Managing design in a corporate environment can be a challenging and sometimes frustrating experience. But a few recent events in my professional life have caused me to look at the whole issue from a more philosophical angle.
In essence, corporations opt to look at design challenges from the inside and for the inside. Anything that happens in the outside world is subjected to interpretation by the insider's design point of view. Then, of course, other inside stakeholders take that point of view and morph it into a more standardized design mandate. In this process external design views are covered twice, and corporate groupthink produces a design philosophy that feels relatively comfortable to all insiders involved.
Here lies the problem. With inside-looking-out thinking, companies insulate themselves from the aspirations and needs of the consumer world, and sadly, the corporate struggles for efficiency and priorities usually win over consumer-minded design. Over two-thirds of our economy is based on a consumer, or outward-looking, worldview. Either directly or indirectly, consumer-facing products and services make up the vast majority of economic activity. Sooner or later, every major brand has to deal with consumer culture—how people feel about the product or service. An inside-out worldview is probably the most challenging and potentially-damaging culture for a company when it comes to producing great design.
Paradoxically, the more complex the design issues, and the better-managed the company is, the more this inward-focused thinking takes hold. Complex problems don't always present obvious tangible solutions to help push companies towards decision-making. So with a clear need to maintain a good company culture, it is all but human to opt for the comfort zone: Everyone gets their say and no risky positions are taken.
This is where the expertise of someone outside the company—a design consultant—might help.
Design agencies, on the other hand, are born to think outside-looking-in. Not only do design agencies bring together radical talent and methodology that's difficult to maintain in a closed corporate environment, they have another advantage that's seldom talked about: Their ability to reflect across industries and companies and to form their opinion based on such experience. They have a role in creating many products, join many different teams, and can reflect, in hindsight, about the success or failure of certain ideas. That agency worldview cannot be counted in sketches, models or dollars—it is an invaluable trove of experience that is underutilized by both the agencies and their clients.
Dealing with a consumer-facing world comes natural to anyone who’s been dealing with a few different consumer products simultaneously throughout the years. And this is how outside-looking-in companies and agencies develop that balanced worldview, combining both the internal agenda and the outsider experience that, together, are so critical for long-term success. Outside-looking-in is how a true consumer-facing brand is built.
[Illustrations Courtesy of Lumaxart]
Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.