The Power of Great Design

This month’s letter from the editor.

I have to blame Terence Conran for the issue in your hands.


It was Conran, the legendary English visionary who democratized design by making it more accessible and affordable, who hooked me on to the power and appeal of great design. At the time, in the late 1970s, I had moved to London to work as a journalist, and one of my favorite pastimes was to prowl the city’s streets in search of life and culture.

It was all new to me. As a humble and impressionable kid from Paterson, New Jersey, I knew nothing about style or design. Outside of a college art class, I had never been exposed to art and had no conscious appreciation of design in any form. All that mattered to me was function. But during my long, meandering walks through London, I marveled at the architecture, parks, and people, and I discovered the first of Conran’s Habitat shops on Fulham Road.

He had opened the place in 1964 and filled it with furniture and household goods that were austere, uncomplicated, and useful — not unlike the design ethos that Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive have brought to Apple. The products in that Habitat shop collectively came to define a modern style of living for many young people in postwar Britain. It was a rare month when I didn’t venture into Conran’s design emporium, and even rarer still when I didn’t buy a clock, lamp, or some other very cool artifact to bring home and prominently display.

Conran’s guiding principle was simple: Create intelligently designed products for as large an audience as possible at a price just about anyone could afford. He built a highly successful retail chain and design consultancy on that idea. I was just as impressed with Conran himself when I interviewed him for a story for Women’s Wear Daily. His definition of intelligent design is 98% common sense and 2% aesthetics — an approach that reminds me of what has consistently distinguished Apple products in a highly competitive marketplace.

So with a nod to Conran, who made me pay attention to design more than 25 years ago, we give you this month’s special issue. In it, we do something that no other business magazine has ever done: We devote virtually an entire issue to the subject of design. Why? Because we believe that great design has become as important to competitive advantage as smart technology. It’s why Procter & Gamble chief A.G. Lafley is making design a core part of his company’s new culture. It’s why the iPod is the hottest consumer product today. It’s why BMW’s Mini Cooper has been a terrific success. And it’s why Target has succeeded against the Wal-Mart juggernaut.

When Conran introduced design to the masses in Britain in the mid-1960s, he was practicing an art form in a business context. It was new, and it was differentiating. In the years ahead, design will become a basic necessity, a ticket to competing in the game of business. It is a discipline that needs to become ingrained in business thinking, just as quality was in the 1980s, thanks to such pioneering advocates as W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran.


As Ideo CEO Tim Brown writes in his keynote essay, “Organizations need to take design thinking seriously. We need to spend more time making people conscious of design thinking — not because design is wondrous or magical, but simply because by focusing on it, we’ll make it better.”

At Fast Company, where design has always been a key ingredient in the secret editorial sauce, we believe and practice that idea thoroughly. But design is not merely about products. As any of our longtime readers know, design is a way of approaching problems and coming to rich and creative solutions.

Here’s our latest attempt to put it on your radar screen. Thanks, Sir Terence, for helping me get it.