BuxtonI’ve always thought that Bill Buxton had a good view on what was essential in design and technology. Even way back when I saw him in 1996 or 1997 when he was at Alias Wavefront he caused me to think about how Design impacts how we interact with products on a daily basis.

Now having done innovation from the inside of a large corporation, I can’t agree with his view more. It sounds like he could be talking about my (or I bet 90%) of the organizations out there when he recalls stories from his experience. His view is that many companies still need to be convinced of the value of design and how design affects (and requires) co-ordination with all parts of the organization.

But this is not design (or “Design”) that is the equivalent to window dressing or chrome or garish menus, but really a holistic approach to approaching problems. One of the questions he answered at the conclusion of his talk revolved around how he would characterize design. In addition the aforementioned “way of thinking” he very emphatically stated that it was not traditional problem solving, but a way to facilitate a conversation. In fact he mentioned that design is probably the “most negative” profession out there as it required a continual progression from a blank sheet of paper (millions of possibilities) to exactly one, with all the rest being thrown out!

But seems to be redeeming about this process is the conversation and improvement it causes as the ideas are thrown out; each idea informs the next to make it even better than it could have been on its own. This however, requires that design is supported at the proper level in the corporation, which he noted was part of the success of Apple and part of the continuing lack of progress in the 90% of other organizations currently producing products.

During the early days of Industrial Design, designers such as Walter Teague, Harley Earl and Henry Dreyfuss brought something unique to large organizations; how to differentiate their products based on context. They also had a distinct advantage in the early days as they reported in to very high levels in the company, usually the President or CEO (partially because they were “expensive”) but also because they could bring something distinctive to products which were becoming quite similar in customer’s eyes.

Today most design firms report into levels below senior management (in large organizations) and at this point are “positioned to fail.” He went on to ask the audience several hard questions:

  • Is Design an Executive level position at your company?
  • If not how can you claim it’s important?
  • If it isn’t what message are you delivering to your employees?

The key message was that firms have to stop paying lip service to the value of design and actually incorporate it into the strategic decisions of the company.

This lead to a quote from one of Buxton’s mentors, Alan Kay:

“It takes almost as much creativity to understand a good ida as it is to have it in the first place.”

Upon which Buxton added his corollary:

“It takes even more creativity to make an idea real as it is to have on in the first place,”

which I can wholly agree with given my experience in product development!

So where it really gets interesting is his assertion that you need a design culture, not just products to be successful in a chosen industry and he (of course) gives Apple as an example.

In 1993 when Apple’s stock price was declining, future head designer Jonathan Ives started at the company. Through the next two CEOs the stock price declined further (likely through no fault of Ives) until the Apple board brought Steve Jobs back to the company and the rest, as they say is history, with the introduction of the iMac and later the iconic iPod.

So what did Jobs change? Buxton just mentions that Jobs became the Chief Design Officer and promoted the value of design throughout the company. And the remarkable thing to keep in mind is that he did it with largely the same staff that was around during the previous leaders’ tenure. He really just gave the existing staff the tools they needed and the right support to be able to execute on those good ideas.

You may ask what about the Apple G4 cube and hockey puck mouse? Well design is not always about a straight path to success and those “failures” positioned the company to really hit the ball out of the park on their next endeavors. Which meant that the conversation (and risk tolerance for failure) had to exist in the company or they wouldn’t be able to come back and build successful, game-changing products after previous ones failed to catch on in the market.  And it also suggests that corporate culture can change to support design if it is supported from the top and becomes a part of the organizations conversations to deliver contextual products customers crave.