Designing for Aliens:
What management guru and design advocate
Tom Peters needs to learn about managing design
By Darrel Rhea, Principal, Cheskin
In New York recently I was speaking at the DMI Summit Conference,
and to my great relief, I spoke before the passionate,
outspoken management guru, Tom Peters. Tom’s pyrotechnic,
in-your-face style is challenging and inspiring. Trust me, you don’t
want to follow this polished act. His message has evolved over the
ten or more times I have heard him over the same number of years,
allowing him to continuously refine the power of his shtick. OK,
I admit it, I have Peters envy. Who among us doesn’t have
dreams about being a professional entertainer who inspires audiences?
Peters is a big believer in the importance of design to business
and forcefully advocates for it (and he is the only leading
management guru who has the sense to). I asked Tom a question about
design that revealed just how much further the design industry has
to go before winning over the “brain-dead wuss MBA engineers
and accountants” that, according to Peters, populate corporations
and are obstacles for design.
Tom Peters is fond of saying
that he has “no patience for non-radicals.” This
is at odds with his rather conventional and romanticized notions
of what design is. While I welcome and admire his enthusiasm
for customer-inspired products and services, I’d like
him to embrace the “radical” notion that customer
inspiration can be engineered to produce predictable outcomes.
These outcomes are better quality products, delighted customers,
and more profitable businesses—for your garden variety
customers …or even aliens.
After Peters made comments about how men couldn’t really
design effectively for women, I asked, “Couldn’t designers,
with their powers of observation and problem-solving skills, design
He replied, “No, design is personal. Somebody needs to get
pissed-off about something before it gets fixed. The best design
comes when someone recognizes a problem that personally affects
them and sets out to fix it.”
After 25 years of helping lead corporate design programs, I can
agree that design is personal. The best design solutions do come
from people who have deep, personal understanding of the
user and their context of use. But such deep understanding can come
from direct personal experience …or personal insight.
This distinction between experience and insight is critical for
understanding how management can produce customer-inspired design
with predictable outcomes.
We all know about personal experience, but where does personal
insight come from? It is the result of a structured inquiry, a conscious
process for learning that empowers designers to produce inspired
creative solutions. It requires 1) caring about the design issue,
2) empathy for the user, 3) natural human curiosity, 4) the ability
to make sensitive observations, 5) ability to collect and analyze
useful information, and most importantly, 6) the ability to define
the essence of the problem or opportunity, and provide creative
direction for possible solutions. Armed with this insight, one can
then apply the traditional skill sets of designers to execute a
Why is this important? Because creating personal insight is
what professional designers do! The business community needs
to understand this to manage and value design. This is why you don’t
need to be a brain surgeon to design tools for brain surgery. Or
why you don’t need to be an 8-year-old to design a powerful
educational tool for kids. This is why, theoretically, one can
design for aliens. The skill that allows the best designers
to design great solutions includes the skill of gaining deep, personal
To Peters’ point, sometimes passionate entrepreneurs do discover
personally relevant problems and set out to fix them. Frequently,
their passion and determination leads them to hire designers
to figure out the dimensions of the problem and implement the solution.
Ask any of the leading design consultancies about their clients’
abilities to articulate the real problem or a reasonable solution.
What the businessperson can see is a potential market and
perhaps a business model that could result from addressing the problem—and
his passion makes the solution into a viable business.
Now to Peters’ point of “somebody needs to get pissed-off
about something before it gets fixed.” Design typically serves
big business (the companies who make and sell most products). If
there were ANY pissed-off people in large corporations, Peters would
be out of a job! Since writing In Search of Excellence,
his message has been about how people in corporations need to get
passionately pissed-off about serving customers with better products
and services, and to be accountable for making change happen. He
urges us to become “radicals,” and to “be willing
to be fired for our beliefs.” Unfortunately, Design operates
in the dispassionate, quantitative business world where executives
are more focused on quarterly financial performance than creating
products that evoke customer delight and loyalty.
Bottom line, few people get pissed-off enough about the products
that irritate them to do something about fixing them. Those that
do rarely have the skills to devise solutions that are effective
or practical. Most great products result from designers applying
their problem solving skills and design processes to inventing a
solution to a problem identified by someone else.
The key talent of great designers is having deep empathy for the
people they design for. They intuitively understand how people experience
products, services, communications, and environments. They care
about the emotional and cognitive response these experiences evoke.
This intuition and caring is enhanced by systematic inquiry into
the nature of the human aspects of the problem and possible design
solutions. We call this inquiry “design research.”
It is the act of uncovering, defining or clarifying the dimensions
of human experience related to a product.
Design research can range from simple observations of people interacting
with a product, to very rigorous scientifically controlled experiments
of the same. It can involve the study of culture, its patterns,
context and trends, and the anthropology of how we create meaning
in our lives. We can test product concepts in an iterative process
that reveals opportunities for refinement toward commercial success.
These are the tools that allow us to develop personal insights …
and yes, perhaps be successful at Designing for Aliens. That is
what Peters and the business community are missing in their view
of design. Design is the result of careful, systematic inquiry,
and not just the creative and visible end-product. Investing
in that process of inquiry is the secret of making money with design.
Darrel Rhea is a Principal of Cheskin
and a passionate spokesperson for the design research industry.
He has been a pioneer in incorporating market research into the
brand design and product development process. Rhea is considered
one of America's leading strategic design consultants, having extensive
experience managing industrial design, product development and innovation,
graphic design, and brand identity creation.
His seminar Using
Design Research for Product and Brand Innovation is part of
the DMI Professional Development Program.
This article appeared in the February 2003 eBulletin.
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