Hocus Pocus With a Design Focus

Chocked full of intriguing and sometimes candid revelations, the book Predictable Magic will appeal to anyone interested in reading about the success and sustained success of design projects. Co-written by Ravi Sawhney, a designer and head of the well-known West coast design firm RKS Design, and Deepa Prahalad, a consumer experience expert, business strategist and daughter of the renowned author C.K. Prahalad, these two have assembled a robust set of case studies and stories. They include a few techniques and tools for ensuring successful designs, as well. The points of view of both—designer and strategist—underscore the content, making for an interesting play of perspectives.

There is much to like about this book. Prahalad and Sawhney have crafted a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, although the book's title may over promise a touch. Anyone looking for a secret formula will instead find a simple yet powerful method, or better said, combination of methods. Like any great recipe, RKS uses a series of familiar ingredients and then adds a twist or two to create what the firm has branded as a "Psycho-Aesthetic" approach to designing products. The "magic" in the title, refers to design results and design itself, which often can seem magical, especially if the solution to a problem is something that previously did not exist.

The authors introduce us to the RKS way of creating product designs. The methods first include personas, an adaptation of a tool made popular by noted consultant Alan Cooper (one of my personal heroes), who is appropriately acknowledged in the book. Personas provide empathy and understanding of users and consumer experiences as a foundation to the Psycho-Aesthetic method. The next step is a four-square mapping technique used to determine white-space product opportunities, a common technique made unusual here by the overlapping of two maps to determine the opportunity zone. A clever idea, the maps measure a version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs against what RKS calls interactivity. These kind of maps are most meaningful when informed by cross-functional teams, although actual consumer feedback is the best way to ensure the conclusions are legitimate.

The book contains many RKS projects and Predictable Magic does serve as a bit of an advertisement for the firm, but the book does not pretend differently, and the cases are informative. For instance, the initial success and eventual end of RKS Guitars as an entrepreneurial venture are outlined in an interesting and unvarnished way. And the KOR water bottle is forward thinking and a great example of what dimensions product designs need account for in order to be competitive today. This design dared to enter a crowded market and succeeded spectacularly, even with the constraints and many facets that have become the baseline in products today, such as sustainability, materials use and social responsibility.

Finally, the Psycho-Aesthetics approach concludes with an adaptation of Joseph Campbell's seminal "hero's journey" work, a classic storytelling narrative that Prahalad and Sawhney use as "the path to empowering consumers." While it was not entirely clear how RKS has adapted this classic form, the firm's spin on it is interesting; we can all use help telling better stories and creating heroes in our customers as well as our cross-functional partners—always a good idea for a business. It leads to the elixir, what RKS calls "engaging emotionally" to create true consumer advocates.

In the end the thing I valued most about Predictable Magic is that it does what I always hope for; it reveals more about how design happens than is usually found in such books, which is refreshing. If you are a designer, this book could help you find a new technique or two. If you just like to read about design, well it does a pretty good job of that also.

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