INNOVATE

The Next Big Thing Beyond Great Design

A well-designed product used to be all you needed to get noticed. But good design has gone mainstream, so it's time to up the ante.
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How do you make customers happier and sell more? The current mood of the markets would suggest that design is king. Look at Apple, whose iPhone 5 sold more than 5 million units in its first weekend. (Even if the maps suck--go argue with success.)

Apple's great strength has been design. Not just the physical look, but how its devices and software operate. The company works to combine reduced complexity with sophisticated and attractive looks. Many others, whether in tech or other industries, have tried to emulate the company. But according to John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, design has lost its luster and it's time for entrepreneurs to look for other ways to stand out.

Wait. John Maeda--famous designer, writer, computer scientist, educator, and former associate director of MIT's Media Lab--says that the primacy of design is over? Yup, that's what he said. And his argument makes sense.

There was a time, not so long ago, when good design was rare. Companies had to be convinced that it was necessary to even consider retaining consultants or hiring real design experts, and then giving them power to make decisions. But, as Maeda points out, a design focus has become commonplace. There are even people who say that the iPhone 5 is boring because it's now expected and not startling.

New tools and broader knowledge make it ever easier to achieve good design. It has become the price of entry. If you want to broadly reach consumers and aren't just looking to sell cheap commodities, you've got to have well-designed products.

Thus, companies have been focusing their innovation on design. But it's time to raise the bar. Maeda says that entrepreneurs must move beyond design and into art--away from solutions and toward the "deep probing of purpose and meaning" that helps people understand where they want to go. Creating a product should become an act of helping people connect to their values:

In a world where breaches of integrity are more and more commonly revealed, holding on to those values is of the utmost importance to us. We want the products we buy to be made responsibly, sold truthfully, to have come from the mind of a human being just like us--not just from an algorithm.

In other words, people want to matter. They want to be treated with respect and have businesses focus on what they really want, not what the businesses want.

Innovation needs to focus on the oldest principle in business: Center on the customer not on yourself. Find new ways to do that, and you'll stand apart from anyone.

IMAGE: Flickr/dan taylor
Last updated: Sep 25, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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