From a career as director of industrial design at Apple to founder of the San-Francisco-based design studio, Ammunition—designer of Beats by Dr. Dre—Robert Brunner has been at the forefront of innovation.
While Brunner likes cool-looking objects as much as anyone, his career has taught him that designing and building beautiful things isn’t the secret to success.
That, he says, lies in asking one question: "Do you matter?"
He argues all types of companies—from designers, manufacturers of products, or service-delivery firms, can benefit by asking these deep soul-searching questions that revolve around the concept of mattering:
- Are we affecting the lives of others in a positive way?
- Are we creating positive relationships with people who use the products we’re delivering?
- Would the world care if we were gone tomorrow?
Asking these questions on a regular basis, Brunner says, can help build a guidance system and a strong foundation for the business.
Brunner began asking these questions after leaving Apple and striking out on his own. "[At] Apple, we always started with, ‘What’s the end experience you want to achieve?’ and then, ‘Let’s figure out how to deliver it,’" says Brunner.
He quickly discovered not all companies thought about product design this way. He became involved in a number of companies who, rather than ask the above questions, based their design strategy on leveraging their own infrastructure and assets.
"A lot of companies that I worked with didn’t really get this idea of spending time thinking about building relationships with their customers. They just said ‘well, we just have to make it look good’," says Brunner who grew frustrated with the flagging success this approach resulted in.
"Successful companies [are those who] are looking out into the world and delivering things that will make people happier and make their lives better. The ones that haven’t worked is where companies looked at here’s some assets that we have, here’s some stuff that we can make, let’s get it out there and let’s sell it," says Brunner.
Making a company matter, says Brunner, isn’t simply about designing good "stuff", but is a long-term project that happens in two ways: first by understanding what the company’s core values and beliefs are, and second, by understanding the audience and what they believe in. "If you look at companies we hold up as great, you can find that they have a tone of voice, they have a position, they have beliefs and they’re connected with their audience—they understand what they want and need," says Brunner.
Brunner applied this philosophy of "mattering" to Beats by Dre, the high-performance headphones and speaker systems created out of a partnership with Ammunition and hip-hop artist Dr. Dre. The idea behind the product was based on a statement that Dr. Dre made, which was "people aren’t hearing my music."
"[Dr. Dre] is an artist and a producer and he’s a perfectionist and he felt like he was putting so much into the music and his audience wasn’t hearing it because their primary listening tool was $29 ear buds or whatever they got with their phone and their iPod," says Brunner.
Beats by Dre had a purpose: to fill a customer need by delivering a high-quality sound experience to an audience of music lovers who were listening to music on poor-quality listening devices. Not only did the sound quality of the headphones need to deliver a great audio experience that conveyed all of the emotions of the music, but they had to be objects the user was proud to display and wear on their bodies.
Bottom Line: The goal wasn’t simply to create a beautiful product, but one that resonated in the lives of the consumer. "We try to do that across anything we do—look at the ways the things we’re creating could connect with people’s lives," says Brunner, who argues Beats by Dr. Dre wasn’t designed as a product, but a movement—representing what great sound and listening is all about. "What makes something go somewhere is the passion and dedication of the principles and ideals moving that out into the world," says Brunner. In other words, it has to be a product that matters.