Let's Talk about Design Strategy and Sustainable Behaviors

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by: Design Translator

Mario Vellandi, the author behind the very excellent Melodies in Marketing, spent the last couple of weeks conducting a hard hitting interview on my views on the future of industrial design, design strategy and sustainable design. It was a great discussion with very high level content and interesting ideas exchanged between Mario and I. As I am committed to being part of Blog Action Day (which is today!), I thought it would be great timing to post this interview as part of Design Sojourn’s commitment to green design. This interview is also jointly posted an his site.

On with the Interview!

MV: To build some greater perspectives on product design in the modern age, I’ve invited DT of Design Sojourn to a little chat about the subject. DT helps build objectives, strategies and development plans for consumer electronics firms across Asia. He’s been a pioneer in promoting the field of Industrial Design, in many more regards than simply admiring fanciful oeuvres d’art et leurs aspects fonctionnels (French for art and functional objects). He reaches out to students and other professionals alike in sharing theory, trends, and best practices in the workplace and beyond, while celebrating the contributions of others to the field.

DT, thanks for stopping by and leaving some feedback on my post New Product Design Strategy. I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface on this field, as most of what I’ve come to learn has been from my own experiences with CPG manufacturers, some friends, and my PDMA Handbook . What other kinds of strategies or considerations should marketers and product developers be making these days?

DT: Thanks for the wonderful introduction. I have to say you have nailed it at first go. With regards to your list of strategies, they are pretty much all there. But from my point of view I would consider them as tactical implementations instead.

These days marketing and product development and perhaps corporate people have to understand that Strategic product development takes a 360 degree holistic view and outlook. Also to me strategic product development is multi-disciplinary and success means satisfying all requirements of stake holders.

Under the current work environments, stories such as where marketing communications come up with great Ad campaigns but some how the products fall short on the brand promise, or Research and Development creates an amazing technology, but some how sales don’t seem to understand it, are very common.

Strategic product development prevents this. In many ways Industrial Designers are uniquely positioned to bridge this gap, as they have a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving that is based on a strong background in research drawing inspiration from many sources.

MV: Interesting. It appears to me that the situation you’re pointing out is that there’s a disconnect between product development and the marketing function, arising in the form of communication. In theory, a firm is supposed to carry and update the product definition from its beginnings in concept development, through the product development phase, and into the launch phase where it is then slightly tuned for the target markets. Traditionally, the responsibility for this communication lays in the hands of project leaders, core product development leaders, and launch leaders.

But what happens leadership is weak or non-existent? This seems to be a common risk these days, with global distributed product development and outsourcing being as common as it is. What I believe you’re hinting at, is that communication is an inherent part of all design strategy. Not just for project management purposes, but for the eventual market success of the product as well. This means that marketing and product development have a responsibility to collaboratively spell out the product’s features, attributes, benefits, value proposition, and positioning. I think it’s irresponsible to expect marketing (especially outsourced agencies), to make all this up on their own.

Do you see the current climate of outsourced product development necessitating even stronger communication bridges with marketing and stakeholders? What do you think?

DT: It not so much about just fixing a disconnect or making communication better, its actually more about a strategic management of the product development process.

You could say that project management manages and forms a node point between say R&D and marketing thus facilitating good communication. In fact that is still a major requirement in making successful products. However in my view this is still a line function. Project managers are often so caught up in the daily grind such as, tracking schedules, negotiating contracts, ensuring deliverables, that I often find that they don’t have a chance to ask if all this madness is right in the first place.

Therefore as a result of this designers recently have been finding a niche, especially in large organisations. Their strategy visualisation skills are vital in ensuring if the organisation is travelling in the right direction in the first place. Furthermore the designers ability to move between disciplines or departments and empathising with them, means this new thought in strategic product development assumes that the designer is not a function of any other department (ie R&D or Marketing) but a function of management. As a result if you notice many successful companies today, such as Apple, P&G or IBM, have very senior design managers working closely with the CEO or the board of directors.

Not only that, if we zoom out from our discussion here, this is really all about innovation and getting ahead right? So if a designer’s strategy visualisation has to have any weight, it must come as a directive from the top. It is, ironically, pretty regimental if you look at it, but innovative thought, solutions and strategy puts people out of their comfort zone and if the “order” does not come from the top, personal motivations tend to get into the way of the best interests of a company.

This also leads me to you next point, outsourcing. It is inevitable, companies need to out source to stay alive. But the down side means development gets more fragmented and as a result the strategy stake holder is absolutely vital in ensuring that the end product meets all the expectations set out.

MV: I like your description of design leadership transcending the traditional organizational departments and becoming a part of upper management, should a company allow such integration. Although it might seem idealistic to imagine industrial designers reaching across different parts of the company to develop creative solutions where there are problems, I believe their greatest contribution to the firm lies with developing the company’s product innovation strategy and managing the product portfolio. This is an elevated position that will span disciplines in marketing, finance, r&d, and supply chain management, for which specialized masters education programs will be necessary.

Regarding outsourced product development, I see and share your concern. Traditionally, almost every part of a business can be outsourced these days. But in modern business theory, when marketing and innovation are outsourced, there lies a very large potential risk of losing company identity, a spiritual sense of ownership, direction, and control. Companies that maintain a long-term vision must keep this in mind, and thus exercise due care when working with third parties. As external activities become more important to the firm as critical competencies, the level of partner relationships must deepen and in-house talent has to be developed as appropriate to the circumstances. All I’m advocating is that to be true to yourself as a company, you are responsible for your own vision and direction. Partners can help you build upon that.

Before I begin my next question, what are your thoughts on this?

DT: I actually disagree with you to a certain extent, but you are correct to say that the characteristics of such very senior designers require many years of training and exposure to many parts of the organization. A good MBA, though not required, could help as well. Thus such designers with such abilities are rare indeed.

You are also correct to say that designers have the greatest contribution to innovation strategy and product portfolio, but that is what we traditionally think are the roles of designers. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying designers should take over or lead the functions of marketing or R&D etc., instead far from that. If you would like, the role of strategic designers are in a form of facilitators that make recommendations based on the empathy of the requirements of the rest of the team. Strategic designers work with the departments to find solutions in perhaps a role of a in-house consultant. Another way is to look at them are as “cooks”.

With regard to outsourcing, as you mentioned you can outsource everything including your own life. But these days companies are starting to get smart with this and realize you cant out source everything. So its only on one level that we need to talk about strong partnerships, but the smart companies are identifying their strategic competitive advantage and are choosing to keep it in house rather than out sourcing. Take for example HP they don’t outsource their printer component design.

MV: After looking over the classic design strategies previously covered, I noticed I hadn’t included Sustainability (which I’ll have to go back and fix). Some folks and organizations think of sustainability as a side consideration. However, I believe it is an essential strategy that should be included in the mix. Apart from ecological advantages in manufacturing, product usage, and disposal, there are also potential cost, quality, and performance advantages among others.

From some friends’ experiences in marketing communications and from articles on this subject, I see a larger emphasis on designers becoming well acquainted with eco-friendly inks, paper, and other supplies so that they can provide more leadership and direction to co-workers and management who aren’t as well informed.

How do you see product designers’ roles and activities when considering sustainable design? Could you share some unique perspectives from the consumer electronics industry?

DT: In fact sustainability has had its up and downs. It used to be a time where to be environmentally friendly you had to suffer with poor design or inferior products. Not any more. I would go almost as far to say that sustainability should be a given these days. Governmental requirements have help facilitate this as well. Products these days need to have lead free components, energy saving circuitry, a product end of cycle return strategy (ie used printer cartridges) as well as benefits if the product uses recyclable materials. Some companies do this better than others, but nevertheless this is all going in the background under the radar of most consumers.

However there in lies a bigger problem. Consumption. What is a point of making a product fully recyclable when people continue to buy? Case in point Apple iPods and mobile phones who’s life cycle is a notorious 6 months? The problem here is the energy and effort to recycle these products back into usable material far outweighs the environmental impact of virgin materials.

Therefore Sustainability 2.0 is not so much about recycling but more about creating “sustainable behaviours”. Getting mankind to be aware and control their consumption. Removing consumption demand also helps reduce planned product obsolescences. Of cause industrial designers and marketers here can have a huge role in interfacing humans with products and solutions, this is because changing a behaviour is a difficult thing to do.

MV: Interesting…from the way you put it and as I see it, promoting sustainable consumption patterns appears to be the next avenue of responsible creation and living. Traditionally, extending the usable life of a product implied they were better designed for long-term performance. This created loyalty and admiration in users, allowing for higher price acceptance. But the nature of these products was that their lifecycle was fairly long (let’s say 5+ years), and the rate of innovation in the product category was fairly low (in terms of functional utility in the eyes of consumers).

With highly innovative products in competitive markets, this is not the case as you pointed out. I’m concerned myself about the amount of e-waste purchased, consumed, and discarded…especially in regards to cell phones. Ultimately, it’s a sociological understanding of the long-term implications of rapid consumption that will need to be addressed. But when speaking to a colleague about this subject, we debated whether this pure ethical awareness approach is feasible. He proposed, and I agreed with, that ultimately there is always a business solution to end-of-lifecycle management. The challenge is setting up either reverse-logistics programs from manufacturers that promote this thinking, or establishing provincial/community programs.

In all, I see it as a systems-design approach that combines social awareness of responsible consumption patterns with processes to better handle end-of-life scenarios. It’s a big jumble that involves many differing factors. But I think commerce and people’s behavior will not change on their own, unless society (and unfortunately but necessarily government) generate effective awareness of the problems we face and demand change.

[Note as final question and response to summarize conversation]
What do you think about this?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation about design strategy and sustainability in product development. Do you have any predictions or desires on what may lie ahead of us in the future regarding education, materials innovation, or other important topics?

DT: I believe that well designed products with long life cycles still have a role to play with encouraging sustainable behaviours. This is also applicable in high technology products as well. It is a misnomer actually and because of many safety requirements high technology products actually can last a long time. It is the software and components that keep making a product out dated, and as we now move into product experience and the intangiable aspects of software, this cycle will only get worst. The psychology of this touches on whole “keeping up with the Jones”, the haves and have not, and the constant need to be ahead of the rest and own something new. Again this is a behaviour thing and (no offence) owes much to do with very successful advertising and branding campaigns generating consumer desire. In other words, years of advertising encouraging consumer wants not needs.

Refocusing back on product design, I don’t think that that creating a business case for an end of life cycle management solution is the only answer. This to me is a discussion on prevention rather than cure and which side you want to be on. In many ways our efforts in recycling, recyclable materials, ROHS compliance, and EOL management etc. is a reaction to a problem, a cure if you would like. Therefore in this case the solution should be about nipping the issue in the bud.

I agree with you, it is not easy, and most of effort should really about education and educating the public. Its about managing consumption, changing behaviours and awareness. There are many opportunities where designers can come in to make the behaviour change easier, but much of it has nothing to do with making better or different consumer products. For example can you design an iPod that people wont want to change in 6 months? You might, but Apple wont do it because their business relies on this 6 month product life cycle. Then with education you then teach people to ask if you really need to upgrade your iPod every six months or better still do you even need an iPod in the first place? I don’t I just listen to the radio which is essentially a iPod with 2,000+ songs.

At the end of the day, as long as corporations rule, we don’t have much of a choice but to take bitter medicine at the end of the day. As it is even planned obsolescence is a big problem we face as designers and a reason why I made a decision a long time ago to avoid working in fast pace consumer electronics industry as much as possible.

But we can take heart as much of our efforts in teaching is working on the new generation and we are taking a step in the right direction. Systems design and management can be a key contributor in this discussion here. But if we don’t step by a look at the bigger picture, and as long as we don’t teach about adopting sustainable behaviours we will continue to fight a losing battle.

Going forward we are on a cusp of a new revolution and that is personal fabrication or fabbing. The time for Desktop Manufacturing will be is just around the corner in the next few years. I believe combined with the sustainability issue, this will force everyone involved the product development cycle to re-think what it means to make a product, especially when your customers can make exactly what they want. It is scary but I am really looking forward to it.

Thanks for this discussion, I totally enjoyed it and hope we can keep in-touch and perhaps in future collaborate.

What did you think of the interview?

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I did writing it. I love to hear what you thought about some of my points as well as if you like to see more interviews with other designers here at Design Sojourn?

Original Post:  http://www.designsojourn.com/2007/10/15/lets-talk-about-design-strategy-and-sustainable-behaviors/