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Looking at the Micro vs. the Macro in Design

The 1996 movie Microcosmos dealt with vantage point like no other: The world view of insects and other things creepy and crawly. This is what I thought of during the recent collapse of AIG's London office. The giant insurance company failed due to a small 300 employee division that traded a bizarre thing called Credit Default Swaps. They bet away the company's future, and then some. And as a story in The New York Times revealed, the real secret is that no one in upper management really knew what that small team was up to.

Unlike the old MBA mantras, and as that AIG CEO learned, our world is not really controlled by high-flying executive visionaries who delegate tasks to the "London office," or whatever you want to call it. It's increasingly a world of Microcosmos-like vision: A world where highly-effective small groups of uniquely skilled professionals are having a critical impact on their company's future. We are living in a reality where a scientist's ability to switch a gene "on" or "off" is a billion-dollar business for a biotech giant. An atom carefully plugged into a crystal is the new super-fast chip. A world where a mathematician's algorithm can win or lose markets.

These microcosmos have changed design, too.

Not so long ago, products were made of dull plastics, painted in few colors. These parts were placed with large gaps in-between to allow for fast and easy assembly and manufacturing. That world is still out there and it's the world of old design. New design is not a 30,000-foot view of a system or hand-waving generalities...quite the contrary. It's the view of a zero-tolerance, sub-millimeter perfection. It's that perfection that makes Apple as great as it is today.

Such zoomed-in perception is an essential part of any effective design. If a decade ago half a millimeter (0.5mm) was considered a good fit between parts, today the number is 0.05mm. That's an order of magnitude improvement and a world apart between tier one players and the rest of the wannabes.

And those dull plastics of yesterday are now covered with a myriad of surface finish options. Today, any serious company must develop an in-house Color, Material and Finish department (known as CMF). This deals with the exterior 0.01mm of the product! Like a skin to a human body, this is not a mere surface finish, it's a design essence separating brands and distinguishing designs. Surfaces also interact with people. Surfaces carry all sorts of touch sensitivities and illuminations. Doing so requires layering of different materials one on top of the other and doing so with amazing accuracy and consistency. Designers are now dealing with microns rather than millimeters.

Designers are challenged today more by the micro than the macro views of systems. In other words, strategy is too obtuse to be left to people who have no concept of how important the microcosmos are when it comes to making things happen.

Read more of Gadi Amit's The New Deal blog
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Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.