As Design Talent Rises, Standing Out Is No Longer Just About Design

Breakout designs are harder and harder to create. So companies must now tackle the hardest design problems, from service design to customer experience.

I have just returned from a week in Germany, where I was invited to be a design judge for the Red Dot design competition in Essen. It was no small task–there were 4,428 product entries from 60 countries.


I was one of 30 international judges selected to evaluate the entries. The thing about Red Dot that makes it so interesting, and why I keep accepting their invitations, is that all of the entries are actually sent to Red Dot for physical inspection. The judges can not only look at, but also touch, use, ride, play with–and yes, even occasionally even drop!–everything that is submitted. This makes for pretty thorough evaluations.

Design is reaching equilibrium, and that is both good and bad.

This year, I was on a team of three judges tasked with evaluating the entries in the “Leisure, outdoor and sport,” and “Gardens” categories. For each product, we were asked to evaluate the degree of innovation, functionality, formal quality, ergonomics, durability, symbolic and emotional content, product peripherals, self-explanatory quality, and ecological soundness. But what stands out to me most are two things this year: parity of quality and lack of differentiation.

Good design is the norm

Just a few years ago, some of the Red Dot entries I evaluated were clearly laggards. But this year, I was very impressed by the overall quality of the entries. This means, of course, that the bar of design quality is rising all over the world–and any company that wants to compete internationally must have very good design.

If you’ve seen one, you’ve see them all

It may seem contradictory, but the second thing that I noticed was the presence of a design status quo. We’re reaching design parity. Because everything is already pretty good–at least in these types of competitions–it’s getting harder to stand out. It’s tougher to recognize the brand, or even the country of origin. Design is reaching equilibrium all over the world. This is both good and bad: good because the bar is rising and bad because with parity of design, it’s almost as if good design is becoming good enough.

The competition is for design leadership


If formal design is not a differentiator, what is? Well, a lot of things, actually, but they still involve design. The companies that are succeeding at managing the more difficult parts of design–that build incredible design competencies both internally and externally, that take responsibility for service design and the entire customer experience, and that strive to solve the right problems–will reap the advantages in the years to come. These companies make sure that design is part of corporate strategy and they integrate design thinking throughout the organization.

This is the time to work on design’s seat at the table.

In the past, some companies found success by competing with good design and it was easy to win against entries with bad design. But the future is becoming a competition of good design against good design. So every company has to up their design game just to stay even, not to mention beating their competition. Imagine–what if BMW and Nike were direct competitors? Or IKEA and Apple? Or Dyson and OXO? Or Coach and Audi? Then we would see even better design, and more design innovation, more quickly. I believe it is competition on this level that the future holds.

I left Essen realizing that I am happy to be putting my attention directly on the “people” side of design and innovation, the design leaders. It is a competitive world out there, and every company has to bring its best if it wants to stay in the game. This is the time to work on design’s seat at the table and to make the most of it.

[Top image: A set of playing cards by artist Tauba Auerbach]


About the author

Thomas Lockwood is founding partner of Lockwood Resource, an international recruiting firm specializing in design and innovation leadership, and past president of DMI, the Design Management Institute. He is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in design management, and is recognized as a thought leader in integrating design and innovation into business and building great design organizations.