Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Using Design to Innovate

I often get requests for quotes in various ways. Sometimes it comes through my website. Sometimes it comes from personal contacts. But recently the requests have had a common theme. "Will you do this for free?"

My answer is almost always "no." (I say almost, because I consider some causes worth my time. But rarely, even in those cases, do I not consider the real costs involved.) I don't know many people who do their jobs for free. I don't know many business owners who do business for free. Yet, there is this persistent belief that it's okay to profit from free work.

Most people believe that they can't afford good design. Even though they usually haven't run the numbers, they default to this response. It's understandable to some degree. In our society, we have been in the process of devaluing aesthetics, the arts, and philosophical thinking. We are a practical society. "If I can see it, touch it, and understand it, then it is real."

The problem with this thinking is that you can never be innovative. For example, a company wants to produce a product that people will use. The usual approach is to do surveys and focus groups to find out what people want. Then take the information and proceed to produce products that the people say they want, or what they say they need in what they want. This produces some fairly predictable results, and sometimes a good bottom-line.

But if you want to be innovative, grab a larger niche, or become a force in the market, rather than another wannabe, you must think differently. I don't mean "out-of-the-box" thinking. I mean more than that. You have to be willing to take risks that are more intuitive. For instance, Apple Corporation didn't make another MP3 player, or just make the MP3 player better. They created a new product that plays MP3s. You don't even think of them as MP3 players. They have their own category: iPods. The company created something that was "cool." This required thinking beyond the product to the experience of the product. This thought process heavily involved design.

Or take Oakly Inc. Their approach was similar. They didn't ask about what's already out there. They saw the invisible. Those products that fill a void but don't exist. They realized, through design, how to solve existing problems.

The obstacle with focus groups and surveys is that people don't really know what they want. They only know what exists, what's wrong with what exists, and what they like about what exists. The problem-solving is a matter beyond them. Good businesses solve problems. And they solve problems by addresses unseen and unsaid factors. And this involves design thinking.

This is also true for service businesses. How do you picture delivering a service that doesn't exist? What do people really need, and why are you the one to deliver it to them? Yes, design can help you think through these issues, as well as visually communicate to a public who may not understand what you are offering.

What business can't afford it?

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