Jay Greene: Design is How it Works

July 10, 2010
120 Views

Last time I was in Seattle, my friend and former BW colleague Jay Greene and I had this idea. We’d go on a speaking tour together and argue. Naturally, I would defend the metrics and methods of the Numerati. He, meanwhile, would advance the more gut-centric, quant-averse values of design.

Last time I was in Seattle, my friend and former BW colleague Jay Greene and I had this idea. We’d go on a speaking tour together and argue. Naturally, I would defend the metrics and methods of the Numerati. He, meanwhile, would advance the more gut-centric, quant-averse values of design.

So naturally, I was excited to received my copy last week of Jay’s new book, Design is How it Works. I wanted to see his side of the argument.

Turns out it’s very compelling. In the book, he leads us through eight examples of companies that build their business, one way or another, on design. These aren’t the usual suspects, because design, the way Jay describes it, is much more than a sheen, a shape or a box: It’s the way things work. So he takes us to a German race track to meet designers at Porsche, to Denmark for LEGO, on a grueling 150-mile bike ride to pedal with the founder of Clif Bar. He crosses the Atlantic First Class on Virgin, first getting his (thinning) hair coiffed at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. That’s part of design too.

It’s a highly engaging narrative, and it contains lots of wisdom and insights about design. One of my favorite aspects is that the book explores not only their genius and successes, but also their failures. During the craze for Atkins and South Beach diets, for example, Clif Bar designed a low-carb energy bar, Luna Glow. It flopped. …quot;We created a very lousy, inauthentic product that wasn’t Clif Bar. And it bombed,…quot; the founder Gary Erickson told Jay.

We also see LEGO floundering as it build an entire set of action figures, and moves away from the company’s classic bricks. Bang & Olufson, the ultra high-end audio company, designed a stunning $460 portable music player called BeoSound 2, but without a screen, and a $1,275 mobile phone, the Serene, with a beautiful rotary keypad that made it impossible to text.

Summarizing the lessons is a bit of problem, but one that has more to do with design than with this book. Design, unlike the arts I describe, is nearly impossible to measure or predict. It steers clear of formulas. Checklists are near worthless. The only essential, I’d say, is to take it seriously. For that, Design is How it Works serves as a wonderful guide. Here’s an interview with him.

(By the say, I’d love to go on tour with Jay. But I think are ‘arguments’ might turn out to be a bit contrived.)