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Design Is Too Important to Be Left to the Thinkers

Recently, at a conference reception (think wine and cubes of cheese), a well-known and influential member of the academic community said to me: "Design strategy is far too important to be left to designers." What a pile of crap, I think. I am pissed, but in a moment of cowardice, I sip my wine, chew my pepper jack, and slink off to lighter conversation. If only I were able to channel Clint Eastwood at will.

But since then I've been considering this notion of "design thinking" by non-designers and its aura of self-importance. You know, it's an area where really smart people spend lots of time pondering strategy, process, core principles, world trends, etc. in order to define the next big thing and change the course of human history. Entire schools have sprung up devoted to the idea.

I'll come right out and admit that I am a right brain, shoot from the hip kinda guy. I believe in an "educated gut" sort of approach. i.e. survey the situation, find inspiration, make it, see what happens, get better at it. True, this approach lacks the patina of "science." But over the course of more years and projects than I wish to admit, I can honestly say that I have been right about more things than I have been wrong.

What I think is wrong about the idea of "design thinking" is the implicit assumption that thinking is somehow removed from the act of design itself. That is, if we get some really smart folks together to ponder and brainstorm paradigm shifts, great stuff will come from it. This is mildly delusional at best.

Great design is born from inspiration, obsession, commitment and diligence. You need to have your head up and observe, and sort out what the truth really is. But in the end, it is about a creative individual taking that information and translating it into something really great. And great design is more than an object: It is an idea. An idea that permeates everything. Think iPod or Harley. These are ideas that coalesce into objects and connect deep into people's souls. This is where great stuff is born. It is about the passion. Go ask Steve Jobs about this.

beats-headphonesCase in point: Beats high performance headphones by Dr. Dre. This new idea in audio was not born of planning, research, pondering or academic thinking. Interscope/Geffen/A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine, hip hop artist Dre and I said: "Wouldn't it be cool if we could marry great audio and great design?" We went out, found a partner in Monster Cable, and did it. Along the way, we were cognoscente of all the strategic implications, etc., but we knew that in the end, it was all about an emotional idea that needed to see the light of day.

Design is too important to be left to the thinkers. I am not saying that forethought is not important. Of course it is. But thought without passion is not going to cut it.

Read more of Robert Brunner's Design Matters blog

After graduating in industrial design from San Jose State University in 1981, Robert co-founded the design consultancy Lunar. Subsequently, he was hired as Director of Industrial Design for Apple Computer where he served for seven years. In 1996, he was appointed partner in the international firm Pentagram, helping lead the San Francisco office. In 2006, Brunner and entrepreneur Alex Siow launched the start-up Fuego, a new concept in outdoor grilling. In 2007, Robert founded Ammunition, focusing on the overlap between product design, brand and experience. He continues to lead Ammunition and Fuego concurrently.

In 2008, Robert co-authored the book Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company with Success Built to Last author Stewart Emery. He also teaches advanced product design at Stanford University.