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Design mentality key to Michigan companies' success in new economy

Oct 15, 2015

The Next Idea

Michigan makes things, millions of things. And not only do we manufacture them, we invent and design them. For a century, Michigan has led the form and function of furniture, appliances, medical devices, automobiles, aerospace, and agricultural products.

But Michigan’s business culture exists in a decaying, industrial-focused paradigm, one that has become arbitrary and thoughtless in the production of goods and how they are brought to market. This is resulting in unacceptable failure rates – 96% according to Doblin  – of new product launches. This is bad business and costly to Michigan’s economy.

Companies must move away from their focus on products and services and toward the experience of people, says Tom De Vries of Thoughtfull, a Grand Rapids-based design firm.
Credit Flickr/Tri Mode / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

At the heart of problem is a business culture that is built around the objectification of consumers. Objectification is the treatment of people as a commodity, without regard to their personality or dignity.

Throughout the course of our history, human beings have created a pattern of objectification that spans nearly every culture, nationality and religion – including slavery and gender discrimination – from ancient times to present day.

From our labor and advertising practices to our media and popular culture, evidence throughout American history has shown that we are inherently predisposed to see our fellow human beings less as people, and more as anonymous objects.

The modern marketing machine is among the guiltiest culprits today. For decades, marketers have used tools to create “ideal consumers,” which don’t actually exist. As a result, business organizations see past the humanity of human, turning real people into “consumer objects.”

With this objectification mindset firmly established, the focus of executives and marketers has long been on making products, then convincing people to buy them.

The inefficiency of this approach has led to an average of $15 million (with some exceeding $60 million) to develop and launch a new product. And it bears repeating that this spending is happening in an environment where 96% of new products will fail.

Look at the waste. Consider the inefficiency. This is just bad business and has a direct impact on Michigan’s economy.

Less obvious than the financial waste, however, is the inefficiency of human capital. Each new product requires a team of people who spend their careers working on a project, only to see it miss its intended target, largely because they never understood the problem they were trying to solve. This is the root of the issue – and for Michigan, it’s also  a unique opportunity.

Michigan has more designers per capita than any other state in America. Michigan was a world leader in design through the entire 20th century, and we have a bigger opportunity than most to forge a new future.

By valuing its consumers' problems, rather than blindly manufacturing solutions, Michigan can increase exports and create new jobs. The simple act of knowing people can redefine our entire economy.

By utilizing the principles behind our design legacy and shifting how we apply design in our businesses, we can better understand the context and circumstances in which people live and create better products and services that meet real needs. Ultimately this could result in improved success rates of product launches, more profitable businesses, job creation, and economic prosperity.

So what’s the Next Idea?

Michigan can lead this new era of business. To get there, our leaders must position people as the purpose of their business rather than their products. The discipline of design has the required capability. Michigan’s robust design community is our advantage.

While designers do not cleanly fit into any of the typical departments of an organization, they are quickly earning a place in the C-suite of the most influential organizations of our time.

The fastest-growing companies today are finding success in this approach. Uber, Google, and Amazon all position their end-users as the primary subject of their business. Google incorporates this into its “Ten things we know to be true,” and Amazon into its Leadership Principles.

Steve Jobs took Apple from a dismal 4% market share position in personal computers to the most profitable company in the world through a philosophy of “starting with the customer experience and working back to the technology.”

With this newfound influence, designers are moving beyond their purview of product form and function toward users’ context and circumstance. This new breed of designer looks past the traditional litmus test of “Does it work?” to more specifically define whom the company intends to serve, under what circumstances, and ultimately how the new product must work to become worthwhile for people.

Many Michigan business leaders see the value, but reorganizing “the way we do things” is perceived as cost-prohibitive, especially for many small- and mid-sized businesses (SMB), which are the engine of Michigan’s economy. But think of it this way: By incorporating design to intimately understand its consumers, Michigan’s SMB’s can turn 96% from failure into repeatable success.

By valuing its consumers’ problems, rather than blindly manufacturing solutions, Michigan can increase exports and create new jobs. The simple act of knowing people can redefine our entire economy.

There are models that other countries are using to help their businesses become more competitive through design that we could use here. For example, the New Zealand government has its Better By Design program, which promotes the training and subsidizes its cost. (Full disclosure: My firm helped New Zealand officials develop the program.) 

Beyond that there are five disciplines that Michigan’s business community can immediately utilize to turn away from objectification and lead in this new era of business:

  1. Start with the end user.
  2. Perspective is power and you won’t find it in the building.
  3. Value a person’s problems over your solutions.
  4. Know where you’re going, not just how fast you are going.
  5. Experiment and test with real users (prototype).

These are the values of a post-industrial paradigm. We need Michigan designers to lead the integration of a design mentality that not only includes designers, but everyone across their organizations.

Michigan needs to break away from its old habits that lead to consumer objectification and unacceptable failure rates in new products and services. “Old habits die hard,” but businesses in Michigan, led by an active and engaged design community, can lead us into the new economy.

Tom De Vries is co-founder of Thoughtfull, a strategic design firm based in Grand Rapids. 

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