the big questions


Although questions like these sound like metaphysical explorations, we use them when we consult with new clients before creating any design deliverable. When we conduct an internal company audit, it’s surprising how often we find disagreements between company management on basic questions, like “What does this company do? What is its purpose? Why does it matter?” Speaking to executives of successful companies, you wouldn’t think we’d get a different answer from each executive in the same company—but we do.

Answering what the company does may be the easiest, although the answer is still not always consistent. The company’s purpose, or reason for being is much harder and causes the most disagreement. The question, “Why does it matter?” asks for the beneficial reason the company even exists.

Auditing company literature and Web sites often reveal a similar lack of purpose and benefit. Here’s a test. Cover up the logo of your competitor’s Web site and read the description of the company’s products and services. Compare it to competitor number one, two or three and to your own as well. Can you tell the difference between each? Can you cut through industry jargon and understand the purpose and benefit each company serves? This speaks to brand position as well as to communicating value.

You can use different techniques to help you gain an understanding of your company. We often use metaphorical comparisons: thinking of your business in terms of a model car, for instance. Collecting emotional photographs that represent your company is valuable, as is personal expression using drawings. We use such efforts as part of the Discover phase of the modern8 Perception Branding 5D process.

more like designers

The business magazine Fast Company annually devotes an entire issue to design. In the most recent edition, Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Business, said, “Design, in short, is becoming an ever more important engine of corporate profit: It’s no longer enough simply to outperform the competition; to thrive in a world of ceaseless and rapid change, businesspeople have to outimagine the competition as well. They must begin to think–to become–more like designers.”

The article, titled “Tough Love”, acknowledges an uneasy alliance between business and design. “Many businesspeople have long regarded designers as mere stylists. More than a few designers see businesspeople as Neanderthals all too willing to forfeit quality for the sake of profit. Their mutual pique springs from a fundamental difference in the way each side thinks about creating value: Corporate types, by and large, seek to fuel growth by building from bulletproof, reproducible systems; designers generally attempt to do so by imagining something new, different, better.”

The author concludes that to prosper over the long run, companies needs to succeed at both the intuitive and experimental as well as the provable and replicable. “It must mesh the classical workings of a traditional organization with the prototypical features of a design shop.” More

faster horse or model t?

At the AIGA Business and Design Conference I attended in October, Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, served as moderator. IDEO is a 450-person product design pioneer known for its groundbreaking work for Apple, Caterpillar, Kraft, and other manufacturing icons.


Tom Kelley told us the walls of the IDEO corporate conference room are adorned with an insightful remark by Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”


Focus group studies are notorious for this. If you ask people what you want, they almost always want more of the same, just with better features or a lower price. Real innovation produces ideas that no customers would come up with in the normal course of researching their wants. This is possible because designers try to conceive what people will want in the future, rather than what they want now.


As Marty Neumeier describes in his new book, Zag: The Number 1 Strategy of High Performance Brands, the best way to judge a new idea is to map customer feedback against a success pattern. When you draw a chart with two axes, one for “good” and one for “different,” you can see how you stack up against other options.


Just like Stephen Covey’s famous urgent-important matrix, the best place to be is in the upper-right quadrant — in this case, where good and different combine to create a successful idea. Unfortunately most companies feel more comfortable in the upper-left quadrant, good but not different, and end up with just a faster horse. Judge that new proposal against the good-different matrix. You can’t be a leader by following the leader.