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GP8Jun04: Designing the Outside of the Inside

Affordable Facelifts.  The Business Section of The New York Times has added some beef in recent years to what were once very slim pickings.  Virginia Postrel of Dallas is a frequent economic guest columnist there, and she has contributed both steak and sizzle to its menu.  Frequently she culls little noticed articles from economic journals which, when she translates them into accessible prose, reveal some underlying behaviors of our society that overturn our beliefs in the way things are. 

However, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, her recent book which she was kind enough to forward to us, does not upset our mental applecart.  Instead it makes much more vivid what we already suspected.  Design has so permeated the American Experience that even lowbrow discounters, particularly Target, are now wrapping much style around their products in hopes of making repeat shoppers out of those with real disposable income.  The Sunday Style section, which the Times has added, tells of society’s relentless quest for novel appearances and the newest twist.  

Commodity Design.  Everyman design, however, is just that.  Design—whether aesthetic or engineered—has become more pervasive, but that does not mean design quality has risen.  To the contrary, it has probably declined in a 1,000 different ways.  We suspect that the computer is the principal handmaiden of mediocrity.  Anyone with a PC or an Apple can now devise cookie cutter designs for almost anything at low cost, and everybody is doing just that.  While the cost of almost everything else rises, the cost of computer power and design has sunk. 

In the sector of design we know best, graphic design, the “commodization” of design has so depressed the prices paid for design work that many of the most talented designers we know have gotten out of the trade.  They simply can’t make a living there and their work is not valued above that of instant keyboard artists.  Production designers, who can grind out heaps of work, have inherited the playing field. 

As importantly, the temptation, with the computer, has been to over-design, covering every square inch with doodads, eliminating white space, inventing whorls of unreadable manuscript, and decking the pages with blurbs and small pictures that bespeak severe overload.  Graphic design has become very, very “cluttered,” and woe to the designer who bucks this messy trend.  The same “clutter,” as we shall see below, has crept into the design and engineering of products. 

Concurrent Engineering.  An encouraging movement has gathered momentum over the last decade that is legitimately reducing the costs of engineering and design.  Eventually it may even lead to better design.  Companies are bringing to the table, right at the conceptual stage, all the people who will be associated with the total lifecycle of the product—from concept to disposal.  Chrysler, at least in its pre-Mercedes days, had been a leader in this respect, and has been able to bring new models into production faster and more cheaply than the competition.  With manufacturing engineers in the room, the designers are less likely to come up with something that simply is too tough to build on a mass basis.   

In this respect, one should take a look at the Society for Concurrent Product Development at www.scpdnet.org, as well as several other Concurrent websites to be found on the Web.  Concurrent Engineering tends to be applied to very big projects and big, complex products, but we expect it to deliver bigger dividends in society’s more prosaic endeavors.  Our ability to get the design and engineering process right will very much determine whether we are the world’s innovators, or the planet’s laggards. 

IDEO.  Ideo (www.ideo.com), a product-design consultancy recently featured in Business Week (17 May 2004), has, if you like, come up with a version of “concurrency.”  It taps anthropologists, engineers, psychologists, and others to develop designs and holds client brainstorming sessions in which attendees play the part of customers and consumers.  The idea is to capture the consumer experience in order to embed it in products.  We might call this “concurrent design,” where more effort is taken to put the user’s wishes into products.  If concurrent engineering stresses producibility, concurrent design hopes to accent usability.  In practice, engineers and designers are creeping into each other’s turf with the aim of integrating the product, the look, and the consumer.  In an “Engineering Boundaries” note published on  June 2, 2004, Peter J. Kindlmann, who teaches engineering design at Yale University, urges engineers to rethink engineering education in light of this new interplay between all the actors in the product development process.  (See Other Global Sites, Item 40A.) 

Complex Product Design.  Even with an integrated product development process, the products and systems you encounter (autos, music players, computers, etc) are too complex and too breakable.  Short-term business pressures and the psychology of clutter to which we have already alluded have led companies to put too many functions (often unwanted) in their products, since they hope to drive up the price point and market share with this kind of differentiation.  This complexity necessarily makes the products chaotic,   prone to breakdown, and easy to wear out.  As we are fond of saying, “Microsoft Works” is a humdinger of an oxymoron, given the susceptibility of Windows to viruses and its inclination to crash.  (See Global Wit & Wordly Widsom, Item 7, “Top 50 Oxymorons.”) While our first cell phone lasted 6 to 7 years, our current cell phones have had glitches and sound problems galore, almost from the moment when we bought them.  They have dumb features we don’t need, and they are hard to operate.  Our products, just like our magazines, shopping malls, and new housing developments, are cluttered.  Clutter, it seems, describes the very psychology of this part of the Digital Age.  An avant garde designer today would have to define himself by what he eliminates, not by what he includes. 

End to Obsolescence.  Just about now, we could use a Philosopher King, right out of Plato, to command that designers evolve products, experiences, and communities that are simple to use and durable as our 1988 Volvo or the old-fashioned VW Beetles that once populated every college town. 

Failing that, strategic companies and institutions, thinking 5 or 10 years out, can leap ahead of their competition by eliminating clutter and building ruggedness and a simple aesthetic into their products.  With oil north of $40 (you might say “over the barrel”) and other commodities sky high, we can ill afford our disposable culture.  Throwaway products, made to fit this year’s enthusiasm but inherently fragile, are the stuff of bankruptcy. 

Shape of Content.  Years ago we were giving a strategy seminar in Seattle.  During the break, a delightful graphic designer from Victoria walked up to us and gave us a design lesson.  He asked if we knew how the Japanese translated the title of a book by the eminent American artist Ben Shahn.  It was The Shape of Content.”  Their translation was the “Outside of the Inside.”  Still and all, the function of engineering and design is to make sure we have a worthy inside, and that the outside fits the inside. Or, to use Ms. Postrel’s language, to make sure style has substance.   

P.S.  On a different note, if you are concerned about the quality of health care and the runaway costs in our health care sector, you might participate in a web seminar of The World Health Care Congress on June 9, 2004 from 12 to 1 PM.  George Bennett, CEO of Health Dialog, and Donald Fetterolf, Chief Medical Officer of Highmark, will talk about the substantial financial and health returns obtained from applying treatment pattern variation research, predictive modeling, and finely tuned shared decision coaching to members of health plans.  Well-founded systems design is shown to have a profound effect in health care.  If you want to be included, you can register with Ms. Patty Cmielewski at Health Dialog at 617-406-5251 or at PCmielewski@healthdialog.com, and she will ensure that the World Health people get back to you with the particulars.  The cost of healthcare in the U.S., incidentally, is now assumed to be negatively affecting U.S. competitiveness in world markets.

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