Thoughts on the IDSA/Business Week design awards

It’s a competitive world
Everything counts in large amounts
     - Depeche Mode

Michael Schrage has written up a thoughtful and interesting article about his participation on the jury of this years IDSA/Business Week design awards. Schrage has been writing about business innovation for a long time, and has been “rubbing up” against the world of design for equally long. I first encountered him at the Aspen Design Conference back ‘93 or so, and a more catholic perspective on design you cannot ask for. So I was struck that even he was surprised by how differently designers look at the manufactured world, and how we assess design value.

The [jury] experience radically altered my perceptions—and preconceptions—of how designers design and what “good design” really means. I literally do not look at “designed” objects or services the same way anymore….

By far the most striking revelation for me was the collective designer obsession with detail. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “God is in the details” or “The devil is in the details”? This design jury had heaven and earth covered. You can talk “brand” or “vision” or “concept” or “insight” or “elegance” until you’re blue in the face, but world-class designers care about how those ideals are expressed in the details. Something that I would dismiss as a niggling detail the designers would say revealed the essential point they were trying to make. Great design is about the ordering and intention of details that you can—or aren’t supposed to—see and feel.

For someone trained as a designer, the above statement goes without saying. It’s our stock in trade, and it is why companies like Apple are held in such consistent high regard by designers. Design is a constant micro/macro endeavor, zooming out to see the big idea, and then zooming in again to look at the minutest details. I would argue that the details can influence the ideals as well as the other way around, but in either case they are inextricably intertwined in the mind and eye of a designer. This is why designers get so frustrated when strong concepts get derailed by clunky details; they are a sign of laziness (on whoever’s part) and not adhering to the ideals. (Steve Wildstrom’s write-up on a new Gateway PC is a good example, and shows how the designery attention to detail is starting to seep into the mainstream.)

The reason I found Schrage’s perspective striking, alarming even, is that it shows how far the design perspective still has to go in infiltrating broader business and cultural realms. If Schrage was surprised by the designer approach, after all his years of being exposed to design and innovation, then others who are much less informed and exposed have even further to go.

It’s a sobering thought. For all the success design has had in recent years at becoming considered a vital business discipline, we still have a long way to go.