05 March 2009

Valuable Reads

Ironically, over the last few days I've read two articles that each on their own are interesting / valuable / intriguing. Each on their own are, in my opinion, must-reads for anyone who considers themselves a "professional" in the design field.

What is really exciting is that reading both together (or in the same time frame) gives me hope that Design will truly start to move forward in a truly valuable direction.

A Periodic Table of Form, by Gray Holland

Article number one is, in my opinion, a brilliant, colouring outside the lines, incomplete but tantalizing look at form and design. This article is something that everyone needs to read - because there are some very, very valuable points being made - but also because Gray is trying to do something important here.
For the consumer, it's easy to forget how much the emotional response to an object determines his or her relationship to it, but this forgetfulness can be plausibly explained by the dominant role our analytical mind plays in formulating language.
Form has meaning; it can touch us at such a primal level that our mind is left scrambling to rationalize our emotional reactions.
There are, however, two issues with the article.

First - I would suggest that form is less a periodic table (structurally) and more a grammar and as such the study of semiotics would be invaluable in understanding meaning in this context.

Second - there is one key assumption that I would dispute.
For the purpose of this argument I propose that form (or Design), in the context of both the natural and man-made world has two jobs: to be the messenger of a certain experience; and to fulfill on that promise.
While this is a noble goal - and a pragmatic one - I feel that there are times when form's purpose is to be the messenger, and then to deliberately fail to fulfill on this promise. In this case, when instead giving something valuable but unexpected, design can create delight.

Despite these two disagreements - I think Gray's article is fantastic albeit incomplete and really hope that he continues to think about this and we see future instantiations. More than that - this article really is a must read for anyone in the design profession.

Design: It's Not All About You, by Nick de la Mare

Article number two is a perhaps self-serving but none-the-less accurate and important discussion of the importance of business in designed solutions. More that that, it is a veiled attack on the (endemic) idea that designers can create (successfully) for the end-users alone.
A product will only become successful if it makes it to market. Over time its success will be judged on its ability to generate more income than it costs to maintain. In other words, a wildly successful product does no good if its long-term costs bankrupt the company launching it.
Historically, designers haven’t been overly concerned with understanding the balance between the pillars of user, brand and business. A sole focus on users does little to create synergies between organizations and individuals, or to create products with meaning within the larger context of market. It just reinforces the sense that design organizations often don’t get business metrics.
I think all of us in the design profession have become a little carried away over the last few years. With each cover story in BusinessWeek, with each fawning Bruce Nussbaum blog post, we have started to believe our own press - to believe we really are the messiah for businesses (and to believe our shit don't stink).

This article attacks the arrogance at the core of this issue.

Where I think it fails is in two spots.

First - while it attacks our arrogance, it doesn't expose our laziness or our greed. Far too often we do things we know are wrong because of our own business needs. We know we simply cannot develop a cogent and successful strategy in 4 days - but we need the client and the revenue so we take the work.

Second - the recommendation from the article veers from being Right to being merely self-serving.
When I think about the operating principle driving an ideal design consultancy, this is what I see: Cross-disciplinary teams working collaboratively with clients to understand business, user and brand needs. Then designing empathetic systems, services and products that leverage all aspects of the relationship between these key pillars. The best designers will be strategists, those that understand each element in the ecosystem and build beautiful, sustainable bridges between them.
Effectively this might as well have said - "the future is all of you hiring frog design."

I honestly don't know if cross-displinary teams are the answer. They could be. But so could IDEO's t-shaped people. So could small boutiques headed by the unique geniuses who can see all the angles. Only time will tell.

Despite these two flaws - again - a great article and a must read.

And then we put the two together.
And we see a profession that is starting to look outside of its own disciplines - and deeply at its own discipline - and in both cases is starting to understand the relationships and structures and interdependencies and inheritances that bind this all together into something important.



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