that usually only companies can provide to make our designs realities.

Designers work with, and often in, companies. Without companies and thus business, we'd be a sorry lot. There's so much talk about what designers can do for business, we forget what businesses does for us, namely give us money, jobs, and projects. It borders on arrogance for us to be seen as the saviors of business when it is so often business saving us. In the marketplace, we rescue each other.

But Dan, I hear you saying, what about the users? Surely design is about them? Business is about filthy lucre, while design is about people! We serve users, while businesses look after the almighty dollar. Right. Businesses hate the people who use and buy their products and services and all designers work for free.

I'm not saying that businesses are something honorable and admirable; sometimes they are, but sometimes they are horribly not. What I am saying is that businesses are what they are: products that are created, staffed, and, yes, designed by humans. And because they are, they are flawed, some more than others. I've yet to work at or for the perfect company, and I'm sure I never will. The things businesses have to do and endure are far too complex for anyone to ever design a perfect company. And frankly, I'm not sure you'd want to. Things that are perfect are no longer human.

Make no mistake: businesses are designed, and not usually by designers. Indeed, 99.99 percent of all design isn't done by designers. It's a human activity--perhaps the human activity. (See, more design arrogance!) Businesses just don't spring into being: they are created by people in order to accomplish goals they otherwise couldn't. They are designed products.

The long and short of it is that business and design together solve problems (and in the process make money). We can apply design thinking with a trough and fill up rooms with our prototypes, but until someone says, "Yeah, go do that," designers are a powerless lot, actors without a play. Some of the artificial cleaving of design and business is the design community's response to this powerlessness, of wanting "a place at the table," not realizing that the table itself was designed. You can go design your own table, you know. You might discover you might not like the big table after all. Designers have become like my four-year-old, throwing a fit because she's not an adult yet, not realizing that being an adult is damn hard too.

So enough with the business and design jibberjabber. Let's just get down to business already, the business of design.

Originally posted on Friday, July 29, 2005 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


Come Back, Raymond Loewy: All is Forgiven

Anyone who thinks the problems of today's designers are unique should read Raymond Loewy's 1951 book Never Leave Well Enough Alone. It's a glimpse into a time when another design discipline, industrial design, was in its nascent stage, just like interaction design is today.

Loewy, for those of you who aren't up on your design history, was one of the premier industrial designers of the mid-20th century. He (or more correctly his firm) did a staggeringly broad selection of designs, from refrigerators to trains to logos, and changed the look of products forever. His most famous dictum is the MAYA principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.

Reading Never Leave Well Enough Alone as a 21st century designer is a little like looking into a warped funhouse mirror. So many of the issues and problems he tackles during his career echo the same ones we face right now with our digital devices. Of course, you have to look past the casual sexism that pervades the book, which should probably be expected from a book written in 1951 by a middle-aged French businessman. You also have to get past Loewy's not-inconsiderable ego. But some of the tidbits are worth it.

After arriving in New York after WWI, Loewy began his career as a fashion illustrator. Through a series of chance encounters and chutzpah, he ended up designing cars and in the process helped launch the discipline of what became known as industrial design. Listen to his description of the industrial products of the early 20th century and see if they don't sound like the digital products of the early 21st:

"The first mechanical products were put together by men of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Their prime objective was to make the contraption--whether a coffee grinder, a lifting crane, or a steam engine--work. Will it work? was the question. No one gave a thought to cost and far less to appearance. Products were "engineered as you go" and they betrayed this technique by their haphazard, disorderly look."

Windows 95 anyone? Hell, for that matter, three-quarters of the software, websites, and devices out there.

Loewy starts working for Chrysler to redo the look of their automobiles and is immediately told by the engineers everything he can't do. He spends months working on designs only to have them ignored or misinterpreted or implemented incorrectly by the engineers. It's frustrating, but slowly he builds trust (he spends his own money building prototypes often) and his business.

The business side of things is interesting as well. In an uncharacteristically quiet moment for him, Loewy describes the toil of the business trip:

"I would like to be able to forget those business-getting trips in the Middle West, pushing doorbell after doorbell of small plants and factories...these trips were an ordeal...the long wait in the November rain for the sad streetcar that would bring me back...to my hotel, tired and feeling grippy, disillusioned, lonely--and empty-handed. But above all, so tired."

Loewy's business philosophy was pretty simple: 1) do something well, 2) deliver it on time, and 3) stick to your word. His other rules sprung from this philosophy and his experience: 1) deliver designs on time, 2) do careful follow-up with the client's engineering staff, and 3) constantly check on the client's competition. And his one unalterable rule was this: "Nothing is to come out of the R.L. offices until it has been checked and double-checked for practicability and manufacturability. Heads of divisions will be held directly responsible for the observance of this design policy." By 1939, after about a decade of work (most of it during The Great Depression) in a field that hadn't previously existed, Loewy had over a hundred people working for him and a penthouse office in New York. Impressive.

Loewy's book is filled with anecdotes, some pointless, some poignant. He relates a story of being taken to a client's factory in Dayton and shown the hundreds of men working there, and reminded of their dependents and of all the people not in the factory involved in the product he designed, three hundred and twenty thousand people in all "directly affected by the success or failure of what you put on paper." "We never lose contact with reality," Loewy later reflects. "and we do not underestimate our social responsibilities. As we have over one hundred clients on our list, it may well be that the soundness of our designs affects the lives of millions." It's refreshing and rare to hear a designer acknowledge such a deep connection to his clients. When Loewy became head of the Society of Industrial Designers (now IDSA) the first thing he does is establish a code of ethics.

At the end of the book, Loewy touches on the future of industrial design and its ultimate goal: to create peace of mind.

"The countless and incessant complexities and disturbances of everyday life are so many handicaps making this goal all the more difficult to reach. Sensory unpleasantness created by ugly form, color, feel, noises, temperatures, or smoke are so many obstacles on the road to our destination...Transcending his early purpose, which was merely surface styling, the industrial designer becomes an integral part in the planning of every product, service, or structure. His presence at the inception stage will increase assurance that the end product shall be as free as possible of annoying features...the designer will try to make it more pleasant for you."

Amen, Raymond Loewy, amen.

Originally posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2005 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


CDs are Now Old Skool

Unpacking my CD collection this weekend, I was astonished how much room the CDs took up. Which, as anyone who remembers the space required for records, is pretty ridiculous. And yet, in the Era of iPod, I can't imagine ever buying another CD player or even another CD, unless I simply can't find it any other way online. CDs are now old skool.

Originally posted on Monday, July 18, 2005 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


A Stranger in My Own City

The last time I really lived in San Francisco was in 1988, when I was 18. Quite a bit has happened since then, to both me and the city. It's strangely familiar, but more strange than familiar. I remember the general areas of the city, but not the street names or how to get there. Some shops and restaurants I knew years ago are still here, but in some cases, entire blocks have literally vanished, buried under new condos or malls.

As with anything new--or renewed--everything makes an impression, sometimes false, sometimes true. I'm hyperaware of things that long-term residents probably don't even think about: the numerous chains of grocery stores; the amazing proliferation of yoga studios--almost one per block, or so it seems; the staggering number of homeless on the streets; the multicultural stew of a population; the great food at even modest restaurants; and the dogs! dogs everywhere, and welcomed. We went to open a bank account today and even the bank had a dog bowl and doggie treats.

While I hate the disorientation and awkwardness that comes with not knowing where the drugstore is, say, there is something exciting about the exploration of a place I sort of know, but don't. I'm looking forward to relearning my city.

Originally posted on Friday, July 15, 2005 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)



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