The Professor Makes the Case: Design and Business Getting Together

[back in 1985]

[back in the mid-1980s, The Professor saw the need for the industrial design profession to reconceive its relationship with business, and for businesses to recognize that design could provide a true competitive advantage in that era’s ever-more global commerce]

In 1985, The Professor wrote a short essay that was published in the pages of Innovation, the periodical published by the Industrial Designers Society of America. The article was entitled “Design, the Ninth Principle of Excellence: The Product Half of the Business Equation,” Innovation, Fall 1985, p. 2 – 4. That article has not been available anywhere online so it is with a certain degree of satisfaction that The Professor finally presents it here in its entirety.

But first an introduction [written in 2014] to that short essay.

Once upon a time—a time when greed was famously considered good and selfishness a personality trait to be cultivated—the profession of design held little truck with business leaders. No swag, no sway. At the time, all of the English-language books on the subject of design management could, for example, fit on one shelf, and it could be a small shelf at that. In fact, the wide-ranging, deep-diving, process-driven activity we all know today as comprising “design” had little presence in either the business or the cultural landscape of Ronald Reagan’s, Brooke Shields’s and/or Hulk Hogan’s 1980’s-era America. Since then, the upward evolution and expansive progression of the design profession—and by this The Professor means not only industrial design but the entire panoply of interrelated disciplines that include design in their title—has been nothing short of remarkable.

It’s funny to say this, to have seen this, nay, to have lived through this series of transformations by which design became the public art of our time because—as strong as the imaginations of The Professor’s present-day students now are—they cannot fathom the notion that a mere 30+/- years ago their profession was so closeted, so powerless, so little discussed and so essentially invisible to the outside world.

Current design students appear to be both more altruistic in their practice and much more immersed in the world of creative opportunities than The Professor’s generation could have ever imagined; commensurate with that, the same new generation now sees design for its entrepreneurial possibilities, for its chance to be both product- and service-oriented, for its now-implicit chance to impart a celebrity aura or rock-star life based on the astute arrangement of bits or atoms, form or code, or both [of both].

But in those Olden Days of Yore, design professionals tended to be more court jesters or palace servants than either shining knights in armor or among those considered to be “to the manor born.” Rich or poor, there weren’t many professionals who self-identified as industrial designers in those days; for example, the entire membership of the Industrial Designers Society of America in the mid-1980s totaled under a thousand people. Very few of that period’s “best & brightest” Ivy Leaguers, maniac public school doodlers, independently wealthy trust-funders, globe-trotting Eurotrash club kids, inveterate machine whisperers and assorted epic tinkerers went to design school, became designers on their own, or paid for the privilege of being an IDSA member.

The Professor recalls he and his peers in the New York of the 1980s as being glad, even grateful, to get any almost kind of consulting corporate work; significant projects were often willingly done “on spec” in a kind of glorified creative bake-off with other design firms. Designers of that era typically waited for the telephone to ring, for a prospective client to walk in, or for a typed letter of introduction and/or invitation to arrive by mail. Back then in what might be called The Dork Ages of the profession [a characterization that required no further explanation if one went to the IDSA’s national design conferences and observed the appearance, behavior and conversations of the attendees], designers were the ugly peasant stepchildren, moat outliers to whatever ego-driven fiefdoms that the engineering, marketing and strategy clans set-up close to the castle.

The young designers that The Professor was most familiar with in the 1980s just managed to scrape by. They would enter competitions, do conceptual projects, jostle to get something in a gallery, cold-call potential partners, and make up their own PR to and then send it off to one of the few magazines or newspapers that might publish such a thing. The idea was to cobble together what they could; The Professor, for example, did all of the above in addition to teaching [at Parsons School of Design] and writing for hire [for Architectural Record, AXIS, Industrieel Ontwerpen and Metropolis].

To The Professor, it’s important to realize that the numerous career pathways and creative opportunities that exist today [and there are so many now that they are often taken for granted] only exist because the previous generation of designers—in the 1980s—helped lay the infrastructure that made the present moment’s many professional options possible. That generation was the first to make the case [and make it stick] that design mattered not just visually and functionally, but strategically and conceptually as well.

It didn’t happen all at once, of course. It began to change in the early- to mid-1980s: The Wall Street Journal started a regular design column “Form & Function;” The New York Times added the Home section and regular reportage on design events such as the Milan Furniture Fair and later on, the design conferences and exhibitions; MTV came online and its corporate identity was designed not to endure but to fluidly change, not to be clean and legible but to be messy and energetic; the Olympic Games in Los Angeles [1984] were overtly designed for their temporary functions, uniquely inventive, profitable for the first time in years, and expressly created for a global television audience; the Talking Heads and a few other groups engaged designers such as Tibor Kalman/M+Co. to conceptualize [and unify] their music videos and their album jackets; both the Design Management Institute and the Corporate Design Foundation were launched by Earl Powell and Peter Lawrence, respectively, to further bring the design and business communities together; and the first “case studies” of design-based business successes such as those dedicated to the Braun D5 Plaque Remover Toothbrush and the Yamaha WX-7 Wind MIDI Controller were published by the DMI [based on the case study-model used at none other than the Harvard Business School].

But even with all of those positive changes, the premier design-based publications weren’t American; they were from Japan, Italy, Germany, and Finland. In the US, ID magazine, the only American publication devoted to the design of products—and where The Professor was working at the time—was so incidental that it had a subscriber base of only 9,000+ people in 1983. There simply weren’t enough designers [or design fans] to support even a small publication, and the result was that ID only came out six times a year, mostly in black-and-white.

Even then, The Professor observed that there was a new pattern forming around what the design profession could offer. It was no longer simply about design as an end result, but design as a process or self-organizing system. No longer just about design as a noun [or adjective as in the case of “designer”] but about design as a verb, an action verb. The profession was evolving from its firm focus on the product as artifact—on the Ding an Sich [the very concept that The Professor had discovered scientist Gregory Bateson railing against in his masterwork Mind and Nature, 1979]—and evolving toward an emphasis on the relationship between the product and the consumer. With that shift, the possibility for “the design of experience” emerged; the possibility of designing for emotion, optimism and psychological meaning came out into the open; and even the possibility for the field of interaction design to exist first manifested itself as the initial dialogues about what should be in plastic [hardware] and what should be in pixels [software] launched discussions at countless businesses, classrooms and laboratories.

Although he had a bias to the cultural reach and expression of design, The Professor felt the need in 1985 to take a stand on the design-business relationship. It was admittedly outside of his domain, but companies big and small, especially those in America, were struggling to find their place in a market that was [or had] irretrievably gone global. At the same time, the major economic recession of the late 1970s was still influencing business decision-making, and the general trend seemed to be toward the conservative side; it was the common perception that it was better to deregulate entire industries so that free-market competition could lower costs, or to privatize bulky and wasteful public services, or to cut the workforce [and/or pay and benefits] as a way to become more competitive. The Professor and a few others—design management ace Cooper Woodring notably comes to mind—were of the belief that design could have a significant economic impact without the draconian side-effects of the policy wonks’ plans, even to the point that design could help address the trade imbalance that then existed between America on the one side and Japan and the European nations on the other.

Into this climate had come In Search of Excellence by Thomas J. Peters and Robert Waterman, first published in hardcover in 1982. The book was hailed as a revelation; it sold several million copies in its first five years of being in print; in so doing, it became one of the best-selling business books ever written. The authors researched corporate performance and interviewed company leaders and come to the conclusion that there were eight principles that all successful companies pursued. They were: 1. Bias for action; 2. Close to the customer; 3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship; 4. Productivity through people; 5. Hands-on, value-driven; 6. Stick to the knitting; 7. Simple form, lean staff; and 8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties.

What leapt out to The Professor, nay astounded him, when he read the book a couple of years later in 1984? The fact that the profession of design was omitted, absent, not even considered. Design was completely missing in action from an almost 400-page book dedicated to achieving the best in corporate performance. “Design” was not even listed anywhere as a subject in the small type of the book’s 11-page index! Design may have just started to imprint the Silicon Valley when the book was published—and Peters and Waterman were locals who taught at Stanford’s Business School—but certainly the companies that the authors said that they learned the most from [such as Boeing, Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed, McDonald’s, and Procter & Gamble] were ones that were in the vanguard of utilizing design services in those days at numerous levels.

Even after 30 years, it’s astounding to The Professor that Peters* and Waterman missed out on the important lessons that the design profession and designers of the time could have offered. But it was out of that admixture of fury and frustration that The Professor decided he needed to personally address that deficit. Although he was an unknown writer—a veritable Young Turk to Peters’ and Waterman’s heavy academic and management consultant credentials—The Professor took the both of them on in the pages of Innovation. Looking back, The Professor was compelled to do so, to point out that there was an additional principle that should have been integral to In Search of Excellence’s list. That 9th principle, the proverbial missing link, was that of Design. Specifically, what The Professor termed the achievement of Quality and Excellence through Design [or QED].

Here begins the original text of the article:

QED. Such a nice, neat term, memorable from our high school days in geometry class when we would find, maybe even fake, our way through abstract proofs. Abbreviating “Quod Erat Demonstrandum,” it means “Thus it is shown that.” QED provided geometry with a needed structural loop, signifying completeness, a return to a desired goal that had been set ahead of time. Today, QED can represent more than high-school memories. No longer need its mention carry with it the medicinal aftertaste of ancient romance languages. It can have a newfound relevance that balances on the boundary between things intuitive and things rational. QED can now stand for “Quality and Excellence through Design.”

There is a new and very rich completeness in this meaning, for, the more we learn about the successful connections between design and our lives, or between design and business, the more we find that they are tied into characteristics of quality and excellence. The relationship between this meaning and the older Latin one provides a structural loop. We might say, “Thus it is shown that [QED #1] there is a connection between quality and excellence that is manifested in design [QED #2]. The Latin and the modern meaning form an inspired pair.

In this usage, quality and excellence do not imply taste-bound definitions of style, fashion or etiquette. Instead they refer to a meaningful, often complex and usually personal involvement with the products we own and what we do with them. Quality and excellence do exist, but so do quantity and mediocrity. The fashion and style we see daily are inherently neither one nor the other, but enjoy the ability to be either. Design both expresses quality and excellence and offers a means of achieving that expression.

Our current search for quality in the things we buy is really a quest for excellence. Price still matters a great deal, but for many of us, values and performance have become at least as important. How we employ the field of design can link quality and excellence, price and values, and thus have a positive effect on our lives. In the United States, we do not have a shortage of designers, but a distinct dearth of intelligent and thoughtful use of the designer’s manifold abilities.

Goaded on by our ever-more interdependent global economy, and prodded by the success of books explaining why American business no longer competes as successfully as it once did, such books as In Search of Excellence would seem an appropriate time to speculate for a moment on design’s place within the fabric of American culture and the [warp and] weave of American business.

Is Design the Most Powerful Ally of Contemporary Commerce?

Despite strong consumer interest, a spate of museum and gallery shows, and a strong surge of coverage coming from the popular press, is design still the victim of conspicuous neglect, corporate suspicion and unaware users?

Are the purchasers of the latest cars, coffeemakers and assorted consumer goods merely fashion casualties, prey to style’s latest charms? Or, are there more substantive forms/forces at work here?

Is the design arena now filling with a diverse array of practitioners and interested parties because we’re growing up, realizing that design, like any other significant cultural force, is too important to leave solely to its professionals to work out?

And finally, is market success due solely to [eight principles]: “a bias for action, staying close to the customer, entrepreneurship, productivity through people, hands-on and values-driven employees, sticking to the knitting, simple management structures, and simultaneous loose-tight properties,” as Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman [authors of In Search of Excellence] insist?

These eight properties/principles are all people-oriented attributes. Where is the product mentioned, the actual item that a consumer either likes and buys, or doesn’t?

Quite simply, it isn’t. The authors’ list reads as if Tom Wolfe’s “Me Generation” has come into the 1980s and decided that what is amiss with American business is not its products but its psyches, thereby diagnosing only half the problem. A company is much more than the sum of its people. Rather, it’s an algebraic equation where one variable is its people and another is the product or service it supplies. When we talk about the second variable, we talk about design. It may be design-by-default, decisions made by [outside, other] interested parties, with little awareness of how design works. Or it may be design that enriches the financial and emotional picture of all.

For example, one of the things design can do best is to reduce the costs of manufacture. Products can be designed [or redesigned] to make more economic use of existing materials and machinery. Design can enhance user comfort, product safety and corporate presence. But for this to occur, design must play a much greater part in the product’s conception and development than it currently does. This is especially true of American industry: Our foreign competitors do not have better designers, they have a climate of complete design participation in the full product cycle. When designers are free to conceive products—instead of merely making them “modern,” “sexy” or whatever—then the channels of innovation wonderfully widen. Entrepreneurs and true product champions emerge.

Design: The Differentiating Factor in Business Competition

From the business perspective, design matters when two or more essentially similar products compete against each other for the same group of consumers. When there is only one widget on the market, everyone buys that widget; in contrast, when there are a number of widgets, the immediate concern for consumer and manufacturer alike is how to differentiate between them. Design provides that differentiation and the most direct route to what is affectionately referred to as “increased market share.” This is tied into another wonderfully businessesque term known as “increased added value” which means adding features or other types of functional advantages so that the product is, or appears to be, superior to others.

For all the obvious importance of its contribution, however, design suffers from the same neglect as the Peters & Waterman theory did. Like it, “It is not new or untested, most… has stood the scientific test of time and defied refutation. It merely has been ignored, by and large, by managers and management writers.” How sadly these words ring true with respect to design, for this very phrase so aptly summarizes management’s approach to design over the years, with a few but profusely publicized exceptions such as Container Corporation of America, Corning and IBM.

It is regrettable that these old habits persist because design is of use both as a tool toward better and more successful products and as a way of conceptualizing and so understanding the world. It is a view that emphasizes the economies of ecology as well as the aesthetics of commerce. Design has to do not only with the making of a “something” shaped by market planners, engineers and assorted management types, but with the creation and giving of meaning.

Responding to Change Through the Design Process

Peters and Waterman repeatedly show that one of the hallmarks of the excellent companies is their ability to respond to changes of any sort within their operating environment. As a methodology for conceptualization, the design-based approach is one of the most flexible as well as potentially innovative. In fact, design is most effective when not rigidly applied, but when both specifically focused and casually diffused. In the effort to provide reliability, service and value, design and the design process are formidable allies. And, in light of the strong push toward world markets and world products, design is both a distinction and a necessity. Benefiting from the planning and testing of design provides a considerable advantage in the markets where the slightest advantage can spell the difference between just barely making it and blowing the competition away.

A large proportion of today’s hot entrepreneurial companies know well what integrating the design process into the fabric of the company can do for sales. Companies marketing products as diverse as rowing machines [Precor], stereo equipment [ADS], clothes and lifestyle [Esprit, Benetton, Comme des Garçons], watches [Swatch] and bicycle accessories [Eclipse, Cannondale, Rhode Gear] have all placed design into the key product development and delivery role. They are design-based businesses. Not only have these companies all come a great distance in comparatively short time, all are sensitive to the unabated need for quality products, products created by people who obviously care about those products, how they are made and how they are presented.

To understate it drastically, employees appreciate making useful, high-quality products, products that embody QED. Job satisfaction at companies like Ferrari and BMW is much higher than that at any of America’s large automobile manufacturers [despite the plethora of public-relations pablum that Detroit continues to spill out]. So, even seen from the “people” perspective of Peters and Wasserman, design plays a vital role in business by contributing to the quality of excellence that builds employee morale and commitment.

[the first page of The Professor's essay in its original printed form]

[the first page of The Professor’s essay in its original printed form]

QED: The Best Chance for Competing in a World Market

Quality and excellence are not simply two product characteristics that more and more consumers are demanding. They are increasingly the best chance post-industrial countries have for competing in a world market where labor costs exclude them from a number of cost-advantageous positions in the middle and lower [income] markets. The United States just doesn’t have enough people willing to work for a bare minimum to “foster their companies’ and countries’ well-being.” And this as it should be. The point [that] so many manufacturers miss, however, is that it is no longer necessary to reduce manufacturing costs, control wages or introduce new forms of automation and technology. These steps are neither enough nor the entire answer. They medicate the symptoms, not [cure] the disease.

What is increasingly obvious, and what was emphasized in In Search of Excellence, is that smaller groups are more effective in business than large ones. One assumption that largeness offers economies of scale, making all small companies want to be large companies, actually misleads businesses interested in successful growth. Too many layers of management creep in, paperwork for the sake of paperwork becomes the norm. Moreover, if Memphis and Il Nuovo Italian Design give us one enduring lesson, that lesson is the fact that limited-run production, done quickly, more-or-less efficiently, and with great attention to style, fashion, and general trends, can be much more sensible than large-scale manufacturing. Such quick-hitting production is heavily design-dependent, characterized by innovation and flexibility.

[the second page of The Professor's original printed essay]

[the second page of The Professor’s original printed essay]

Design, in the end, is the way for business to have it all. Corporate profits, social consciousness, value and quality, and the enviable reputation as a “good guy” to boot. The challenge is to build in the criteria designers use to evaluate their own excellence into the pre-production briefs of American companies. Those that do this will give themselves an advantage in the marketplace. As even the junior manager knows, a little advantage goes a long way.

*n.b. Somewhat ironically—more than a decade after In Search of Excellence came out and an even longer period after he had been christened as a top-of-the-pyramid consultant at McKinsey & Co.—Peters shifted his career emphasis to explore and then extol the possibilities for what designers [and more generally, newly tapped creativity] could offer businesses. Books like his The Pursuit of Wow! [1994] and Re-imagine [2003] were not only big sellers, they helped position Peters as a leading advocate for design; it is unknown to this day if there was any link between The Professor’s short essay for the IDSA journal and Peters later revelations about design—but [either way] that’s why they call him The Professor.

innovation.fall.1985#A0B55A

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