Forget Praying to the Muse: Create Design Magic on Demand

Is it possible to create design magic on a regular basis? Or do great design ideas arrive from the heavens?


Designer Ravi Sawhney, CEO of the California-based design firm RKS (pictured above), and business strategist Deepa Prahalad, say that any design team can come up with emotionally resonant goods on a regular basis, if they’re mindful of a few basic principles. In their new book, Predictable Magic, Prahalad and Sawhney map out a process for replicable design success. Think of it as magic on demand.


We sat down with them to talk about how this works:

There are lots of books out there about the design process. How is this one different?

Sawhney: This one starts with the premise that the key issue in a product or service is not if it’s functional, or even beautiful, but how it makes you feel about yourself.

Can you give us an example of what you mean?

Sawhney: In the mid-1990’s, the makers of the MiniMed insulin pump contacted my firm because they had a problem: Their product was better than anything else on the market, but people weren’t adopting it. To get a sense of the user experience, our designers strapped on insulin pumps (filled with saline) and wore them, just as a diabetes sufferer might, for several days. We discovered that when we took our pump, people would stare at us and ask embarrassing questions. We realized, right then, what the problem was: People would rather risk their health than face that stigma.

What was the solution?


Sawhney: The pump had been designed to look like a professional medical device — it was in a hard, white plastic case. Very antiseptic. We decided to make it look like a high-tech pager.

So users could look like hip IT guys instead of sickly patients?

Sawhney: Right. Sales soared from $45M to $171M in only three years, and MiniMed was acquired by Medtronic for a cool $3.8B. Medtronic is still the leading maker of pumps.

So how could a firm designing, say, a new cleaning product, use what you learned?

Prahalad: We developed a strategy for tackling new projects that puts the individual at the center. You can remember the steps with the acronym, EMPOWER. “E” stands for “Enable Your Stakeholders.” First, look at existing data and deconstruct prevailing assumptions to get a sort of GPS reading of where you are; “M” is for “Map the Future:” Determine what competitors are doing, in terms of customer experience and empowerment.”

Those seem pretty conventional by research design standards. Where does this get “magical?”


Prahalad: “P” is for “Personifying your Consumer.” This is where we get a feel for emotional triggers through primary research or by looking at ethnography, or look at other trend data. We suggest constructing “Personas,” which are fictional representations of real users, including such things as a name, photo, age, income, and family status, as well as how this person might relate to the product in question. They help bring the data to life.

Once you’ve got all this data, and the people who might be your customers, how do you decide what to do with it?

Prahalad: This is what we call the Opportunity Zone — the “O” in the acronym — and it’s the part of the process that generates a ton of debate in companies. There are generally multiple opportunities. The task is to determine who’s the core consumer and how you can migrate beyond that zone. If you put the competitive landscape on a map, then place the personas on map, you can see voids. The key is that people evolve and markets need to catch up. If you can recognize the higher experiential level where they’re heading, you can be there first.

Is this where the hard design work comes in?

Sawhney: Yes, we call it “Work the design process.” This is where we try to translate all the things we know about functional and emotional needs into a finite set of design priorities on a key attractor map. For example, we might know that this thing has to have three non-negotiables but we don’t dictate what those should look like.

Then comes the second “E,” “Emotional Engagement.” Think back to the MiniMed example. This is where we think about how the consumer will react when he or she comes in contact with the product, engages with it, purchases it, and interacts with it. This step is based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which maps the stages of attraction, engagement, adoption, return, and affirmation. We all need to feel warmth and acceptance. We can build that into the process of buying a car, or a face cream.

What’s the big finish with “R”?

Sawhney: Reward your consumer. At the end of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the hero returns and shares what he has learned with those in the community. In the consumer context, this would be if a consumer felt strongly enough about the product or service to share that experience with another person.


What makes this process more replicable than others?

Sawhney: Think of it as setting a stage for a great performance, the repeatable process. The magic is design, but you have to set a framework, look through these lenses, and set the stage so your peripheral vision is surrounded by people and their lives. When you do that you will, time and time again, have those magical moments. You won’t have to wait for lightening to strike. Even people who you don’t think of as being the “creatives” will explode with creativity.

Why haven’t more companies realized the essential message of your book?

Prahalad: It’s acceptable to say, “I found this gap in the market,” but not to say “I looked at what makes people feel good about themselves. I looked at their emotions.” That sounds flaky. We’re hoping we can introduce that. When you look at why products fail, they were either not noticed, or not appreciated. It’s a person’s emotions, under the surface, that drives business failure — or success. Why not start with that?

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.