Design of the Times
I first went to see Viant and met Bob Gett, Viant's top guy, in August after I had just returned from a few weeks of vacation. During my time off I had finished reading Don DeLillo's Underworld for the third time, and it really resonated with me. It's one of those rare books: a work that an author appears to have spent his entire life preparing to write, as if it were the manifestation of everything he had thought or experienced. And as I was leaving Viant that morning, I was thinking that the company is in a way the business equivalent of that. Viant looks for all the world like a company that Bob Gett has spent his entire life preparing to create.
I have never seen a company where everything is as premeditated as it is at Viant. There is absolutely no aspect of the business, no matter how small, that Gett has not thought through. As senior writer Ed Welles observes in his story, the role that the office environment plays in fostering a certain kind of culture at Viant is extraordinary. Designed by Gensler, the largest architectural firm in the United States, the space has been replicated in each of Viant's eight U.S. offices. Every imaginable aspect of the office layout and design has a purpose. But Gett also has ideas about the office that go beyond design. For example, no location has more than 125 people; otherwise, Gett believes, the fabric of the office culture starts to break down. He insists that all Viant offices be no higher than the fourth floor of a building, to ensure a visceral connection to the energy of the street.
This reminds me of what Tom Peters called "not particularly stupid obsessions," those that sound crazy until you realize that the obsession reveals something about the goal or intent of the founder. Gett's deliberate design -- and I don't mean just how it looks -- broadcasts, loud and clear, the extraordinary and radical foundation of this company. Gett believes that the business strategy in the new economy will depend almost exclusively on companies' ability to attract and stimulate really great people. Viant is designed around one goal: to create the best work in the industry so as to attract the best people in the industry. That is a 21st-century new-economy strategy if ever I saw one.
As I look through the other stories in this issue I can't tell you how grateful I am that we made the decision a year ago not to do a special millennium-end issue. I don't know about you, but I've already overdosed on the millennium theme, and as I write this there are still two more months to go before the new year. That being said, on behalf of everyone at the magazine I'd like to wish you a happy holiday season and a quiet and uneventful New Year. See you same time, same space, next century.
Sign of the times
What's most striking about the notion of good design is that it used to be an option that companies could embrace if they were looking for a competitive advantage.
That concept may be rapidly changing, according to David R. Brown, the former president of Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, Calif., and a member of the board of advisers of the Corporate Design Foundation. (In the name of full disclosure I should acknowledge at this point that I'm also on the nonprofit foundation's board.) Judging by Brown's comments during an interview in @issue, the foundation's business and design journal, design is no longer about gaining advantage; rather, it's become the price of admission.
"The companies that appreciate and embrace design have always been there," Brown said in the interview. "But over the past decade many companies have discovered that attention to the nurturing of design -- giving design a seat at the big table, not just hanging it on the end of a process as a decoration -- could be converted into a strong business advantage. It's not a matter of strategic advantage anymore; it's a matter of survival. Companies rise and fall based upon their ability to design for a customer base.
"Everything is designed today. We're surrounded, immersed, in what is essentially a purposely designed environment. Whereas design used to be a rarified, esoteric option-thing, the culture today is all designed."