Design Vision: Part 2

by February 8, 2006

Part two of Design Vision: a conversation about the role of design-driven leadership in the product development process (be sure to check out part one first).

Jim Leftwich

To me, design vision is a matter of, and directly correlated to, integration. By that I mean the integration of elegantly refined, interconnected, and equally successful solutions across the entire spectrum of problems and needs within a product or system.

While many within the design world pursue linear processes, and embrace well-meaning philosophies such as the user-centric model, real integration – real vision – demands something both more profound and more difficult to achieve.

It’s fine to espouse the virtue of user-centered design, but even if all of the user needs for a particular product or system are met perfectly for the present, and yet there is no attention paid to laying the groundwork for future rational extension, growth, and evolution (perhaps because the Marketing Requirements Document didn’t call for such), then a greater level of opportunity is squandered and overall value of the vision is lessened.

Similarly, if both of these are addressed with an elegantly refined design and evolution strategy, yet there’s a failure to cleverly leverage additional complimentary technologies and emerging behaviors and infrastructures in the most powerful and strategic manner (because the designer was not adequately aware of the larger opportunites, or was directed to stay focused on a small-scale solution), yet other dimensions of opportunity are left unexploited. And so on.

In the end, “Big D” design success is not really centered on or around any one dimension, but rather needs to be distributed equally throughout all the interconnected dimensions of a product or system. One part cannot succeed at the expense of another. And it’s a misnomer that one dimension should lead or drive all the others. The real key to success is balance and integrity throughout. It has to be aesthetically pleasing (even stunningly so, if appropriate), easy to learn and use, efficient and utilitarian, cheap to produce, problem-free, popular and sought-after, beloved by its customers, designed to allow growth and evolution, and continue making boatloads of money as a return on investment.

Tall order? Certainly. Impossible? Not whatsoever! However, in order to accomplish broad, deep, and long-term success an organization requires one or more generalist integrators (which is what I think is really meant by successful “visionary”). This can be a leader (either at the top in the form of a visionary corporate office, or an empowered individual within an organization), or it can come from a small, empowered leadership group, Tiger Team, or Skunkworks. It can come in the form of a spontaneous initiative, or it can come in response to a stated corporate mission or goal. During my twenty-two year design career I’ve seen successful and unsuccessful examples of all of these.

The list of dimensions crucial to short-term and long-term success is long, and developing a design that succeeds equally in them all is difficult, even when the way is cleared of organizational obstacles. And unfortunately, many, if not most companies, have substantial organizational, cultural, and political obstacles which make integrated design vision more difficult, or altogether impossible. But if companies are to survive and thrive long-term and provide the most value to their customers, they must have visionary and integrated design embodied in some form within their organization.

And no, it’s not enough to simply pay lip service to this idea, or the notions of innovation, synergy, “the learning organization,” or whatever the buzzphrase du jour happens to be.

As for why companies should care, there are a number of ways well-integrated and successful design strengthen a company. Strong design can bolster a company’s ability to differentiate itself and compete more effectively in the marketplace. Strategic design vision can yield valuable intellectual property and defendable patents. And Design that sufficiently systematized can allow for more orderly and consistent extension and evolution, allowing a company to more flexibly adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities without having to resort to reactionary measures or simplistic feature bloat.

Bob Baxley

I want to go back to the original question for a minute because we need to have some common notion of what Design actually is before we can start talking about “Design Vision”. Now of course I realize that this is inviting a big giant hairball but let me offer up a definition and see if it doesn’t meet with some level of general agreement.

Here goes:

Def: Design is a rigorous, analytical, and disciplined form of problem solving. Its peers include other such forms of problem solving such as Art, Science, Engineering, Law, and Government. Further, as a form of problem solving, Design is optimized for innovation in the same way that Engineering is optimized for construction, Science for discovery, and Art for emotive communication.

Now if that’s your definition of Design then there’s no real need to talk about “Design Vision” as though it were somehow different or superior to Design as a general practice.

In reading back through the thread, what all of you have been calling “Design Vision” might be more accurately called “Product Design”. By that I mean the application of Design as a problem solving method to the large-scale question of defining a product’s entire function as well as its form.

So if you put those two ideas together, you arrive at an understanding of Design as a particular form of problem solving most relevant to products and market-segments that thrive on innovation. And contrary to what the readers of Wired and Fast Company might think, innovation at the product level is but one of many competitive strategies a company can choose to employ. There are plenty of examples of companies that did just fine by competing on other grounds: Walmart on price, Dell on service, Coca-Cola on distribution.

Keeping that last point in mind, it’s critical for us as practitioners to be intelligent and thoughtful about where we try to insert our skills. If we’re to be successful both as individuals and as a profession, we have to focus on the industries, companies, and situations that are most likely to benefit from our unique form of problem solving.

Hang on Tight

Part three of Design Vision tomorrow. Same blog time. Same blog channel.