The Corporate Design Foundation, a non-profit education and research organization, promotes design and business success stories through the publication @issue: The Journal of Business and Design. The Foundation talked with Tom Peters, considered the preeminent authority on business management (“In Search of Excellence” ), about the role design can play in business.
You are best known as a guru of corporate management, so maybe we should start by asking what design encompasses for you?
Literally, everything. I once contributed a little piece called “Design Is ” for a book, in which I wrote down 100 things, listing everything from easy-to-fill-out airbills to baseballs, which I consider fabulous turn-ons. Design ranges from the physical layout of a room to the makeup artists who present Larry King to the public. It’s Winston Churchill’s “spontaneous” witty remarks, all of which he had carefully written out the night before on small scraps of paper and carried around with him. Another huge part of design is usability, which Don Norman discusses so well in his book, The Design of Everyday Things.
Is design purely practical?
Not really. I saw an article in Fortune recently where Steve Jobs is quoted saying “design is the soul of a manmade creation.” There’s a part of that I’m attracted to. I also loved Rose Tremain’s passage on music in her novel “Music and Silence,” which I think is just as true about design. [Reading from book] She writes, ” of course, we really do not know where music comes from, or why, or when the first note of it was heard, and we shall never know. It is the human soul speaking without words, but it seems to cure pain.” For me, design is elusive, it’s soul, it’s abstract, and it’s all of the opposites of those things.
Is design more important for marketing products than services?
No. Paradoxically, I believe that design is more important for services. Harvard marketing expert Ted Levitt pointed out years ago that if your product is tangible (planes, boats, cars, pen knife), you need to distinguish yourself from the herd by emphasizing intangibles i.e., service. If your product is intangible (banking, travel, etc.), distinguish yourself from the masses by emphasizing the tangible to wit, design. FedEx, for example, stands out on the tangibles of strong branding, clean trucks, easy-to-use forms. A business system, like FedEx’s, that works transparently on the surface and offers brilliant simplicity is as much about design as an iMac or a Beetle. If you’re a service business, it’s important to work on the tangibles.
Does the design industry recognize this fact?
Well, I found it interesting that when ID Magazine published its Top 40 list of organizations that make effective use of design, half of them were service companies. There were as many FedExs, Bloombergs and New York Yankees on the list as there were Gillettes, Caterpillars and Apples.
What mistakes have you seen managers make in terms of understanding and using design?
Mistake No.1 is treating design as a veneer issue rather than a soul issue. The dumbest mistake is viewing design as something you do at the end of the process to “tidy up” the mess, as opposed to understanding that it’s a “day one” issue and part of everything.
How important is design in e-commerce?
It is e-commerce. Period. All stop. Whether it is the look of the screen, the innards, the delivery mechanism that actually makes the stuff come to fruition after you punch your one-click button, or the look-feel-taste-touch of the site itself, the Internet is a pure, unadulterated design medium.