Designers as enablers

Reading Bruce Nussbaum’s first post of the year reminded me of something I’d learnt in one of John Heskett‘s classes. I can’t recall which one in particular, for I tried to take them all at the Institute of Design. Anyway, Nussbaum talks about the trends at the recent Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas,

The avalanche of stuff–and I do mean stuff–coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is overwhelming but one trend is clear to me: companies that want to succeed must be in the enabling business, not the product or even the service business.

And quite rightly, he goes on to add that it’s not enough just for the Web 2.0 socially oriented companies like Flickr, Google, Socialtext et al to offer users an experience they can tailor to their own needs, but for all kinds of products and services to be co-created with the end user. His choice of words – must be in the enabling business – brought to mind the difference between the designer as a formgiver and the designer as an enabler.

Heskett distinguishes the two by saying that the designer as formgiver is responsible for the final form in all it’s details – classical product design and that the designer as enabler creates systems that enables users to take vital decisions – empowering the user. He also defined systems as complex combinations of products, communications, spaces and services – something that Nussbaum touches upon as well, though I don’t know if I agree, yet, with his assertion that it’s the next step of evolution. To be facetious, Bruce, evolution is but one ubiquitous example of large scale systems design – and as a disclaimer, I’m a firm believer in Darwin’s theories. Besides, I’m heathen.

On one hand, for argument’s sake, this is probably the best direction the design industry can evolve in, integrating itself as part of the mainstream – the early indicators are already in place, Dan Pink’s Conceptual Age and right/left brain thinking, design thinking, design as a strategic force for adding value blah blah blah – all point towards an eventual blurring of the boundaries between "the designer" and "the whole brain thinker in the corporate environment who is a consistent innovater". On the other hand, it makes sense, at this juncture, to take an introspective moment and question the brand equity of the concept of "design", as a profession, as an industry, as an entire field with a body of research and definitive methods.

A brand too is a system, or so I was taught, by virtue of the definition given above, integrating the complex combination of products, communications, spaces and services. My existential question, that I’m circumlocuting my way towards is regarding the value of the genericization of a brand. Be patient, there’s also a connection to the entire design industry. Somewhere. Just yesterday I read this interesting article, Google’s billion dollar brand in peril? on the devaluation of one of Wall Street’s favorite brands.

Listing of Google as a verb is also beginning to show up in
dictionaries. Type ‘Google’ into and you find that it is
listed (by the Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English) as a
verb meaning “to search for information on the Internet, esp. using the
Google search engine”. Note the term ‘especially’ (not exclusively)
using the Google search engine. It gets worse. The illustrative example
uses a lower case ‘g’: “She googled her high school boyfriends.” This
is the sort of thing that should be ringing very loud alarm bells for
Google and its investors

And from an older article,

begin with a new product service they almost want to have (a
synonymous) association," Naughton said. "But once they achieve that
recognition you have to step back, it’s tricky business."

Now Google is a verb – first seen as a signal of an extremely successful brand, as are the words Skyping or Tivo’d – I’ve seen them all in the blogosphere. And this is going to be the natural consequence of the brands [companies] that must be in the enabling business to succeed. Similarly, as a gentle observer, I wonder, if this be the fate of the design industry as a consequence of it’s extremely rapid evolution, at least in the newsmedia, into the single point resource for competitive advantage, the mother of invention and the father of prosperity. After all, design is already a verb and a noun.

I raise two issues, here, then, as food for thought,

One, what is the future of a brand, a corporate trademark, a product name [podcasting anyone?] if the trend towards user cocreation, empowerment and customization continues, and it will, it seems, indubitably.

Two, what is the future of the design profession, an industry in it’s own right at the moment, if the continued integration of design and business, left and right brain, ‘consumer centricity’ to use Prahalad’s terminology, evolves to it’s inevitable conclusion.

Bruce ends his post with the statement that this discussion could determine your future and that of your corporation – I certainly hope so – hey Google? Have I got a rebranding strategy for you! It’s time we talked.

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