Learning to fight for design and innovation.

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"The thing that's most to be feared is doing the same thing over and over again." - Paula Scher
I read that in my latest issue of Fast Company today (yes, I'm only now getting to it.)

Here's more great stuff from Linda Tischler's FC article:

"Most organizations rely on a system of checks and balances to ensure that (the) design adheres to some particular corporate strategy - that's the language MBAs understand. Trouble is, (graphic) design is inherently subjective. (...) Without a passionate advocate, a strong initial design may be nibbled away by bureaucrats, each eager to prove his worth with a tweak here and a nip there. (...) The key (is) having a client with both the vision to recognize good work and the power to pull the trigger. It's what Steve Jobs brings to Apple, or A.G. Lafley to Procter & Gamble."

If you've ever worked on projects that involve new ideas, new designs, or new technologies - essentially departures from the routine "this is what we've been doing for twenty years" modes of thinking - you know that Design By Committe always spells the death of design.

And the death of great products.

Hell, design by committee usually spells the death of anything original and worthy of note.

The reality of "committees" is that the wrong people usually make up a good chunk of the roll call. Everyone with their eye on a bigger office and an accronym under their name on their next set of business cards wants a seat at the table. Everyone wants to have a say. Everyone wants to be an authority when the big boss is watching.

Everyone wants to add their two cents.

Don't get me wrong. Great design can - and often does - come from teamwork and interactions between designers, manufacturing engineers, users, materials specialists, and whomever else has something relevant or inspired to contribute. Inspiration can and should come from as many different and seemingly disconnected places as possible. Dialogue plays a role here. It really does. But some people have the power to give bad ideas credence, and influence changes that will turn great designs into... well, crap.

Or boring.

Same difference.

Want to know how to spot them? It's easy. They are the ones whose "public" contributions run along the lines of:

"Our customers won't understand this."

"But... It doesn't look like one of our products."

"Can we make it more like (our competitor's product)?"

"What if you made the grip look more like (enter lame idea here)."

"Why do we need a new product again?"

"It looks too expensive."

"Nobody's ever done this before. There's no guarantee that this will work."

Interestingly, these are also the people who NEVER use the product (or don't really get off on using it) - even though they work for the company that makes it. These are people who haven't spoken to a customer face-to-face in years. These are people whose "contribution" will pull the design away from the edge, and back to the safe, boring, irrelevant middle.

I want to say that these are also people who have horrible taste in music, movies, clothes, art, humor and food, but there is always the odd exception.

Sometimes, though, a meeting can uncover a sleeper contributor (or champion), right there in your office. Someone whom you didn't expect would be a great addition to your project team but obviously will be. How do you spot them? By the types of questions they ask (and how they ask them):

"How does it fail?"

"Pretend I've never seen or heard aout this. What's the coolest thing about it?"

"How is this going to change my life?"

"What was the inspiration behind your initial design?"

"How many new patents can we apply for?"

"Can you make the final version even better?"

"Fast forward 3-5 years. What will the next version of this look like?"

"How can we make this stand out even more?"

"What obstacles do we face?"

"What do you need to make this happen?"

Great project teams happen one person at a time. One hire at a time. One conversation at a time. (Sometimes, one beer or cup of coffee at a time.) You meet people who inspire you. Who give you ideas. Who challenge you to explore new directions. Who open your eyes to new angles. Who have the skills or the talent to turn your ideas into an actual product. Who know the ins and outs of your market or audience or users' lifestyles and tastes and loves. These are the people you want on your project team.

If they don't already work for you, hire them. If not full time (why wouldn't you?) then hire them on as consultants for the duration of the project. If you don't bring them in, you will be at a severe disadvantage. Unless your company is already progressive and pro-innovation, you will end up having to bow to pressures from the Manufacturing VP's pet infiltrators, or the VP Finance's Porsche-driving bootlick, or the boss' girlfriend who just got promoted to Vice-President of Sales and wants to flex her new corporate muscle. They will change little things. They will back you into a corner and use their influence to make you cut this corner and that. They will force you to make compromises. They will infect a perfectly great project with mediocrity and won't stop until there isn't an original left in the final design.

Mark my words. This will happen.

(If you don't believe me, look around you. How many millions of Americans work for companies that design and manufacture stuff? How many truly great products are there? Now, do the math: What percentage of the US workforce actually gets to be a part designing and building great products? Yeah. Scary. And it isn't for lack of talent.)

When you find yourself having to defend a design or project, just remember this: There is no place for fear in design.

Or Marketing.

Or business.

"The thing that's most to be feared is doing the same thing over and over again." - Paula Scher

Design is about evolution. It's about combining beauty and function. It's about pushing the needle forward... not making sure it always stays in one place.

In your own studio, it's easy. In the corporate world, however, it's about winning daily battles against the lowest common denominator. It's about having to fight tooth and nail to prevent great work from being picked apart by clueless, data-driven, execs who are more worried about not screwing up than they are about creating something great.

If you want to succeed - and more importantly, if you want your projects to succeed - you need to make sure that you don't wind up fighting these battles alone.

Surround yourself with great people. Let them be your commandos. Your A-Team. Let them shoulder some of the weight of the fight, and back you up when you go into battle. The more voices sing the praises of innovation in your organization, the more difficult it will be for the pro status-quo crowd's cluelessness and fear to be heard and get in the way.

Innovation and design are worth fighting for. And I mean really fighting for. The kinds of fight that leave your ears ringing and your mouth tasting like blood. Oh yeah.

Fight for what you believe in. And win. That's what separates folks like Paula from folks like... well... the ones you'll never hear about.

Make it happen. Don't cave. Drive it forward. It's what you get paid to do.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone.

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