Doing More With Less: Using the Down Economy as a Design Brief

No doubt, a bad economy sucks. A bad economy is tough on a company's bottom line and even tougher on those individuals that have to struggle to make ends meet. But when it comes to the design profession, I would argue otherwise. Not because the industry is immune from a bad economy--far from it--but because negative economic conditions are often a catalyst for change. It also forces designers to create with more care.

crocsTo change, companies need to take a deeper look at their customers needs, empower their people to act, and to think in new ways. They need to invent, develop, and improve their offering in order to survive. This type of change benefits the profession of design, and it benefits the end product itself. Having suffered layoffs, lower sales, and plummeting stock value, some companies reach a point of desperation. Management is awake, listening, and willing to try something new. They're in a teachable moment, so if there was ever a time to push for more innovation, cultural relevance, sustainability, and meaning, this is it. A designer's shot of innovation is just what many companies need now more than ever before. When corporations need CPR, revival comes in the form of Creativity, Passion and Reason.

Contrary to logic, a good economy compromises quality more than a bad one. In good times corporations seek to supply rising demand as fast as possible for non-discriminating consumers that have more disposable income. Flush with R&D budgets, companies fund programs that keep the current best sellers buoyed by tweaking the brand message with advertising, and designing new products as fast as they can.

graterThree years ago when the economy was good, one consumer electronic client in a rush to market said to us sensitive designer types "I don't care about meeting the needs of the left-handed blind ethnic woman, just hurry up and get it done!" That same week another client asked us to design, engineer and tool a product from scratch in time for the Consumer Electronic Show--which was one month away. This mad rush to fill the market with product can compromise creativity and shortcut development, which ultimately affects quality. It also encourages a "wisdom-of-the-crowd" mentality, where everyone wants to get in on the design act, including the CEO's spouse. Conversely, a bad economy forces us all to take a breath and think harder about what we're doing and why we're doing it. There is more at stake because your solution absolutely must provide results.

Corporate survival in a bad economy includes cost-cutting on all fronts, including product cost. During development, designers view product cost reduction as if it's the plague. When a procurement specialist or cost engineer enters the room, designers get out their crosses and garlic. They see cost-cutting as a limitation on product features, performance, part count and material selection. This is partly true, but when designing inexpensive products for a very discriminating budget-minded consumer who now demands good design too, design reduction has even more relevance. The same or more needs to be done with less. Simple solutions are good, and usually cheap.

legosIt's harder to design simple inexpensive products than complex expensive ones. One needs to focus more on the essential user needs and less on the endless feature possibilities or extraneous embellishments. It requires more purity, so that no matter how much they take away from it, it's more likely to survive intact through its development. Simple inexpensive products are also better for the environment. They consume less material, have fewer parts, and use less energy to manufacture and ship.

Mies van der Rohe's mantra, less is more, has become something of a cliché in design circles, but learning to do more with less is a design philosophy that is newly-relevant, creatively-rich, and economically-viable. Constraints stretch flabby design muscles; the results are often surprisingly buff.

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Dan Harden is president and chief designer of Whipsaw, a highly acclaimed industrial design and product development consultancy located in the Silicon Valley. A consummate designer and prolific creator, Dan has been an industrial designer for 27 years and has designed hundreds of hit products for major corporations around the globe. He has been honored internationally, winning over 100 design awards, including Red Dot, Gmark, IDEA, ID, IF, and MDEA awards. He has also been granted over 150 patents.

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8 Comments

  • Michael Pfeifer

    I work with manufacturing companies on new product development and cost reduction. I find that many companies use materials that are sub-optimum from the cost standpoint. In many cases, less expensive options of materials are available to meet the target performance and reliability requirements. However, many engineers use the same materials over and over. They're comfortable with the materials and don't know how to identify and evaluate lower-cost options. In many cases the materials used are overkill for the application. I've found that there's a great deal of room for product cost reduction. The earlier the better.

    Also, design teams sometimes box themselves into a set of materials because of the mechanical design, rather that seeking to optimize the mechanical or electrical design with the materials (and manufacturing processes) to achieve the lowest cost solution that satisfies the performance and reliability requirements. This requires more creativity on the part of the design team, but offers great opportunities for large profits and lower risk.

  • Scott Fisher

    I manage an Industrial Design team for a major packaging manaufacturer and have personally witnessed the need for innovation this year more than any year prior. Proof and credibility to your article. Thanks for the read.
    Also, thanks for stating "It's harder to design simple inexpensive products than complex expensive ones." This is essential when it comes to packaging design.

  • Scott Fisher

    I manage an Industrial Design team for a major packaging manaufacturer and have personally witnessed the need for innovation this year more than any year prior. Proof and credibility to your article. Thanks for the read.
    Also, thanks for stating "It's harder to design simple inexpensive products than complex expensive ones." This is essential when it comes to packaging design.

  • Scott Fisher

    I manage an Industrial Design team for a major packaging manaufacturer and have personally witnessed the need for innovation this year more than any year prior. Proof and credibility to your article. Thanks for the read.
    Also, thanks for stating "It's harder to design simple inexpensive products than complex expensive ones." This is essential when it comes to packaging design.

  • Scott Fisher

    I manage an Industrial Design team for a major packaging manaufacturer and have personally witnessed the need for innovation this year more than any year prior. Proof and credibility to your article. Thanks for the read.
    Also, thanks for stating "It's harder to design simple inexpensive products than complex expensive ones." This is essential when it comes to packaging design.

  • Scott Stropkay

    When companies in tough times cut staff and projects, often the first design challenge is deciding exactly what to develop. I think a designer's ability to see unmet needs and shape project definition is critical here. A parallel design challenge is helping these organizations design the process to maximize their potential for success. Surviving projects in down economies are like life rafts - everyone tries to squeeze on. Unfortunately even the best raft will sink if it is carrying too much weight. I think the organization's chance of success - doing more with fewer and more focused project staff - is especially magnified here.

  • John Barton

    Great article. I also think a down economy is an incubator for innovation. There is no better time to make real change than when game changing events are afoot. Thanks for your article.

  • Dan Soltzberg

    Couldn't agree more. One of the things organizations should take a good look at is how and when they're using research activities in the development cycle. We see many companies that would benefit greatly by being more deliberate about doing upfront exploratory work and then doing iterative research as development progresses. Too often, the type of discovery that should really be guiding a project from inception ends up happening as part of a mid-cycle activity. Deploying research more strategically saves time and money and creates better outcomes.