“Why am I meeting with you guys?" It was the spring of 2005, just three weeks into Mark Hurd's tenure as CEO of
The ponytailed Sam Lucente, who'd become HP's first-ever vice president of design two years earlier, was in the hot seat. He flashed a slide that showed dozens of HP logos, each created by a different team within the company. The next slide was of a single logo, crafted by his corporate design crew, that could be used everywhere. Lucente predicted that when 500 million of the new "jewel" logos were shipped, the company would have saved roughly $50 million in development and manufacturing costs.
"Now," replied the boss, "you've got my attention."
Lucente argued that design could achieve equally impressive results with HP's software, product controls, packaging, enterprise systems, even parts of its supply chain. He promised senior management what he now describes as "tens of millions" in additional savings. Hurd gave his backing to Lucente's plan to ramp up the companywide design practice.
These days, conventional wisdom holds that good design is indispensable for differentiating products, building brands, and forging new markets. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of major corporations—from IBM to Whirlpool—that have named vice presidents of design or chief design officers, some of whom report directly to the CEO. Few developments more clearly demonstrate the rising power of design in corporate circles.
But it's one thing to win backing for a big design initiative from the CEO, who is thinking about the entire company. It's something else to get executives and managers who run specific business units to embrace corporate design edicts. HP has scores of business units organized into three main divisions—personal systems such as desktop and notebook PCs; imaging and printing; and software and servers—each with its own P&L. The company's 250 designers report to the heads of their particular business units, who are used to operating independently. Lucente may want to create companywide standards, but he can't necessarily enforce them.
As Satjiv Chahil, marketing chief for HP's $29 billion-a-year personal systems division (and former maestro of marketing at Apple, Sony, and Palm), says, "Corporate is the flag bearer for design. But this is where the rubber hits the road."
Clearly, the job of building a design practice that spans a global enterprise like HP is at least as much about management as it is about design. Lucente has taken on the task with a deft political hand. "At HP," he says, "it's all about persuasion—making our best effort and then letting people decide whether they want to take us up on it."
As they like to say in Silicon Valley, that is a nontrivial challenge. After all, the most toxic phrase in business management is, "I'm from corporate, and I'm here to help."
Lucente, 49, has the bona fides of a master designer. Over 14 years at IBM, he and German virtuoso Richard Sapper codesigned the ThinkPad 560 and 710 (also known as the Butterfly) and the Leapfrog concept computer, now in the Smithsonian's permanent collection. At Netscape in the 1990s, Lucente led the design team that played a key role in shaping the original three-pane interface for email. Nevertheless, his view of design's purpose in a profit-making enterprise is decidedly unromantic. "It's fine with me if design is regarded as nothing more than a business tool," he says. "This is a business. We're here to make money."
He was working as a consultant when Hurd's predecessor at HP, Carly Fiorina, tapped him as VP for design in January 2003. Before starting, Lucente printed out images of thousands of HP's products "to get a visual sense of what I was committing to and how we might start to organize it," and papered his entire studio, from floor to ceiling. There wasn't enough space to display them all. HP was then using 98 outside design firms, in addition to its in-house designers. No wonder that when Lucente did an audit of HP hardware and software, the results revealed a stunning range of redundancies. The jumble of logos that Lucente would later discuss with Hurd was only the beginning. Dozens of navigation controls popped up. So did 38 different help buttons in a single family of enterprise applications. Then there was the hard copy. HP had stockpiled more than 80 million different user manuals, brochures, marketing materials, and the like. "I didn't believe it until I walked into a warehouse in East Bay and saw all this stuff stacked on pallets," Lucente says. "That's when we realized we could use design to simplify our entire operation and help the company deliver on its business model."
IBM, the first big organization to pioneer its own consistent style, had maintained during Lucente's tenure a binder of design standards nearly as thick as the Manhattan phone book. Lucente worried that such a regimented approach might discourage innovation. And it would certainly be alien to HP's culture. After having discussions with designers inside and outside, Lucente hit on a different strategy: Craft a "design attitude" to guide rather than steer the product-development teams. "I decided on this experimental approach since nothing conventional—not other designers' experiences or any design management book—was applicable to such a massive undertaking," he says.
The "attitude," as it came to be known, was built around three core attributes: inspired, genuine, trusted. Innocuous as they seem, they were vivid enough for a group of designers to begin to articulate a common visual language. Product teams and consulting firms (now reduced to 10) produced sketches and rough prototypes, and a consensus began to emerge around colors, materials, finishes, graphic icons, and shapes. Lucente's group put it all in a book, then met with every design team in the company. They'd gather in a conference room, about 10 at a time, and discuss the material, page by page. The exercise drove home the idea that HP designers, no matter where they were based or what they worked on, were part of a larger whole.
This venture soon paid its first dividend—of $33 million a year. The audit had uncovered seven variations of racks for the company's servers. So designers in the enterprise-server group used elements from the design-attitude exercise to craft a single mounting kit. The effort not only trimmed the number of parts that went into HP servers but also cut the number of server models by half.
The next breakthrough was with navigation controls. Designers working with corporate program manager Dustin Rosing devised a universal "steering wheel," the Q Control. Shaped like a backward letter Q, with the back button comprising the letter's tail, the control has already turned up on all-in-one ink-jet printers and TV remotes, and won positive reviews for its ergonomics and ease of use.
Rosing posted the control's specs on the internal Web site dubbed the Design Center. Every team working on a next-generation device can download the Q files, as well as guidelines for deploying it on flat or curved surfaces.
The Design Center amounts to an online library for all of the company's universal design assets, including fonts, some 400 software and hardware icons, Flash demos showing how touch screens should operate, even the colors for the backside connectors on notebooks. The net effect is to cut product-planning costs, eliminate redesigns, and free designers to work on the things that will truly differentiate HP products.
It's fine with me if design is regarded as nothing more than a business tool, says Lucente. We're here to make money.
HP's purest rubber-meets-the-road attempt at design innovation is the Blackbird PC for computer-game players, due to hit the market this fall. Working with Voodoo, a hot builder of customized machines for gamers that the company acquired last year, HP designers across divisional lines collaborated to reinvent the basic form of a gaming PC. Lucente tapped corporate designer Mark Solomon to lead the effort and kicked in some of the early seed funding. Phil McKinney, chief technology officer for the PC division, provided R&D support and managed the cross-functional team. Marketing chief Chahil played a key role in aligning Blackbird with the division's branding strategy.
The result is a new-style machine mounted on a stand that helps to aerate the heat-generating processing chips. An origami master devised an intricate layout that hides the machine's wiring so as not to interfere with its guts, which players can access by sliding out a side panel. Complementing these customized flourishes are the new standard power-on icon, piano-black finish, and bracket mounts for the disk drives.
"Blackbird," McKinney says, "is a test bed for design elements, such as the cooling architecture, that we will reuse."
While the Blackbird project is not a unique instance of a product-design team embracing a corporate-design initiative, it's also not the norm—at least not yet. To assess his progress, Lucente has undertaken an exhaustive survey called the Design Capability Index. The index measures such factors as the extent to which business units are allocating design resources, engaging in design planning, managing the process, and availing themselves of assets like the Design Center. The results thus far are unspectacular, ranging from 20% to 40% "design effectiveness" across the three divisions. Lucente's goal is to see those scores rise to 70% to 80%.
"This is a long journey, and we know we're only about one-third of the way there," Lucente says. But he's optimistic. "The early indicators are signaling that we're on the right track."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.