16 January 2009

Why design?

On occasion I have looked around and had the strange sense that people are asking themselves, “why is he so passionate about design?” Or, I am sure in some cases, “why is he so indignant?”

Design is a special place to me. Design is that space in innovation and product development where things find their purpose and their success. Great technology does not matter if it doesn’t have purpose, if it does not add value, and if it is not used. Design, is the difference between the 10 – 15% of products that succeed, and all the rest.

Form, function and fit are the key to design. How does it work and how does it look are obvious to most. We all understand the frustration of products that just don’t work well. We also understand the ugly product out there in the world. Some products are so great, so impactful as to overcome bad design and find success in spite of themselves.

But fit… fit is the unsung hero of product design. Fit is when a product does what it needs to do in the context of use. It is how ordinary products get set aside in preference to great products. Pardon the tired example, but it is why nearly everyone has an ipod and not one of the dozen or so mp3 players that preceded them.

But still… why so passionate, is it really that big a deal? In a word yes. I was raised with a notion of contribution. It might sound simplistic or even idealistic, but I would rather give than take. I want to go beyond ‘leave no trace’, I want to ‘leave things better off’. A flat economy is not a good thing. Creating value is an important component to a growing economy. Creating value is not the same as just making money. Making money is easy. Creating value is where a person or people make an intangible difference to success. I am talking about the kind of success that puts purpose, and therefore value, in the hands of those who need it [insert life saving healthcare product success story here]. Yes there are dramatic instances, but when someone adds just a little bit of value to an otherwise ordinary product, they are doing something very special.

This is the hallowed ground of economics and commerce. This is why I am passionate about design. And yes, this is why I am indignant when you treat design with disregard and reduce it to rote process as a cost management tactic.

05 January 2009

self importance, self promotion and self preservation

When I was a young man building my design firm I was the focus. I started small… very small, it was just me. As the company grew I added people around me that could help. As we grew in both size and sophistication it was with great pride that I found myself able to add employees that were better at specific skill sets than I.

Most of our clients were entrepreneurs at first, but we quickly joined the ranks of those sought after design firms and executed lots of high profile ‘A list’ work in the corporate sector. One common trait I found among both types of clients was the need to work with ‘the boss’ of a small or medium size firm. It’s a nice ego boost when you are young, and managing that component of the client relationship is really important.

As the company grew, I grew. I grew as both an entrepreneur and businessman. When I started the company I never really thought much about an exit strategy. I never realized how important challenges and career tracks are to retaining talent.

It became very clear that one of the most important goals I needed to attend to was making myself dispensable. I know it sounds a little crazy, but it is critical. When you found the company, when you make the big decisions and you sign the checks… it is very difficult to step away and not be the center. What is hard is shedding some of that spotlight and empowering employees to make the decisions you have helped train them to make. I don’t mean the letting go part. What is difficult is effectively communicating that competency to clients and to the folks taking over the responsibilities.

The benefits are obvious to me. I hired pros that were really, really good at what they did. I hired quality people with solid judgment. I hired individuals that were driven to do great work. They grew, I grew, and our clients grew. And, as a bonus, I got to take a vacation once in a while.

Those of you who have spent time in the corporate world know that this is not a solid or smart strategy for management, the career track, or you professionally.

An important influence of mine, Kenneth McKenzie (he pretty much invented the field of Organizational Behavior), once told me that if I wanted to get things done, then keep my head down and don’t make a big deal about claiming credit for your work. That fits my nature, but I could not even have comprehended the wisdom of those words at the time. Conversely, one of the most effective ways to get ahead in the corporate world is to be standing near when the cameras are flashing during the victory lap. Some folks just have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

There is probably a sweet spot between communicating your importance, getting things done, and preserving self in a large organization. There is probably a lot less pressure if you just want a job. When trying to manage a career and do great work, it is more complicated. These are things we should probably all be thinking more about, but they don’t really teach you in business school.