The Design Opportunity

The Design Opportunity

Tom Peters

I wrote this column with an $18 black Cross pen. The ink flow
is superior, but on that score I find a 35-cent Bic more than
adequate. My addiction to Cross is due to the pen’s design — its
heavy weight, smooth feel, sleek look.

As markets become ever more fragmented and as product offerings
proliferate, the search for differentiating features grows ever
more frenetic. One arena that doesn’t receive enough attention is

Design has long been the secret weapon of many successful
companies, from furniture maker Herman-Miller, whose whole
strategy is design-centered, to Black & Decker, Sony, Mercedes
and IBM.

IBM’s Tom Watson Jr. was a design fanatic. Despite occasional
fiascos, such as the first PCjr’s too-soft-touch keyboard, design
has permeated the firm’s approach for decades — not just the
shape and styling of products, but also the look of its offices,
the graphics in its logo and even the format for its order forms.

This pervasive approach is described by American industrial
design consultant Michael Shannon, “Design is the company’s
strategic objective made buyable, made REAL in customer terms. It
is how the company looks, feels, tastes, wears, rides — what the
company is that customers care about.”

Another computer maker, Apple, made design its premier strategic
weapon from the start. An unintimidating look and numerous “user-
friendly” features have been the cornerstones of its effort to
gain widespread acceptance of the computer. And once more,
Apple’s concern with design is reflected in every aspect of the
firm’s operations.

London Financial Times management expert Christopher Lorenz
forcefully argues in a thoughtful book, The Design Dimension,
that design must routinely become a principal strategic tool. He
asserts that an “industrial-design vision” must drive product
development as much as the “marketing vision” (spearheaded by
market research, advertising, etc.) and the “engineering vision”
(which concerns technical specifications). Shannon convincingly
makes a similar case, and suggests that most firms create a role
“Vice President of Design, reporting to the CEO.”

Such positions do exist, but, unfortunately, not in most American
firms. This is one more element of growing importance that we are
neglecting, which keeps American firms at a disadvantage vis-a-
vis our most important competitors — such as the Japanese,
Germans and Swiss. Sony has a senior design position and, of
course, a remarkable history of design-led innovation. Sony’s
industrial designers usually set the parameters for new products,
which the engineers then follow. This is the opposite of the norm
in most U.S. firms, where designers are handed the job only after
the engineers have done their thing.

One major U.S. exception is the smashing success of Ford’s
Taurus and Sable, which provides the most visible example of
design’s importance in recent years. The cars’ distinction goes
well beyond their aerodynamic look. Ford concertedly attempted to
outdo the best car makers in the world on hundreds of small
details — from an easy-to-remove gas cap to an owner’s manual
that readily flops open the first time you use it. Detroit’s more
usual failure to consider such fits and finishes has been a major
contributor to its downfall relative to both the Europeans and
Asians. (The Japanese have not slackened, to be sure. Honda’s
Acura is a monument, even by its high standards, to such
considerations. First-year model acceptance has been unprecedented.)

Last summer I was in Norway, far north of the Arctic Circle for a
couple of days. While wandering through a small-town hardware
store, I picked up a hammer, which was heavy and which I did not
especially need. Nonetheless, I instinctively shelled out the
$8.95 to purchase it and carried it home 6,000 miles, in my
already over-loaded suitcase. Today, when I’m not using the tool,
I keep it on a bookshelf in full view, instead of storing it in
my tool chest. The reason for my odd behavior: design. The
hammer is beautiful to look at, feels good and works.

Several days after I brought the tool home, I got a flat tire.
While changing it, I cut my finger on a metal burr on the surface
of the lugwrench. When thinking about the hammer, it occurred to
me that the lugwrench need not be ugly (which it is) nor have
such rough surfaces. The maker can’t use production costs as an
excuse (I’ve inquired); it simply did not pay attention to design.

Cross (which, by the way, is very successful in design-conscious
Japan), Apple, Sony and the maker of my tool from Norway
understand the strategic influence of design. Whether a company
opts to add a Vice President of Design to its staff or not, there
is no question that the design dimension — style, fits and
finishes, including manuals and forms, and the overall image of
the company to customers — presents an enormous opportunity.
It’s one more element of the quality and management revolution
that Americans must learn to value and to implement.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.