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Are innovation and lasting design incompatible?

That’s what two top designers examined at the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival

Are innovation and lasting design incompatible?
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Marketers have long believed in the power of novelty to move products; this urge brought us the enthusiastic, if grammatically confusing, “new and improved” label. Today, that imperative is stronger than ever, as consumers eagerly anticipate the next cell phone upgrade, and fast fashion replaces investment pieces.

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At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival, Brian Leonard, vice president of design for Lenovo’s PCs and Smart Devices business group, and other panelists discussed the challenges that companies face to create frequent updates to a product without compromising meaningful consumer associations with the brand. When Leonard and his team sit down to begin designing the next version of Lenovo’s ThinkPad, for instance, they consider not only what capabilities have improved, but also, as he put it, “how we can elevate the experience and create a deeper emotional bond with our customers.”

“It’s not just about the speeds and feeds,” he said, stressing the importance of not getting trapped in the mindset of cosmetic changes or simple capacity rather than meaningful transformation. “That’s how you build brand longevity and things that last.”

Design Principal Bill Johnson of HOK, who works on large-scale sports and entertainment venues, has a different set of challenges, yet they usually lead to the same conclusions. His designs are built to last, but sometimes fall victim to the same small-bore mindset and limited ambitions. “I feel that architecture has a responsibility to make the world better and make the world beautiful,” he said. “And I don’t think we have a lot of that going on. There are certain building types—especially the ones that I work in—where the expectations are lower, and I don’t think that’s okay, because we’re trying to create long-lasting, beautiful things that people will enjoy and celebrate.”

To illustrate the compatibility of innovation and lasting design, Leonard brought up the world of high-end guitars, which have improved technically while remaining true to a distinctive aesthetic nearly universally recognized by consumers. In this way, brands such as Gibson (with its iconic Les Paul) and Fender (the timeless Stratocaster) have married the latest technology without sacrificing the look and feel that won them customers in the first place.

“It goes to show that not everything needs to be completely rethought,” Leonard said. “There are things that run out of steam, and you have to reinvent or go through a revolution versus an evolution,” he admitted. “But I find a lot of comfort in things that have a lasting beauty, and I think that’s what we should all be after.”

To find that connection, designers increasingly engage with customers to put user experience at the center of their thinking. Modern consumers crave experiences, not just products, and designers must constantly consider how to create or enhance these experiences through their work. Johnson, for his part, tries to marshal every element of an entertainment venue into the service of experience, including the types of vendors, the location of offices, and the role of sponsors. For example, Johnson tries to integrate sponsors into the live occasion, giving spectators a more personalized interaction with the company that will ideally benefit both the brand and those visiting the venue. “That then enhances the game-day experience, and that gets people to want to come out, because you don’t get that [personalized experience] at home on a tablet or on a phone,” he said.

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To Leonard, it all comes down to thoughtful design focusing on improvement, not a reflexive embrace of the new, whether you’re designing the latest iteration of personal computer or a skyline-defining building. “It’s easy to do something completely new and not pay attention to what was done in the past, but to me, change for change’s sake is not valuable,” he said. “You need to focus on making something better, and that’s hard.”

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FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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