Creating Cults and Cultures With Design

I can't possibly write for a week about design without bringing up Apple. Has a single company outside of the fashion world consistently produced such an impressive collection of offerings that have been both successful and adored? This week's iPhone 3G S is no different. Their brand and products and software are beautiful, wonderful, delightful.

iphone-3gs But it's really a shame that they are so successful.

Why? Because everyone wants to recreate what they have done, but it's never replicable in the same way. That's because the secret to Apple's success is embedded in the personality of Steve Jobs. He is their chief executive designer. He not only empowers an expert team of designers, engineers and marketers, but if you believe the lore that leaks out of Apple, he works side by side with designers giving birth to new products. And he's just lucky enough that people love his taste as embodied in the brand he's created, the products he makes and the software he designs.

Sure, it's an oversimplification. And sure, not every single decision is perfect. And Apple's products certainly aren't for everyone, for every purpose. But because Jobs focuses without restraint on creating a love affair, most of us are willing to forgive Apple's insufficiencies like we're willing to forgive the insufficiencies in a lover.

So what do we tell companies who come to us, dying to get their own iPod design? Well, we ask them two questions before we meet.

southwest-love First, is design on the CEO's list of legacy objectives? If not, the design activity is often about creating better window dressing or optimizing a product for usability—but not about creating a remarkable offering. There just won't be the organizational will that standout products require to survive the corporate development processes. Companies that deliver these kinds of products and services have a creative and empowered culture that wants to understand the customer and that goes the extra mile when perfecting the design. This kind of culture has to come from the top.

I'll save the second question for when we set up that meeting.

method-bottles There are companies that have achieved quite a lot of success without Steve Jobs at the helm. They've done it with a clear vision and empowered culture. Here are two:

Method has made eco-friendly soap cool—-and that helped them break into a very competitive market space. Design is a central tenet of their vision that gives them differentiation from both conventional and other eco-oriented soaps.

Southwest Airlines turns cheap, cramped airplanes into a delightful and differentiated experience by empowering everyone in the company to delight customers and improve the service.

Method's brightly-colored soaps and quirky bottle designs are visual ambassadors to the culture they've created. And if you've been on a Southwest flight—especially where the flight attendant raps the safety information—you can definitely see evidence of its cult-like status. What other companies come to mind for you?

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As a seasoned product developer with a background in both analytical and creative thinking, John Edson's primary role is to build new programs for clients with the right innovation processes led by the right creative team to make a real difference for clients. His experience includes managing the birth of successful products for Philips, Motorola, InFocus, and several startups. Products developed under John's management have been honored with accolades from the ID Magazine Design Annual, the Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award, iF Hannover, PC Magazine's Editor's Choice Award, and IDSA's Industrial Design Excellence Award.

Developing the contribution of design creativity and innovation process in the service of business, society and the environment, John explores the impact of design creativity in a weekly podcast, Icon-o-Cast, that he hosts with guest speakers ranging from Business Week's Bruce Nussbaum to author and cognitive scientist Don Norman. John is also a regular speaker, having lectured at Wharton School, given a keynote at Intertech's Flexible Display Technologies conference, and participated in a talk for the Business Marketing Association of Northern California. A lecturer at Stanford, John teaches courses in product design and creativity.

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  • I'm the Cold Wiz

    Here's a design challenge: For bloggers on the subject to NOT sit and praise the iPod and iPhone, but rather dig deeper into the design community and find the other diamonds in the rough. Praising Apple at this point is about as expected as a kid mentioning Santa Claus on Xmas Eve. Surely there are other companies/brands/products that are itching the trigger fingers of consumers based on their designs, no? How ironic: Design professionals are charged with coming up with fresh, new ideas and ways to change paradigms...yet the blogging in favor of Apple is past being tired at this point. Let's think outside of the iBox.---I'm the Cold Wiz

  • Gen Hendrey

    I like Starbucks just fine, but as an East-coaster, I also appreciate Dunkin Donuts' anti-fancy-coffee campaign--especially the funny TV ad. So, if we are talking "visual ambassadors to the culture they've created," then I'd mention a tee-shirt I saw yesterday, worn by a 20-something hipster in the super market. It was a dark brown shirt with oversized, pink and orange, rounded block lettering that read, "friends don't let friends drink Starbucks." I didn't notice any logo, but it was obvious whose ad it was. And that the hipster was wearing it at all--even if he wore it ironically--says that Dunkin' Donuts has had some success with its campaign.

  • Katherine Bourgeois

    Gotta mention Michael Graves for Target, everything from toilet bowl brushes to board games...

  • Alexandre L'Eveille

    Love the topic, but I have to take issue with Method. In general, I love their product and packaging, however, they missed the boat with dish liquid. The bottle LOOKED cool was nearly impossible to open with wet hands (mine usually are when washing dishes) and the slick cap was a challenge to twist to close or tell when it was open since the product didn't dispense properly. I could understand this oversight from a small company, but part of method's success is due to its design. How about testing in actual use conditions? Form needs to follow function.