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Design is Evil, According to Mr. Brew

The network effect. You might know it from the early days of the internet, or perhaps you’ve heard of it from the growth of social media platforms, lastly you may have read it in our book, The Physics of Brand. Hopefully it’s all three and you’re steeped in it.

The essence of the idea is the more people partaking in anything (product, service, experience), the greater its value. Now, if you go back to the early days of Starbucks, the iconic white cup with the green logo became ubiquitous. The network effect was in full force, from celebrities to average Jane — proudly sporting the accessory of the 90s.

A few things have to be in place for a network effect to take place. Your offering has to have some appeal to an audience. Obvious, I know,  but not always considered. It needs to be visible, in some public forum (social or traditional media, public forums, etc); this is why your choice of underwear and utilities are rarely exposed to the network effect. And, it needs a consistent element, transferable in little packets of culture commonly called memes; the white cup and green logo. This effect can occur in business, the arts, sciences, publishing or any other field of culture or study.

It is happening in the field of Design (capitalization intended).

In a recent study of the Business Value of Design done by McKinsey, uncovered the top quartile on their design-driven index are companies delivering 4-7% more in revenue. A statistic paired with “Less than 5 percent of the companies surveyed reported that their leaders could make objective design decisions.” And, we see chief design officers at 3M, PepsiCo and Hyundai — all taking a slightly nuanced approach to infusing design thinking into an organization. There’s even a Chief Design Officer at the Design Council in London, which seems a bit redundant.

We see design with a big D, references the design of everything, and the varied places where design methods are taking hold. McKinsey’s results have many facets, summarizing the two above — design is important, but we’re really not sure what to do with it. Perhaps this is due to the challenges of design as a “profession” and identifying “good design.”

Here’s an experiment you can do, when you meet a thought leader in Design, ask them “What is good design?” It isn’t easy to answer, even for the brightest minds. Good operations means quality product or service is delivered to the marketplace. Good service is indicated by customer reviews and perhaps a respectable net promoter score. Good distribution means the product is where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. Good marketing is delivering leads to sales and seeds the future with a brand that’s made valuable to the right people. Good sales is building strong relationships and closing deals at or above a prescribed level. These are simplifications, but you get the idea.

The most common “good design” answers come in opposites, “It is in the eye of the beholder”, says the artist . “Good design delivers results”, says the economist. The first doesn’t allow for any objectivity and leaves design to self expression and individual gratification. The latter is an after effect, not a way to identify good design before it interacts with the marketplace.

Brad Canham points out that “design starts with empathy” and the emotional truth as described by poet Mary Oliver. The idea that design is where business intersects with empathy may be a great reason why it is not clearly understood in the modern corporation. Behavioral economics is a young field of study, likely because we are just now better understand the emotional brain and its influence in our decisions. The mass of business is rational, Design, if centralized in an organization, can become the place where the stew of empathy smells like a home cooked meal.

This reminded me of an old quote by Greg Brew, VP of Design at Polaris, in which he said, “Design is Evil.” He is a provocative character, but his point was genuine. With Design in charge of the process to create consumer desire (by tapping into empathy) for a product they don’t need — design can make a negative impact on our planet. This is where “good design” at Patagonia means your Wallstreet classic vest will last decades without perceived obsolescence. And, Apple’s “i” products make you wonder if you really need the next iPhone or iPad when you’ll think that its  expired in a year and offers few good recycling options?

Design is evil when the intentions are wrong, but the aesthetic is enticing. Combine this with the network effect and you have the potential for “good design” doing bad things. Just like the wickedly smart financial minds at Enron back in the day, any expertise can be used for evil.. Let’s get back to the definition of good design and your organization. Here are a few things to consider.

  1. Design is the proper balance of form, function and intention; be sure to articulate all three before putting a design out in the world.
  2. Design is a way of thinking that is vital to the financial and cultural health of any organization, because it embodies empathy for the people who work, buy, advocate for and love your brand.
  3. Not all designers are design thinkers, and many design thinkers are not designers. A majority of designers still revel in the aesthetic and mock the importance of research, empathy and an external point-of-view.

If you’re wondering how design driven your organization is, have someone spend some time with your audiences to see what they see, and feel what they feel. There are plenty of resources out there — happy to help point you in the right direction. Just send me a message, complete with Comic Sans as the typeface.

On the other hand, all Comic Sans hate mail will be ignored.

About the Author: Aaron Keller (aaronkeller@capsule.us) is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule (capsule.us), a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand, physicsofbrand.com.