Inspired Design is Essential—and All Too Rare

Posted by Gary Hamel on November 30, 2009

In a landmark 1964 case, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the obscenity conviction of an Ohio theater owner who had screened the French film “Les Amants.” In his concurring opinion, Justice Potter Stevens concluded that while he was unable to provide a precise definition of hard-core pornography, he knew it when he saw it.

So it is with great design—we know it when we see it. Trouble is, we see way too little of it. A case in point.

Last week I traveled 3,000 kilometers in the world’s most spectacularly uncomfortable airline seat, aboard a United Airlines flight from Chicago to San Francisco. Though I was sitting in the front of the plane, the seat’s ergonomics resembled nothing so much as a canvas campstool. A U-shaped metal frame supported what once had (presumably) been a cushion, but now was little more than a sagging piece of fabric. The seat sloped from back to front and offered nothing in the way of thigh support. For four hours I squirmed and wriggled, but try as I might I couldn’t escape the seat’s vice-like grip on my butt, nor thwart its dogged attempts to give me the mother of all wedgies. How in the name of all that flies, I wondered, could anyone knowingly design such an excruciatingly discommodious bum cradle? Surely, design this bad had to be intentional. Maybe Bill Stumpf, the inspired creator of the Aeron chair, had an evil, sadistic twin who had found a niche designing airline seats.

Earlier in the month I attended a conference in Milan. There I came across Technogym, an Italian manufacturer of exercise equipment. I’ve been in lots of gyms, and most exercise equipment looks like it was designed by a half-blind medieval dungeon master—but not so Technogym’s Kinesis, a multi-purpose workout machine that attaches to a wall, and is about the size of an upended pool table. The Kinesis has four shiny arms that swing out from each corner of the device. Cables run out across the upper arms, down to the lower arms, and then back into the base. Six sliding acrylic handles are positioned at various points along the cables and allow the user to perform more than 200 toning movements. A small, iPod-like touch wheel is mounted chest-high and allows users to adjust resistance levels with one finger. In its sleekest guise, the Kinesis is covered in glass and virtually disappears in a room. Designed by Antonio Citterio, the Kinesis proves that Italians can make even exercise equipment look sexy.

These two radically contrasting experiences got me thinking about the power and importance of design.

A great design, like the Kinesis, evokes an almost visceral reaction because it’s . . .

Utterly unexpected. A brilliantly designed product is clever and amazing. You look at it and go, “Wow, that’s cool!” Soon after the iPhone had been introduced in the U.S., I carried one on a trip to the U.K., where it had yet to be released. During an interview, I handed my sleek new baby to a journalist from the Economist and he started to giggle—I mean, really giggle, like a 10-year-old girl. Now that’s great design.

Amazingly competent. A well-conceived product excels at what it does. It’s close to being functionally flawless—like a Ziploc bag, a radio from Tivoli Audio, a Philips Sonicare toothbrush, a Nespresso coffee maker or Google’s home page. A great design is ingenious and intuitive, and perfectly suited to its purpose.

Aesthetically exquisite. At the pinnacle of great design are products so gorgeous and lust-worthy that you want to lick them: a Porsche 911, Samsung’s Luxia TV, an Eames lounge chair or anything by Loro Piana. A truly great design delivers the visual equivalent of a cioccolato gelato.

To qualify as worldclass, a design must also be conspicuously conscientious. Whether it’s the Toyota Prius or Nike’s Trash Talk sneaker (which is made from scraps of fabric and a recycled sole), consumers are demanding socially responsible products that reflect a sense of stewardship for the environment and a dedication to addressing society’s most pressing problems.

Sadly, design is still an afterthought in most companies. For every iPod or Aeron chair, there are hundreds of examples of design idiocy, such as: the impenetrable packaging that surrounds just about every small, electronic device; the tiny, illegible script that adorns the shower amenities found in most hotels; the tortuously convoluted language that purports to explain the terms of a life insurance policy; the six-level tech support phone menu that refuses to route your call to a carbon-based life form; and the entirely non-intuitive process for resetting the digital clock in your car. I don’t know whether the universe contains any evidence of intelligent design, but I can assure you that thousands of everyday products do not.

Tim Brown would like to change this. As CEO of IDEO, the world’s pre-eminent design firm, Tim believes that the power of great design is still underappreciated and underleveraged in most organizations—and he’s right. Historically, many managers viewed design as a little pot of fairy dust that artistically-inclined souls dipped into whenever they needed to pretty-up a homely product. Tim’s argument: design should be viewed instead as a fundamental business discipline that can produce insanely loyal customers and fat, chunky margins (and also help us solve global-scale challenges like pollution and poverty).

In his highly readable and compelling new book, “Change by Design,” Tim argues that “design thinking” needs to permeate every organization—and shape all of its interactions with its constituents. Given his job, it’s hardly surprising that Tim is an apostle for design, but there’s plenty of evidence to support his thesis.

Consider Apple for a moment. How is that quarter after quarter this company has managed to outperform a dreadful economy—given that there are cheaper alternatives to just about everything Apple makes? The answer, of course, is exceptional design. Apple infuses everything it does—hardware, software, packaging, retailing, and technical support—with design thinking. Whenever you rub up against Apple you rub up against hip and helpful design.

So what is design thinking? Tim argues it comprises three core elements—observation, experimentation and prototyping:

“You have to start with observation because it’s the only way to illuminate the subtle nuances about how people actually get things done (or don’t get things done), and it’s these deep insights that lead to powerful new ideas. Intellectual experimentation is equally critical because there’s no way to generate real breakthroughs unless people are willing to explore a lot of options in a divergent way. Finally, rapid and inexpensive prototyping is the most efficient way to move an idea from concept to reality. By ‘building to think’ instead of ‘thinking about what to build,’ an organization can dramatically accelerate its pace of innovation.”

Tim believes that good design is rare not because it demands esoteric skills, but because so few people have been trained in the basic principles of human-centered design. Hence, “Change by Design.” I hope United Airlines buys 100 copies.

So, dear reader, a couple of questions. First, what do you believe are the hallmarks of great design (in addition to, or instead of, the three outlined above)?

And what would you do to redesign the airline travel experience (without adding a lot more cost)?

You can follow Prof. Hamel on Twitter at profhamel.


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