As much as Apple’s iPod has done for the music industry, it has done even more for the field of product design. The success of the iPod, with more than 220 million units sold, has vividly shown other companies the value that effective design can create—and, potentially, the value of design consultancies, such as IDEO Inc., frog design and others. At the same time, the consultancies themselves have been extending their reach beyond products to include, among other things, better customer experiences for hospitals and banks.
Tim Brown, the chief executive of IDEO, argues in “Change by Design” (HarperBusiness, 264 pages, $27.99) that companies should treat design as more than a matter of aesthetics or ease of use. “ ’Design’ is no longer a discrete stylistic gesture thrown at a project just before it is handed off to marketing,” he writes. “The new approach taking shape in companies and organizations around the world moves design backward to the earliest stages of a product’s conception and forward to the last stages of its implementation—and beyond.”
Mr. Brown is an apostle of “design thinking”—by which he means that organizations should use design’s intellectual tools. Part of this imperative, in Mr. Brown’s telling, is a matter of process: brainstorming; treating the road from inspiration to implementation as a two-way street, so that insights late in the journey can be part of the finished product; and keeping teams physically integrated with shared project rooms, contrary to today’s trend of relying on virtual integration via “intranets” and email.Mr. Brown also argues for companies to become more designer-like by increasing their use of prototypes to test ideas. Prototypes, even quick-and-dirty ones, shed light on how a concept will meet real-world needs. He recounts IDEO going so far as to mock-up an entire hotel lobby and guest suite to help Marriott ponder the needs of extended-stay business travelers.
Mr. Brown argues even more emphatically for the close observation of users in their natural habitats. Traditional market-research tools—focus groups, surveys—rarely produce breakthrough findings, he claims. IDEO and others follow users around—making video recordings of them as they go about their routines, recording conversations with them—to build an understanding of what they really need. An IDEO employee in the health-care area, for instance, pretended to have a foot injury and checked himself into an emergency room with a hidden video camera to get a better view of the patient experience. This anthropological form of market research, Mr. Brown notes, has been adopted by companies such as Intel and Nokia.
Hartmut Esslinger, the author of “A Fine Line” (Jossey-Bass, 183 pages, $29.95), founded the design firm frog design—no capital letters, please—as a young man in 1969. He is perhaps best known for developing the so-called Snow White style used on Apple computers of the 1980s. Earlier, he helped make Sony a design leader with his styling of the original Trinitron televisions. His firm designed two of the Walt Disney Co.’s cruise ships, taking inspiration from the golden age of ocean liners, the “Star Trek” starship Enterprise and futuristic aircraft. His many other clients over the years have included Adidas, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and Louis Vuitton.
With such promising source material, it is too bad that the first two-thirds of “A Fine Line” is mostly a typical self-congratulatory business narrative—the kind in which everyone who took the author’s advice goes on to greatness while everyone who failed to heed him ends up in the gutter.
Eventually, though, Mr. Esslinger sets out some provocative ideas. He thinks electronics products like mobile phones, cameras and medical sensors should have modular, open architectures—like the cards that plug into desktop personal computers—allowing customers to pick the sub-assemblies they need.
For Mr. Esslinger, modular products are greener products because owners can replace sub-assemblies if they become obsolete rather than tossing the whole device into a landfill. Moreover, he contends that open architectures would “dramatically” lower the barriers to entry that start-up companies face in the computer-hardware business. Venture capitalists, he complains, “will fund ten software startups before they take on one new hardware project”—thanks to the closed architectures that prevail in today’s high-tech products.
In “Design-Driven Innovation” (Harvard Business Press, 272 pages, $35), Roberto Verganti holds that product development should be grounded not in the data of survey-takers or the observations of anthropologists but in the judgment of executives. “We have experienced years of hype about user-centered design,” he says. But breakthrough innovations, in Mr. Verganti’s view, do not represent what customers knew they wanted. Rather, the most profitable innovations are those that create a radically new meaning for a product.
Nintendo‘s Wii video-game console and its motion-sensing controllers “transformed what a console meant: from an immersion in a virtual world approachable only by niche experts into an active workout, in the real world, for everyone.” TheSwatchin 1983 introduced a new meaning to the watch: neither an article of fine jewelry nor a utilitarian timekeeping tool but a fashion accessory.Starbucks, he says, changed the meaning of a coffee shop from a place to buy coffee to a home away from home.
How should a company devise new meanings and create the designs to embody them? Mr. Verganti’s answer comes from an unexpected source: a group of Italian companies known for their innovation, such as the kitchenwares-maker Alessi and the lamp company Artemide. Based on his study of them, Mr. Verganti suggests that companies form relationships with “interpreters”—individuals and organizations looking at settings similar to the one in which the company’s products would be used. A maker of furniture, for example, might tap the insights of architects, design professors, retailers and hotel designers. When developing a new type of lighting fixture, Artemide worked with a theater director, learning from his experiences of using artificial light to trigger emotion.
Speaking of theater, Mr. Verganti’s skepticism toward taking the lead from users’ supposed desires has long been voiced in a perennial film- industry debate: Should films be rooted in market research about what film-goers think they would like or in a director’s and writer’s beliefs as artists about what audiences would like? For Mr. Verganti, it might be said, if life imitates art, corporate life should imitate the making of art.
—Mr. Price is the author of “The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company” (Knopf, 2008).