Sunday, September 14, 2008

How Great Design Makes People Love Your Company

How Great Design Makes People Love Your Company

Do you matter? That question—asked so often, by so many, in such varied contexts—is bluntly posed by industrial designer Robert Brunner and corporate consultant Stewart Emery in a new book of the same title published this month (FT Press).

The question, with the subtitle "How great design will make people love your company", amounts to more than designer navel-gazing. For the book's authors, it heralds a broader manifesto on the importance of design in creating products and services that not only sell well but also endear brands to consumers. Brunner and Emery aim to explain how companies such as Apple (AAPL), BMW (BMW), Ikea, and Target (TGT) use design to establish lasting (and lucrative) relationships with consumers.

Their theory is simple: Successful executives should treat design as more than a finishing discipline that simply improves products' aesthetics. Instead, design should influence every aspect of customers' experiences. For Brunner and Emery, design is an infrastructural element that helps define every aspect of a company, including Web site, stores, customer support, packaging, and messaging as well as products. "Design…can't be a veneer," they explain.

The King of Cool

On its face, the argument is not particularly new. What's more, the book's strongest example is also the most commonly cited, Apple. That company's leadership, they argue, has successfully imbued every department in its organization with a coherent design sensibility that carries through all of its efforts. This matters not only because Apple has become the king of cool but also because its emotional hold over customers means it can charge a healthy price premium over competitors.

The authors compare the once hot-selling Motorola (MOT) Razr phone to Apple's now ubiquitous iPod to underscore the fundamental impact of design-focused corporate strategies. Motorola executives could not build upon the concept of design as a wider strategy for growth. In the end, Motorola was unable to capitalize on the Razr's immense popularity, squandering a likely incalculable business opportunity. In contrast, the iPod wasn't the first MP3 player on the market, but its role as a gateway to a series of experiences and services, including the iTunes music, video, and movie store and a line of posh retail outlets drastically expanded Apple's business.

In returning again and again to Apple, the book tacitly admits that company CEO Steve Jobs is the movement's highest priest. Still, Brunner is well placed to tell the tale: He was the company's director of industrial design, establishing its pioneering internal design organization, Apple IDg, during the crucial intermezzo between Jobs' departure and his return to the company in the late-1990s. Passages like the one in which Brunner contrasts former CEO John Sculley—a design-savvy executive with a design-school pedigree—with Jobs, who puts an emphasis on overall experience as well as attractive form, are useful and compelling.

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