There were several things that I heard that I think can help us when thinking about our company and where we’re going, but also some things that, if we’re mindful about it, will inform our work for our clients. I’m breaking these into a series, just to help manage the content, but here’s what I’ll cover:

1. Design is not aesthetics
2. Experiences are about effects
3. Context is more important than content
4. Welcome to the attention economy

Design is not aesthetics.
Or, rather, it is, but also so much more. During my time at Fuse there were three talks, each about the role of design, that were relevant for our business. Each of the speakers continued to drive home that while how something looks and feels is important, design is really about thinking differently about business, communication, and experience.

Thinking creatively
At PepsiCo, CEO, Indra Nooyi realized that there was an absence of creative thinking at the highest ranks of the company. She gave each of her most senior executives a photo album and asked them to take 60 days to fill it with pictures of great design artifacts. Almost all of these highly intelligent, successful executives were incapable of fulfilling this simple task. They couldn’t understand the request. Nooyi quickly understood that PepsiCo needed to integrate design into their everyday workings, or that they’d be left behind.

Design driving business
Perhaps the most relevant part of this talk for our business was when Nooyi spoke about the profound changes happening in the food and beverage category. Consumers are confused and conflicted, and simply don’t know what to buy. Should I be only buying all natural products? What channel do I buy from? She highlighted the fact that labeling isn’t uniform, and how lifestyle debates are making consumers re-evaluate everything in their lives. And perhaps most importantly for us, she made it clear that for PepsiCo, partnership with their customers is key to their growth, and it would be their commitment to design thinking that would help drive this sense of partnership.

To me, as a creative director and designer, it’s exciting to hear the CEO of a major CPG company talking about the power of design, and its importance beyond the way something looks.

Busign
Phil Duncan, the Global Design Officer for P&G, believes in what he calls Busign. It’s a mash-up of business and design, and what he espouses is the idea that designers need to understand business problems if they’re going to have a seat at the big table. True enough. Too often designers have been considered a moody (but talented) resource for gussying up layouts. But Duncan’s point of view is that designers can have a much more significant impact by listening for what the real issue is for a given project.

It’s not about the bums, it’s about connection.
One example he gave was Pampers. Struggling at the time, Pampers was wildly inconsistent in their offering. Moms weren’t buying them, and the thinking at P&G was that they needed to reconfigure the chassis so that they could have a consistent, comfortable diaper. But the design team at P&G suggested that perhaps the problem wasn’t babies’ bums, but rather the connection to moms.

The designers looked at the struggling line and through a use of what Duncan called “insight and emotion” arrived at a slightly less operational solution: diaper fashion. In this case, aesthetics became the strategy for driving growth of the brand, as the design team introduced color and pattern and charm to the existing diapers, effectively changing moms’ behavior by not covering them up with clothes.

“Don’t you dare take away my argyle!”
What the designers were able to uncover was that the barrier to purchase was an absence of connection, not of speed of production or comfort. Moms were so in love with the new fashion-oriented designs that when the products went into testing, and the notion of removing a particular argyle design was floated by the panel, Duncan said that the moms in the room were “pissed.” That’s the kind of connection to a product that goes beyond logic, and that’s what virtually any manufacturer is looking for.

Design as narrative.
Perhaps the talk closest to my own belief system within design was Anthony Sperduti’s. The co-founder and creative director of Partners and Spade, an agency with a eye for wit and sophistication, Sperduti talked about the ability of design to tell a story, to serve as narrative. And narratives are immensely important not only for communication, but for the creation of culture.

The role of design in creating culture, then, can’t be understated. By thinking visually about how to bring a story to life, we further create a narrative on which a brand can be founded, and customers can identify as meaningful. Sperduti showed the work done for Warby Parker, an eyeglass company based in New York. The brand was named for two different characters from the works of Jack Kerouac, and since the origin was literary, there was an opportunity to make the brand express a literary sensibility at every touchpoint. And so the brand was launched with a guerrilla fashion show in the NYC Public Library, a tour was created called the Warby Park Class Trip, which was centered around a school bus converted into a library on wheels, and their first bricks and mortar store was designed to look like a mid-century library, with small publisher titles available for purchase alongside all of the eyewear.

Warby_Parker_glasses_low

Design is about impact.
The more we look to design thinking to solve real problems, and not just put lipstick on them, the greater impact our ideas will have. While some large companies like PepsiCo and P&G have started to really embrace what design can achieve, there’s always room to be better and do more. For our clients, we need always to ask questions:

What’s the real problem to solve?
What is the story we need to tell?
How can this story touch someone’s life, authentically?

That’s it for now. I’ll continue the Fuse 2014 discussion with a look at designing experiences.