Is it beyond the call of duty to ask your design team to kayak out on Lake Michigan at 5:30 on a cold Chicago morning and dunk-test a Nike outdoor watch? Kathleen Brandenburg doesn't think so. A graphic designer by training, the 33-year-old Brandenburg is one of the country's premier practitioners of immersive design. (That doesn't necessarily mean dunking things in water; immersive design involves close study of how something is used in the real world.) So Brandenburg and her IA colleagues listened to more than 100 customer-service calls to improve the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Web site; they played pool with customers in their homes to understand how to rebrand Brunswick Billiards. Says Peter Lawrence, founder of the Corporate Design Foundation: "While many firms profess an [immersive] approach to design, very few practice with this kind of commitment." Another one of Brandenburg's commitments: return on investment. IA's suggestions for Nike helped its new watch line triple in sales. All of which proves Brandenburg's theory: Before you can execute the design, you've got to live the design problem.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.