Design Vision: Part 4

by Luke Wroblewski February 9, 2006

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

Jim Leftwich

I think Bob made some very salient points regarding the potentially redundant nature of the term “design vision.” I think the reason it’s been used here has a lot to do with the wide range of what the term “design” has come to mean in the development world. In the overwhelming majority of cases, design is positioned fairly far down the development path, and in some situations is reduced to mere decoration. I’m reminded of the numerous calls I’ve had from prospective clients claiming that the product “was nearly finished, all except the user interface.” Such a statement sounds incredibly absurd, but it was once common, and there are more subtle forms of the same thinking still lurking in many development efforts today.

I agree that Capital “D” Design does indeed necessarily contain a strong component of integrated vision.

I also agree that many companies compete successfully on other terms, though most of the companies that Bob listed (Wal-Mart, Dell, and Coca-Cola) all do successfully utilize competent design in their branding, even if they don’t feature it (as say, Target with its designer image and housewares, IBM with its sleek ThinkPads and Blade Servers do). I’m unable to think of a soft drink company at a scale that compares anywhere near to Coca-Cola focusing on design, though some smaller brands do feature unique bottles or labeling (such as Jones Soda).

I’d like to think that it’s not an either/or proposition. On the scale that Wal-Mart operates, I don’t believe good design can’t pay for itself over time. And I’d also want to stress that good design doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive production methods and materials. IKEA produces many affordable household items with very good design, and is an admirable model for a super-scale store embracing design.

Many of the same things and comparisons can be made for companies in the software, web and digital product sectors.

I don’t have much to add to what Dirk says regarding the fact that a coherent integrated vision can emerge from either the business/marketing, technical, or design centers in a business. I think he’s described a basic truth. In my career I’ve seen amazingly broad and coherent vision and leadership emerge from each of those professional areas. What matters is that someone has the vision and takes a strong leadership role.

The real enemy to vision and successful (and adequate!) innovation is bureaucracy, stagnation, misguided risk aversion, or simply institutionalized incompetency. I think it’s natural for companies to tend toward all of these as they grow and age. One of the worst enemies to continual innovation is success itself. Once a product or system is extremely successful, it often becomes increasingly difficult to continue innovations on the same scale that might have led to it in the first place. This is a strange and unfortunate irony.

I always liked Hewlett Packard’s strategy of “kill off your own products,” as it addressed this particular danger head-on.

To sum up what I feel about design vision and the degree to which I feel it really represents the successful integration of every component, need, challenge, and stakeholder, I offer the following quote from history. I can’t think of a statement that more eloquently expresses my own ideals for what a constitutes a successful, and inevitably beautiful, design. While Palladio is addressing aesthetic beauty, I think it no less describes the qualities inherent in any well-integrated design vision.

"Beauty will result from the most beautiful form and from the correspondence of the whole to the parts; of the parts among themselves, and of these again to the whole; so that the structures may appear an entire and complete body, wherein each member agree with the others and all members are necessary for the accomplishment of the building." -Andrea Palladio (1508 - 1580), Renaissance Architect

Bob Baxley

I can’t help but think you guys are getting pretty squishy with your definitions. Reading through the last few comments you all seem to be saying that what is really required is not necessarily a Designer so much as a senior leader with the passion, commitment, and determination to shepherd and defend a product throughout it’s complete development cycle. It appears to me that the need for such leadership is a given even if it’s also a rarity.

What you seem to be heading towards is the model of Product Designer as Movie Director – a model that captures both the notion of a generalist leader and a single source of accountability and authority. It’s a model I also find appealing and potentially useful but at the same time, it’s a model that’s met with precious little success in the world of high technology.

I don’t really have an answer here but the conversation does leaves me to wonder why the list of high technology companies consistently producing “Great Design” starts and stops with Apple. If we can’t identify any examples of functioning, design-centric organizations that don’t include Steve Jobs, then we need to take a serious look at our profession and ourselves ask why.

Why is it that there are so few designers in the executive ranks of the top tech companies? Are there any? How many Chief Design/Experience Officers are there? What about SVPs? Heck, how about even plain-old VPs? I haven’t done the math but I’d be surprised if more than 10% of the top 100 technology companies have any design leadership above the Director level.

It’s easy enough to blame this on the leadership class of these companies but that’s at best simplistic and at worst arrogant. We simply have to have a better response than, “they don’t get it.”

And while I agree whole-heartedly with the idea that the product vision should emanate from a single individual, in practice I have to conclude that Design as a profession has, for whatever reason, been largely unsuccessful at producing individuals who can successfully lead at that level.

I wish it weren’t so but that’s certainly my reading of the situation as things stand right now, in the opening days of 2006.

It's not over yet

More from Design Vision soon...