Design Is How It Works: A book review by Bob Morris

Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons
Jay Greene
Portfolio/The Penguin Group (2010)

How to create experiences that consumers crave

According to Jay Greene, “effective design in the twenty-first century goes well beyond creating an object that might one day go on display at MoMA. Design isn’t merely about making products aesthetically beautiful. Design today is about creating experiences that consumers crave. The look and feel of a product is table stakes – it can forge the beginning of an emotional bond with customers. The best products and services must deliver singular experiences unobtainable anywhere else. The smartest designs address needs consumers never knew they had.”

Throughout his lively narrative, Green focuses on eight exemplary companies (Porsche, Nike, LEGO, OXO, REI, Clif Bar, Ace Hotels, and Virgin Atlantic) and devotes a separate chapter to each. However different these companies may be in most other respects, all of them share a number of common characteristics: There is a total commitment to the design process at all levels and in all areas of the enterprise; bold and counterintuitive but prudent and frugal experimentation is constant within an environment that cherishes each “failure” as a precious learning experience; C-level executives embrace the design process, “trusting their gut and their employees as much as they trust all the data they receive from their business.”; there is continuous observation of current and prospective customers’ real-world behavior with a rigor of a world-class anthropologist; and designers fully participate in the earliest stage of product development, “rather than getting called in at the end to put a fancy glass on a new product just before it goes to market.”

For these and other exemplary companies (e.g. Apple) design is necessarily a “coarse process” requiring patience as well as tenacity, skepticism as well as passion, humility as well as courage. It should be added that, as Greene makes crystal clear, “design isn’t something that companies can benchmark.” In fact, even the companies most highly-regarded for their design breakthroughs cannot rely upon those successes to ensure that they can design new products and services that will also “come to life.”

There are so many valuable insights in this book that I used up two of my optic yellow Sharpie ACCENT pens highlighting key passages. Here are three brief excerpts, selected from more than 100 that caught my eye:

Porsche’s business model “has used design to create a feel, an intangible emotion about its cars that allows it to charge a significant premium. That feel is what makes its customers passionate about Porsche…One other important piece of Porsche’s strategy to consider: It’s not trying to appeal to everyone.” The same can be said of at least a few other companies such as Harley-Davidson.
Mark Parker “makes sure that design is at the core of everything Nike does these days…[He frequently quotes from a collection of eleven maxims that all new hires receive] `Be a sponge…Curiosity is life. Assumption is death…Technology, history, diversity, geography – today is a time of unparalleled interplay among cultures. Courageous new combinations of sports, fashion, music, movies, food, and the rest are redefining what is possible and relevant.'”

“It may sound counterintuitive, but LEGO found that design, at least within its walls, thrives with some constraints. That might send chills up the spines of some in the design world. The idea of fencing in designers, forcing them to play in a confined space, runs counter to the notion that design needs to be set free. But the component limits gave designers just enough direction to come up with some of the company’s most successful products to date.”

Previously, LEGO managers had given designers free rein to come up with ever more imaginative new directions. And they took it. “By 2004, the number of components had exploded, climbing from about 7,000 to 12,000 in just seven years. Of course, supply costs went through the roof too.” And profits plunged.

Once the LEGO Innovation Model was formulated and restraints were in place, however, design costs were reduced 55% and sales increased 42% during the next four years. Paal Smith-Meyer runs LEGO’s New Business Group and acknowledged to Greene, “If you put guiding principles in place, you empower people to make the right decision.” Greene adds, “And remember, he’s a designer.”

Some of the most interesting information and most valuable insights are provided in the final chapter, “The Intersection of Business and Design,” as Greene reviews several design lessons learned from products and services that work, created by organizational structures that work. The vast majority of companies do not have design as a core competency. “They are often stocked with numbers crunchers skilled at squeezing excess costs out of business processes. They have techno gurus who can conjure up cutting-edge gizmos. But they lack creative thinkers who are willing to listen to customers, watch their habits, and understand what they want, even if those customers don’t quite know what it is they are after.”

That will change as books such as this one continue to be published. Greene also notes a recent and significant interest in developing academic programs that (finally) place design at the core of business strategy, notably at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University.

I wholeheartedly agree with Jay Greene that in months and years to come, human experiences will be of increasingly greater importance to purchase decisions. Design can guide companies to create the experiences that consumers crave. For that reason, I presume to suggest that the “intersection” to which he refers is – or at least should be – an integration of business and design in ways and to an extent that they become interdependent, if not interchangeable.


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