Sunday, October 02, 2005


the three design mindsets

All this talk in recent years of "design strategy" has left me cold. Companies adopt a strategy to achieve an outcome. A plan is a list of buttons to push to make something happen favorable to the company. What are the components of design strategy?
What is pernicious about design strategy is that it attempts to confuse what the company wants from consumers, with what consumers want for themselves. I believe companies have legitimate self-interests, and indeed can have a tough existence meeting competitive pressures. But they need to address their needs in an honest way, and sometimes they don't always come clean about the boundaries of who they are and what the customer wants.

To put it crudely, design strategy is about colonizing the mind of consumers. The essential concept is to make consumers feel they are asserting their individuality by buying a product. The strategy is to conflate the thoughts of a company's marketing department with the thoughts of an individual. At its worst, it gives credence to the notion of "No Logo" (a book, by the way, I haven't read, because I imagine it as too unfair on companies, and too naive on the realities of making a living.)

Before our current infatuation with design strategy, people used to talk about "design management." Design management was a humble concept, almost boring in its intention. Basically, design management was about developing consistency in communication. Corporate identity and product design were meant to be consistent across product lines - a uniform look. Design management had its origins in the German electrics conglomerate AEG. It reached its apogee in Ulm-school followers, such mittelstadt (middle sized, family owned) firms as Braun and Gardena. Outside Germany, deign management was enthusiastically embraced by Philips, and the most Germanic US corporation, IBM. It was boring, perhaps (in retrospect), but it was honest, and people understood who they were buying from and what that company was promising. It was corporate -- indeed not flashy -- but what it sacrificed in consumer choice was offset by being direct and forthright.

Between the poles of design strategy (phony choice) and design management (corporate-level choice) is a third alternative. It doesn't have an official name, but call it craft-creative entrepreneurship. While it can be found in many places, it is most readily found in Italy. There are several distinguishing features. First, the entrepreneurial company is family-owned. There is a blood history to what the company does, it doesn't change knee-jerk with fashions. Second, the company's products are based on craft. They aren't produced in millions. The designer and maker are very near each other, not tens of thousands of kilometers away. The fusion of design and production in craft means the product has a soul. It expresses the creativity of the designer, but is not a vanity piece. Like all craft, it references a common historical language, and plays with the boundaries of what has been done previously. People can enjoy these products as the creative output of their creator, without feeling their personal identity needs to be involved. They can admire the creativity of a product, but respect that creativity for what it is. Unlike design strategy-derived products, people are celebrating the designer and maker, not making a statement about themselves, their tastes or their lifestyle. This is because the hallmarks of the designer/maker are readily evident, instead of being anonymous, being diluted by a mass production line somewhere in China.

There is growing discussion about authenticity in life and commerce. Design needs to join that discussion.

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