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issue: July 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door - Engineering
Design Vs. Business: Finding a Common Language

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by Aaron Oppenheimer, designer, Design Continuum

Lately, everyone is talking about design. In boardrooms, in the business media, and in MBA classrooms, design is suddenly front and center as crucial to traditional business models, essential in company growth, and priceless to propel a business—small or large—into the future. Yet, for all the talk, there is one glaring problem.

Many believe that “design” is something they could use, or even require, for the continued vitality of their businesses, yet they are not sure why, or how, they can use it. Some can’t even define what it is. And given any group of believers, nobody is speaking with the same definition.

To some, “design” is the part of the process in which somebody thinks up a good idea. To others, “design” starts when the idea is understood but must be developed, focus-grouped, and refined. And still to others, “design” is simply a styling exercise that happens after the product is engineered. A “designer” might be someone who has the pulse of the consumer and spins concepts, or an industrial designer crafting beautiful forms, or a graphic artist in charge of on-product decals. Confounding the issue further, “design engineers” take concepts and figure out how to manufacture them—that’s “design” too.

When we talk about the “value of design,” though, we’re really speaking about the part of the process in which we decide what the consumer values and how to deliver it through form, interaction, aesthetics, and other “softer” aspects, the value of which may be difficult to quantify. To traditional (maybe stereotypical) business people, designers of this sort may speak in tongues and vice versa. “Design” is thought of as an investment purely rooted in heightened style or form. At best it’s window dressing, and at worst, it’s frivolous. When faced with the prospect of paying for design, many ask, “What’s the return on investment? Why spend on design? Why do we need it?” On the flip side, to many designers, business is just about money at the expense of beautiful products and engaging features: sacrificing those elements that consumers love for the sake of a few pennies.

Designers speak the language of Mars and business people the vernacular of Venus. But there’s a common ground that exists in both camps, and it’s possible to frame the design-investment discussion in those terms. Both business and

design folks are all concerned with risk.
Risk is one term we can all grasp. Far from being a “risky” investment, good design is a surefire way to mitigate risk in a project, and virtually every design activity can be seen as managing elements of risk.

If designers didn’t care about risk, they could design a product by just creating whatever they feel like. If designers happened to know everything, or have exceptionally good instincts, or be unreasonably lucky, the product would be a roaring success. But, given that research shows that 80 percent of product development efforts fail, either by never making it to market or by languishing on the shelf until the manufacturer pulls the plug or goes under, a business strives to control the various risks involved. We want the products to work, so mechanical engineers are used to decrease the risk that they will break. We want the marketing message to resonate, so we do research with consumers to reduce the risk that nobody will listen, or care. And since we want the product to be perceived in a particular way (easy-to-use, robust, etc.), we hire designers to reduce the risk that it won’t.

Here are some ideas to close miscommunication gaps between business people and designers: When discussing design options, stay focused on risk instead of merits, which can tend to be based more on prejudice or personal taste. Ask, “What’s the risk if we use this expensive material? What’s the risk of cheaper material?” instead of, “That material doesn’t do anything for me, so let’s use a cheaper one.” The same is true when comparing a design against the competition’s products. For example, a blanket statement like, “We need this feature if we are to be competitive” is not as compelling as a full understanding of “What’s the risk if we don’t include this feature? What’s the risk if we do?”

A designer’s statement that a design “feels right” contains myriad risk analyses: it’s bold without sticking out; it’s attractive without seeming too precious; it’s tough without seeming overbuilt. Designers are trained to make these judgments reflexively in their work. Such statements can sound like simple opinions; however, designers should strive to be clear about what constitutes the “feel.” And non-designers should keep simple opinions off the table.

Everyone wants the product to be as good as it can be, and no one wants to create products consumers won’t like. By framing projects around the shared goal of mitigating risk, we can get past the questions like, “Why should we invest in design? Is it worth the money?” and on to more important questions like, “What is it worth to offer products and solutions that people love?”


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