Using an Uncertain Economy as a Design Brief

How negative economic conditions can be a catalyst for change in the workplace

Dan Harden
September 10, 2009

No doubt, a bad economy sucks. A bad economy is tough on a company’s bottom line and even tougher on those individuals that have to struggle to make ends meet. But when it comes to the design profession, I would argue otherwise. Not because the industry is immune from a bad economy–far from it–but because negative economic conditions are often a catalyst for change. It also forces designers to create with more care.

To change, companies need to take a deeper look at their customers needs, empower their people to act, and to think in new ways. They need to invent, develop, and improve their offering in order to survive. This type of change benefits the profession of design, and it benefits the end product itself. Having suffered layoffs, lower sales, and plummeting stock value, some companies reach a point of desperation. Management is awake, listening, and willing to try something new. They’re in a teachable moment, so if there was ever a time to push for more innovation, cultural relevance, sustainability, and meaning, this is it. A designer’s shot of innovation is just what many companies need now more than ever before. When corporations need CPR, revival comes in the form of Creativity, Passion and Reason.

Contrary to logic, a good economy compromises quality more than a bad one. In good times corporations seek to supply rising demand as fast as possible for non-discriminating consumers that have more disposable income. Flush with R&D budgets, companies fund programs that keep the current best sellers buoyed by tweaking the brand message with advertising, and designing new products as fast as they can.

Three years ago when the economy was good, one consumer electronic client in a rush to market said to us sensitive designer types “I don’t care about meeting the needs of the left-handed blind ethnic woman, just hurry up and get it done!” That same week another client asked us to design, engineer and tool a product from scratch in time for the Consumer Electronic Show–which was one month away. This mad rush to fill the market with product can compromise creativity and shortcut development, which ultimately affects quality. It also encourages a “wisdom-of-the-crowd” mentality, where everyone wants to get in on the design act, including the CEO’s spouse. Conversely, a bad economy forces us all to take a breath and think harder about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. There is more at stake because your solution absolutely must provide results.

Corporate survival in a bad economy includes cost-cutting on all fronts, including product cost. During development, designers view product cost reduction as if it’s the plague. When a procurement specialist or cost engineer enters the room, designers get out their crosses and garlic. They see cost-cutting as a limitation on product features, performance, part count and material selection. This is partly true, but when designing inexpensive products for a very discriminating budget-minded consumer who now demands good design too, design reduction has even more relevance. The same or more needs to be done with less. Simple solutions are good, and usually cheap.

It’s harder to design simple inexpensive products than complex expensive ones. One needs to focus more on the essential user needs and less on the endless feature possibilities or extraneous embellishments. It requires more purity, so that no matter how much they take away from it, it’s more likely to survive intact through its development. Simple inexpensive products are also better for the environment. They consume less material, have fewer parts, and use less energy to manufacture and ship.

Mies van der Rohe’s mantra, less is more, has become something of a cliché in design circles, but learning to do more with less is a design philosophy that is newly-relevant, creatively-rich, and economically-viable. Constraints stretch flabby design muscles; the results are often surprisingly buff.

Dan Harden

Dan is CEO, Founder and Principal Designer of Whipsaw, an acclaimed product design and experience innovation company in Silicon Valley that has introduced 1000 products to market over the past 20 years for the world’s top companies. Dan is a highly active creative force and luminary in the design world. Dan’s passion and experience combined with his personal philosophies about art, culture, psychology, and technology permeate the work.

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