Design is essential tool in developing a product


May 23, 1994|By Tom Peters

I've long been distressed by the failure of American business to realize the strategic potential of design -- and appalled by how many items are pitifully designed. Put bluntly, I believe that in a crowded marketplace design may be the most potent tool for differentiating one's products or services.

I love well-designed items: Federal Express air bills; Ingersoll-Rand's Cyclone Grinder (a hand-held tool that, for example, removes burrs from engine-block castings); my fabulous new Le Creuset corkscrew (among other things, courtesy of an ingenious bit of gearing, one easy flip at the end of the process ejects the cork).

But despite my appreciation of design, I wasn't a raving fanatic. Until now.

Nothing sticks until you live it. And about the time you read this, my fifth book will be arriving in bookstores. (I won't mention the title, lest you think this is a tout and discount my message.) For the first time in my career, design took a front-row seat alongside "substance" (words).

In the past, despite my interest in design (my last book, "Liberation Management," devoted two chapters to the subject, one on instruction manuals -- don't get me started on that), it was an afterthought in my own work. I was the main man, the word guy; the designer could jolly well march at the rear of the parade and clean up after me.

The new book translates my seminars (said to be energetic) to the printed page; and the content is a plea to spice up our organizations to suit the spicy markets in which they perform. Both ideas -- seminar in print, spice as substance -- led me to muse that the book might benefit from a "little more" design input than usual.

hTC Little did I know what was in store. Donna Carpenter, my editor, and I observed that periodicals are typically livelier than books (the wonderful new Wired is a case in point), so we turned to magazine designer Ken Silvia for assistance.

Design and writing then proceeded in parallel, and my editor and I ended up spending (exciting) day after (exciting) day cheek by jowl with Ken.

Quite simply, the process changed our professional lives. Here's what we learned:

* 1. There's no distinction between "content" and "packaging." The design, as much as the language, is the book. Design conveys substance -- energy, speed, spiciness -- as much as the words do. Sure, designer Silvia has a thousand tricks up his sleeve, as do writers, but in the end he contributed as much to the grand concept as I did.

* 2. Design alters "content." When you watch a designer work to draw the reader in and create/animate the message, you start seeing words differently. The process amounts to far more than "getting the words right," but the new idea is also more than "getting the words and the design right." The design and the words become one and, I think, far greater than the sum of the parts.

* 3. Design should take an equal and early seat at the head table. Like Ford (beginning with the Taurus) and Apple (from its inception), I learned that a designer should be part of the dream, on board at the creation, and an equal partner throughout. As I edge toward my next book, Silvia has joined in before the formal start; he's participating in the murky pre-sessions in which the most general of courses are considered.

* 4. Collaboration speeds the process. Writing is a big enough pain; why add this to my platter? Taking another chapter from Ford (et al.), the "extra" time (a lot!) my editor and I spent on design has shortened the entire book-development process by more than 50 percent. To be sure, page-design software helps; but the larger fact is that our team iterated constantly and effortlessly through what are normally a dozen steps, tackled in sequence.

* 5. We've barely scratched the surface. Writing books has been my preoccupation for a dozen years now, but this process has upended my idea of developing a book-communication vehicle (which is how I think about it now). I've already changed my stripes, but I believe there's much more to learn.

I could sign off by solemnly intoning, "Of course, readers will make the final judgment." And that is true. But the larger truth is that whether the book spurts or sputters, there's no going back for me or my editor.

Design can transform and remold every step of product or service conception, development, production and delivery.

It is more than a potent tool; it is an essential strategy, culture and mind-set for expanding your horizons about what is/can be. And that's no small thing in a marketplace where so many products look like, feel like, smell like and ride like all the others.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-6200.

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