Why Does the Best Design of 2009 Still Look Like 2000?

"Cocksure: The Psychology of Overconfidence" is the title of Malcolm Gladwell's recent piece in the New Yorker, where he investigates the mental-space of decision-making. Gladwell analyzes financial collapse and war, arguing that beyond the conventional explanations of those predicaments (structural mishap and cognitive deficit), there is a psychological dimension at play. In high-stakes situations, we suffer from a more deeply rooted conundrum: a crisis of overconfidence.

Gladwell's tales of a brazen Bear Sterns' CEO and a feckless British officer deftly illustrate how confidence misapplied can lead to dire situations. However, it is not overconfidence alone that creates a global financial collapse or failed military operation. Gladwell contends that leaders of all stripes and industries, in war and peace, recessions and booms, base their future behavior on what created past successes. Instead of understanding current situations as ones requiring different and new thinking, leaders often fail to adapt.

In many ways design is the ultimate practice of adaptation. Designers modify their environments by creating objects and systems to promote better behaviors and experiences. But are there times when we resist adaptation? In design, as in business, don't clients or partners deliberately select us because of our track records of past successes? Because our portfolios give an indicator of future success, are we really encouraged to drift away from what we know? I would answer yes, and yes.

Designers are confident in greeting new situations with agility. We meet challenges with freshness, optimism, and creativity. I believe that. I say it every day. I am a professional designer.

But then the winners of the IDSA International Design Excellence Awards (known as the IDEA awards) were announced.

I was one of what award-sponsor BusinessWeek dubbed the "20 world's top designers," who had the privilege of judging the 1,600+ entries. It was an extremely rewarding experience, and I was engaged and delighted by the caliber of conversations in the judging, and of course in the excellent entries.

In fact, it was such a positive experience that I started to poke around in the archives of IDEA winners to get a richer sense of the history of which now I was a part. I started in 2000. And I found something surprising:

2000 Phantom Desktop and 2009 Karbon
2000 Phantom Desktop and 2009 Karbon

These two winners shared a surprisingly similar look and feel. I wanted to find out if this was an anomaly, so I pulled some more winners.

2000 View-Master Virtual Viewer and 2009 Argus Bean Children's Digital Camera
2000 View-Master Virtual Viewer and 2009 Argus Bean Children's Digital Camera

2000 LabSpec Pro® Spectrophotometer and 2009 HP FIREBIRD
2000 LabSpec Pro® Spectrophotometer and 2009 HP FIREBIRD

2000 Stanley IntelliSensor Digi Scan and 2009 All Area male body shaver concept
2000 Stanley IntelliSensor Digi Scan and 2009 All Area male body shaver concept

2000 Herman Miller Caper Seating and 2009 Steelcase Cobi Chair
2000 Herman Miller Caper Seating and 2009 Steelcase Cobi Chair

2000 NEC Z1 Personal Computer and 2009 Venue 40
2000 NEC Z1 Personal Computer and 2009 Venue 40

2000 Portable Cooler and 09 Ridgid® SMARTCART™ Wet Dry Vacuum Cleaner
2000 Portable Cooler and 09 Ridgid® SMARTCART™ Wet Dry Vacuum Cleaner

Perhaps the similarity of these highlighted designs suggests a continuum of aesthetics in our field, or a consistent ethos in the creative community. But maybe it's something different--perhaps it also indicates our lack of adaptation.

Consider how the world has radically, unalterably, unyieldingly transformed in the last decade. In the year 2000, we didn't have Google, 9/11, the iPod (or the iPhone!), the war on terror. Wal-Mart was a chain store, not the global monarch of retail. At that time, our most serious financial concerns involved the failure of Pets.com. Enron and AIG were icons of performance.

Fast-forward to 2009: with all of the change in this decade alone, shouldn't design look different?

If designers are truly cultural shape-makers, why are we awarding the same thing we awarded almost ten years ago? Gladwell might suggest that we are suffering from an "illusion of control" where be believe so stridently in our past decisions, that "we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments." It's natural that based on our experiences, we select what we believe to be good. But maybe in this new world order, it's not good enough.

Design is increasingly recognized as a critical factor in business. Designers regularly work with corporate leaders, leading foundations, and governments around the world to solve the most complex problems of our time. We ask industry for higher-order challenges, we are requesting that design students graduate with more nuanced strategic and holistic skills, but still measure our successes with a beauty shot and a 200 word description. We remove context to look at the artifact, instead of understanding the system at work. We evolve competitions by cleaving on new categories of relevance (I've recently been an eco-design judge, a do-gooder judge, a social justice judge), instead of reconceiving the entire platform.

Design is at an inflection point. We are playing a more significant role in industry and policy. Now our challenge is how to describe our value. We need to adapt to our current role in the world, as problem-solvers not stylists, as collaborators not lone inventors. We need to represent and celebrate what design actually does, not the way it used to look.

Saul Bass said, "Design is thinking made visual." What does design thinking look like? More importantly, what does it look like now?

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Valerie Casey is a leading thinker and practitioner in the areas of design and open innovation. She specializes in helping organizations--from Fortune 100 companies to start-ups--develop their internal and external networks to address cultural, economic, and environmental challenges with greater agility. Valerie is the founder of the Designers Accord, the global coalition of designers, corporate leaders, and educational institutions focused on creating positive impact.

Valerie currently leads the digital experience practice at IDEO. Prior to IDEO, Valerie was Executive Creative Director at frog design, an Associate Partner at Pentagram Design, and Associate Creative Director at vivid studios. Her work has been highlighted in multiple publications, and in 2008, she was named a "Guru You Show Know" by Fortune magazine and a "Master of Design" by Fast Company. Valerie lectures on design throughout the international community, and is an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts. She holds a master's degree in cultural theory and design from Yale University and a BA from Swarthmore College.

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20 Comments

  • Slytle

    I disagree with every comparison you have made. The only similarities I see are in the chair designs. But comparing a Herman Miller design to a Herman Miller knockoff (steelcase) is kind of an obvious comparison isn't it?

    Had your comparisons been valid, I would still disagree with your argument. There is no such thing as original design. Design evolves through inspiration. Inspiration comes in many forms, but I would struggle to find an example which is not borrowed. Similarities between two beautiful designs should not be thought of as a lack of innovative thinking, but rather a confirmation of the relevance of both.

  • Edward Dodonas

    I agree Valerie, I think we are seeing doldrums in the design industry though I can't quite put my finger on the cause. Perhaps the uncertainty which has clouded the early days of this century is stealing focus from design and innovation, instead emphasizing practicality and the comfort of things well known...? My business, is not one where you'd expect design innovation to play a huge part, but we too are seeing a decline in inventive design solutions, and it is something our clients notice as well.

  • Gong Szeto

    great piece valerie. you are a new breed of investigative design reporter. dan bartram says it best, "Designs are answers to the clients brief. So to change to the answers, shouldn't we as designers help write the questions?"

    be patient. we'll get there eventually.

    gong szeto

  • Dan Bartram

    I agree with your points especially about design competitions and how clients make their decisions on what has been, not on what might be.
    But on the issue of the winning designs looking similar there is a key factor. The world may have changed greatly in the last 10 years but humans haven't (just got a little older and fatter). That's why an award wining chair form 10 years ago looks very similar to this years award wining chair. Just a bit less space between the arms.
    Designs are answers to the clients brief. So to change to the answers, shouldn't we as designers help write the questions?

  • Jonas Buck

    Valerie,
    I was reading your blog post with a lot of interest since my student concept „all area –male body shaver“ is one of the examples you’ve used.

    To be honest I’m very confused by the point you are trying to make.
    Since you picked products from totally different categories, placed them right next to each other and stated that they are similar my guess is that you are trying to focus solely on aesthetics – a big mistake when talking in the same article about: “We need to adapt to our current role in the world, as problem-solvers not stylists“ & „We remove context to look at the artifact, instead of understanding the system at work.“

    Even if I try hard and follow you on that path to just compare aesthetics, it does not work at all for me.
    Looking at the before by Gadi Amit mentioned comparison between the „2000 LabSpec Pro® Spectrophotometer“ and the „2009 HP FIREBIRD“, I have to squint my eyes really hard to ... still not find them any similar.
    Again trying harder I see black and silver in both of them and they both might have their roots way back in a rectangular shape. Is that really enough for you to state those being similar and calling out „...our lack of adaptation. „?

    In your comment later on you ask: „at what point does form historically change? 10 years, maybe 11? 25?“

    In my opinion a radical change of a product’s form (that seems to be what you are looking for) happens whenever the cultural environment or technology induces that change and not after a fixed amount of time.

    Just some examples I can think of...
    - The HfG Ulm in Germany that established a very rational approach to design as a reaction to World War II. (Resulting for example in the Rebranding of Braun in the early 1950’s)
    - Computerization
    - Graphical User Interfaces
    - CAD Tools
    ...

    I agree with you that communicating a design solution with a 200-word description and a glamour shot can be challenging and does not always do justice to the design and its context.
    And yes, Design Thinking is very important, relevant and can help solve complex problems - and it is hard to express it in that above-mentioned way. At the same token let’s make sure to consider the products’ individual functional requirements and sharpen our eyes for appropriate highly detailed aesthetic solutions. Something you totally disregarded when you wrote this article.

    If I totally missed your point, let me know. I’m always eager to learn.

    Jonas

    Btw. Thanks for motivating me to write my first comment on this site.

  • Tim Hulford

    Ouch. The form comparisons are damaging to this article, I think. Perhaps also the suggestion these IDEA winning solutions celebrate they way design "used to look" is also discrediting. In a world which is now populated by a rich and terrifying historical mass of both successful and unsucessful products, everything is susceptible to this type of context-free comparison. We won't get anywhere by taking a picture of a haptic research device, placing it next to a picture of a water faucet and asking the question "Where have we gone wrong? Why are we stuck in this pattern?"
    That said, I do happen to believe that we live in an era where we use a lot of products that mysteriously lack a formal connection to what they are and what they do. Most consumer electronics are baffling in the sense that they all share similar DNA, similar form factors and detailing, and yet they all do different things when you push the power button. I think there is a whole lot of room for designers to question things here - and not pat ourselves too rigorously on the back for designing yet another mystery meat that distinguishes itself only in magazines and while sitting on the store shelves. I'm not saying don't pat at all....just not too hard, there's still work to do.

  • Bonnie Powers

    Love the discourse here! An interesting reminder of where inspiration may derive from Jim Jarmusch: Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, objects, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work with be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable, originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery- celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Goddard said, “It’s not where you take things from- it’s where you take them to.”

  • c. stadelmaier

    Yes, DESIGN is the new business buzzword! Marketers have co-opted and corrupted the word DESIGN, while in our tuned in, turned on 24/7 world, the word that must proceed it GOOD has been totally forgotten. For example, the Karbon won, not for its good design but IMHO for its masterful marketing. (I have no desire for a dental drill in my kitchen.)

    For anyone that is interested in the topic, Metropolis Magazine dedicated the entire March 2009 issue to the topic of GOOD DESIGN. Donald Norman answers the WHY of the above question succinctly in the issue: he correctly states that memory is a critical part of design. <http: 20090318="" selective-memories="" story="" www.metropolismag.com=""></http:>

  • A Batch

    Hi Valerie

    As a non-designer I see the parallel's in the imagery you displayed and I did not see your article as an attack on designers or design (seems like the commenting designers here are pretty defensive). The items displayed from 2009 dont appear to be going for a retro look? Its a good question, how much has design changed in the last decade? As I type this on a black rectangular notebook PC made of plastic and glass. Styling, function, form & materials for many items in regular use have evolved little (ie its not just appearances).

    Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. We market ultra rugged mobile phones (www.sonimtech.com) that are often perceived as 'ugly' to people outside of the target market but are the best in class in terms of fitness for purpose and our customers love them.

    --
    Cheers Batch

  • Luke Williams

    Valerie raises an important issue here that is seldom debated – and one that has nothing to do with the strength or criteria of industrial design award programs.

    As an industrial design practitioner, I recognize that I’m influenced by successful form patterns and archetypes. It’s impossible not to be. Through repeated exposure to the artifacts of design (past and present), and a lot of practice (sketching, prototyping), we gradually develop form patterns that can be used with confidence on future occasions.

    In fact, you can think of a designer’s “intuition” as a gradual building up of these patterns, which often cannot be verbalized or even made conscious. The most easily activated form pattern is the most familiar one, the one that the designer has encountered most often. This doesn’t apply only to designers. Every profession has patterns.

    This post is a timely reminder that we’re great at establishing form patterns but not necessarily good at restructuring them to move them forward (adaption). The patterns do change, but often not for long periods of time. The very success of a form pattern ensures its continuity (which is why its a useful exercise to look at awarded products over time).

    Valerie’s provocation is asking, “Is it time, once again, to change the pattern?” That’s the issue.

  • Alexandre M. A. Ribeiro

    Hi Valerie!
    Your article is the kind that makes people think.
    Talking about adaptation, look at this project for Mozilla Summer Design Challenge '09: http://www.faberludens.com.br/.... When i proposed this concept for the project team, i was just expecting a lot of altercation from the public. And we got it: http://labs.mozilla.com/2009/0...
    What you're proposing means change. And people usually don't like it: http://translate.google.com.br...
    Best regards,

    Alexandre Ribeiro.

  • Chelsea Sutula

    Hi Valerie,

    I have to say I’m a bit confused at your statement that designers have failed to adapt, followed by the proclamation “We need to adapt to our current role in the world, as problem-solvers not stylists…”

    As a judge of the IDEA Awards you were given the following criteria of design excellence upon which to base your decisions:

    1. Innovation (design, experience, manufacturing);
    2. Benefit to the user (performance, comfort, safety, ease of use, user interface, ergonomics, universal function and access, quality of life, affordability);
    3. Benefit to society and natural ecology (improves education, meets basic needs of low income populations, reduces disease, energy efficient, durable, uses materials and processes with low ecological impact throughout lifecycle, designed to be repaired/reused/recycled, addresses toxicity, source and waste reduction);
    4. Benefit to the client (profitability, increased sales, brand reputation, employee morale);
    5. Visual appeal and appropriate aesthetics;
    6. Usability testing, rigor, reliability (Design Research category); and
    7. Internal factors and methods, implementation (Design Strategy category)

    So the assertion you’re making is that because occasionally, great form factors show up again later in new applications, design hasn’t adapted. You seem to be disregarding the other six criteria for which these designs were all given recognition, often characteristics that are not immediately visible. But of course, as a "BW top 20 designer," I know that’s not what you meant to imply :)

    Chelsea Sutula
    RKS

    (former Director of the IDEA Awards)

  • Amitabh Bacchan

    Valerie,
    In the spirit of absurdity of the examples I'm surprised and amused that you didn't pick the Audi TT vs VW Beetle or the more obvious two wheeler Ducati vs the common bicycle, they both have two wheels and a seat.
    Citing above examples only water downs the great skill and creative process that goes into generating good form factor and discovering finer nuances with it. Your blog is a classic example of designing a solution and then looking for reasons to justify it, in short a lack of design process.
    To Amit’s point these examples are mutually exclusive and beautifully different and its to the onus of people like you to advocate that, rather than chime with the uneducated layperson. I expected to read this article in China’s manufacturers daily and would have found it hilariously suitable.

  • Valerie Casey

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Obviously the piece is not an attack, but an observation. I was a judge for the 2009 IDEA awards, and I discussed and voted on each of the winners. I truly believe that the 2000 and 2009 winners are highly deserving for overall creative value and excellence.

    My comment was more about the evolution of design, and how we communicate what we do to the world at large. I love the conversations I have with other designers about functionality, fit and finish, material choice, the research insights that lead to a subtle but transformational solution. But outside the studio, we need to have a different conversation with people who look at the winners’ gallery in a different way. The visual gloss I prepared for the piece is what they see. (And judging from what I've heard from other designers, it's what a lot of us see too.)

    Maybe it would be more interesting to talk about something that came up in a conversation I had with the folks at IDSA: at what point does form historically change? 10 years, maybe 11? 25?

    How can we understand our work better, from a celebratory and a critical perspective? How might we look at our work in context of industry and think about how we instill new thinking and communicate complex solutions, all while keeping step with our rapidly changing world?

  • Vinay Rao

    What junk!
    You are obviously not a product designer. I have to strain real hard to see more than a faint resemblance between most of your examples, the chairs being an exception.

    You are mistaking form to be the same as proportion. In the 3-dimensional world (which I presume you do not practice in) of products, two unconnected objects may assume similar proportions because of product use, internal functional technology necessary to enable use, and the constraints imposed (or innovated with) by the means and methods of production.

    the typology of every single element in every one of your examples (the chairs are hard to tell because they are not the same view) is so beautifully different, they are not even similar 'designs'.

    Sorry to say this, but it looks like you were looking for some controversial topic to write about, but didnt really find the meat to back it up. Cant see why Malcolm Gladwell had to be brought in either. For credibility and effect?

  • Gadi Amit

    Valerie, sorry but you're way off-base here.
    2000 LabSpec Pro® Spectrophotometer and 2009 HP FIREBIRD- Similar??? No way! I think I must be blind but it looks like the HP is actually different... anyone care to compare visual feature by feature?
    2000 Phantom Desktop and 2009 Karbon... Similar? not by a lightyear. Try function first, then maybe its a good time to strat talking materials and styling, then maybe physical configuration.

    That's a real cheap shot at a very decent work done by very good designers, past and present.

    gadi

  • Lori Hobson

    Wow, this was just on my mind, Valerie. The Nanopoint cellTray Fluidics System's aesthetic reminds me a lot the Apple HiFi. I don't mind when one design inspires another, but depending on how close the inspiration is, I do sometimes wonder if these are really "best in category" or "Gold." Just something one ponders.

  • Steve Portigal

    This is a provocative piece. I am not sure that I follow the connection between Gladwell's insights on overconfidence and the persistence of (award-winning, even) form archetypes. You know those books that show people and their pets looking the same (or the car commercials that showed people and their vehicles looking the same)? Isn't there an ability to pattern match that doesn't do these designs justice? Is there something wrong here? Aren't there antecedents to these forms that go back dozens, hundreds, or thousands of years? Aren't there fundamentals about interpersonal interaction, the home, work, and so on that transcend ultimately blip-like effects of Gmail, Wal-Mart, and even (gasp!) 9/11?

    --
    Portigal Consulting - http://www.portigal.com/
    All This ChittahChattah - http://www.portigal.com/blog/

  • Peter Mortensen

    Maybe it's just a realization that a lot of great design is less about novelty and more about making something that connects with what people understand? So often, design's biggest role in innovation is making the weird and far out seem everyday and ordinary. Just my 2 cents.