Like it or not, you're a designer. Everything about your company's look -- whether reflected in your products or your billing statements -- sends a message to customers, employees, and suppliers alike. Is it the one you want them to hear?* * *
Consumption is out these days. Now that we're exhausted from the consumer revelry of the past decade, burdened by excessive personal debt, it's conservation we favor. When catalogs laden with expensive apparel feature lectures about the perniciousness of excess production and consumption, as did a recent offering from Patagonia, you don't need Faith Popcorn to interpret the mood of the nation. So, at the risk of sounding downright unfashionable, let me make a confession: I love to shop.
An incurable consumer, ever vigilant for opportunities to part with my money, I nonetheless buy very little. A car fanatic, I'm still driving the Audi Coupe I bought 180,000 miles ago, in 1985. An avid photographer, I still travel with the Rollei 35SE I purchased used, years ago, in Manhattan. And although I like a well-tailored suit as much as the next person, there is no greater pleasure for me in the morning than to slip into my three-year-old Levi 501 jeans, arguably the best-designed product in the history of American commerce.
And therein lies the key to getting me to open my wallet: design. I am addicted to good design, which elicits in me a response bordering on the irrational. As does haphazard design. For I am convinced that in examining a company's approach to design in all its manifestations, I can divine everything I need to know as a consumer about the character of the people I am about to do business with.
I have never visited Audi's headquarters, in Ingolstadt, Germany, but of this much I'm certain: the men and women who created and produced my car love to drive. They announce their passion in the design not only of the car itself but of their sales literature, the owner's manual, and -- until recently, at any rate -- their advertising. We're not talking about beauty contests here, about grand design for its own sake, or even aesthetics. We're talking about communication, the transmission of vital information about a company's purpose -- its values, its passions, its basic character -- to all of its various constituencies, including customers, employees, investors, distributors, and suppliers.
That sense of purpose is something not even the hottest design boutique or copywriter can fabricate for you. Which is why I as a consumer can be so certain that the information Audi communicates to me is not merely the product of some fiendishly clever creative people on Madison Avenue. You cannot design character into everything your business does if your business doesn't have character in the first place.
Of course, the reverse is also true: if the design of everything you do doesn't reflect a clear and consistent character, your company may be suspected of not having any. The simple truth is that every company, no matter how small, uses design as a business tool. The most mundane by-products of day-to-day business life -- stationery, logos, promotional materials, purchase orders, the appearance of office, manufacturing, or warehousing space, as well as the products themselves -- all convey powerful messages to the world at large, regardless of our intent. In fact, sensitivity to the impact of design is more important, not less, for those of us in small companies. After all, opportunities to let the world know we exist and show how we're different are infinitely more limited, and the savviest companies learn quickly not to squander them. What's more, unlike large companies, we can't compensate for the effects of haphazard, inconsistent design with "market presence" created by the sheer volume of our advertising and promotion.
Fortunately, a company doesn't need the resources of an Audi to proclaim what it's all about. Good design is a question of attitude, not budget. Anyone skeptical about that has only to read "The Medium Is the Message" ( [Article link]) to observe how a tiny company by the name of Syndesis Inc. is enjoying the enormous competitive advantage that a little creative imagination and a lot of attention to design detail will buy you. That's why we've created the Inc. Design Awards program, and why you'll be seeing more about the subject in our pages in the coming year: to heighten awareness of design as a crucial competitive tool for small companies, and to explore the benefits that accrue to a company when it takes as much care with design as with any other area of management.
In the process of communicating purpose, good design evokes something else -- a sense of belonging. In fact, the folks from Ingolstadt have succeeded in making me feel part of a community, whose members -- Audi owners, employees, dealers, and suppliers -- share a passion for innovative engineering, automotive safety, and just plain getting behind the wheel, if only to go around the corner to pick up a quart of milk. That sense of belonging is no mere warm, fuzzy feeling, but a tangible business asset that enables a company to attract and keep key people, build a stable and committed distribution network, and transform car buyers into educated and loyal customers. From that perspective, an investment in design looks like one of the great management bargains of the 1990s.
On the evening of Sunday, June 7, a group of leading CEOs, designers, and architects from around the country converged in Boston to begin the judging for Growing by Design, the first small-company design awards in the country. The program is sponsored jointly by Inc. and the Corporate Design Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit devoted to increasing the design literacy of future business leaders.
While the judges were impressed with the work of top-award winner Syndesis (see [Article link]) and the five other award recipients (see [Article link]), they expressed some disappointment in the 200 submissions overall. "The sheer number of applications in the first year is a testament to the growing awareness of design as a business tool," one designer noted. "But the lack of rigor and consistency in too many of the submissions reveals a significant gap between intent and execution -- underscoring the need for this program in the first place."
We couldn't agree more. And while we support the judges' adoption of rigorous standards, we trust that won't inhibit companies from participating in Inc.'s coverage of this crucial management topic in the future. We want to hear what you're doing about design in your business. Did we say hear? We want to see it. Send your company's materials to us, here in Boston, to my attention. -- George Gendron
Corporate Design Foundation
Shawmut Design & Construction, Boston
Deborah Berke Architect
New York City
Chairman and CEO
Domestic Automation Co.
San Carlos, Calif.
Director of Environmental Standards
IDEO Product Development
GUYNES Design Associates
Pentagram Design Services
New York City
Darden School of Business
University of Virginia
Crate & Barrel