We live in a golden age of design. From the industrial era all the way through the dot com era and beyond, good design was a privilege reserved for a few companies with big budgets to spend on R&D or branding. In a world where every company is a technology and data company, design is now the competitive advantage. In fact, I believe the recent record rise of unicorns is not just indicative of access to capital, it is indicative of access to brilliant design.
THERE’S NO SINGULAR DEFINITION OF DESIGN
A lot has been written on design thinking; however, I prefer to discuss design thinking as an imaginative skill rather than a methodology. Most approaches focus on product or become problem-solving extensions. For example, empathy for a situation or customer is good, but it’s like being on a treadmill—it keeps you fit but in the same place.
Design is a metaphysical ability to ideate. It is probably best discovered through these two statements:
• Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
• Donald Judd: “Design has to work. Art does not.”
In these statements you discover the disruptive, transformation nature of design—and the need for it to be functional, leading up to drawing an emotive experience for the users.
IMAGINE, DESIGN, PREPARE, LEAD
I put a premium on curiosity, design and imagination. These three very human capabilities are key to building a future yet to be discovered. Design is a fragile human process and probably the best competitive advantage in the automation era.
In the words of Jony Ive, “Ideas are extremely fragile. Ideas are not predictable in terms of when you will have them or how many you gonna have. Over the years, we created a team and environment that when they do arrive, we nurture them.”
Let me walk you through the four dimensions.
Design is that pure idea as it pops into your mind, unadulterated by limitations of the existing reality and unbiased by what is possible. That idea is the imagination brief. Groundbreaking ideas can be traced back to the brilliance of an imagination brief that is inspiring and distinct.
An enduring example of this is the iconic Coca-Cola bottle design in 1915. This comes from an imagination brief that is iconic in itself: a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.” It also lays out certain design principles that establish how this idea should be brought to life.
With an inspiring and distinct imagination brief completed, now is the time to get some details on paper about how the idea would work. To keep the idea pure, resist the temptation to jump into the realities of execution. Drawing out the details and interfaces helps create a compelling working vision of the imagination brief.
Imagine a traditional animator drawing storyboards frame by frame. It is that level of passion for bringing the imagination brief (story) to life that made characters like Mickey Mouse powerful enough to directly impact copyright law in the U.S. Plenty of companies, including Uber, Xerox, Airbnb and Zoom, have also made design a verb.
This step is about identifying and building the right capabilities in leadership, technology, processes and organization to bring the idea to life. It’s about experimenting through prototyping to test these capabilities before being handed off for live production. It’s about gathering insights that help sharpen the compelling storyline of customer experience in the last mile.
You have to ask, “Is Apple great at the imagination brief or is it better at building the right capabilities to bring an idea to life?” The contrast of organizational culture and methods between NASA and SpaceX is another great example of how iterating and developing rockets rapidly put the first humans ever on a commercial spacecraft.
Lead is the powerful last mile when the idea interacts with the users. A product or service, a solution, or even an NFT all interact to create an experience. It is that storytelling and last-mile focus that matters to validate the imagination brief. This is what I call the Pixar moment for your idea.
The race for super apps is a telling example of storytelling and last-mile focus. The ability to help customers reimagine how they get their service across seemingly disparate areas of needs fulfilled in the last mile is fueling the race for the Super Apps by WeChat, Paypal, Yandex, Rappi, Grab, Reliance, Tata, Gozem and many more.
Does your company commit design crimes against humanity?
No one creates great design by default. In fact, the world is full of leaders who create poor designs. This includes interfaces that are just not human, customer processes designed for internal convenience, job application processes that don’t want you to apply, cities that are too complex to navigate, and airports that are entirely dysfunctional.
To avoid this conundrum, remember two things: Always start with a brilliant imagination brief, and weed out unimaginative leaders—especially at the top.
Hari Abburi helps CEOs & Companies be At The Speed Of The Customer® | Global Director, Caltech Exec. Education | Managing Partner, The Preparation Co.