Design Beyond the “Happy Spray”| A Conversation with John Maeda

We had a conversation with John Maeda as a part of our interviews for the Design Lens. After serving as the 16th President of the Rhode Island School of Design, Maeda is currently the design partner at the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. We talked about his new role as well as the connections between design, technology, and business.

Maeda explains his role in Kleiner Perkins as “to help more people see beyond design as a kind of a spray, a happy spray: ‘Oh design! It’s great!'” “I’m very uninterested in beauty or aesthetics” he says. “I care more about the ecosystem and the kind of systems thinking that’ll create better startups.” He exemplifies from Silicon Valley:

“I think it’s important to know that [Y Combinator] is an example of design. It’s probably the biggest example of design in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Because they designed how to create more startups. It’s a very elegant design. […] So I see YC’s strength as the design of the organization and the construct.”

However he admits that his mission of shifting perspectives about design will take some time: “If it involves people, it’s going to take more time than you expect.” He goes on to explain:

“Maybe 90% [of Silicon Valley design] or over is graphic, interactive on the screen. From a diversity perspective, it’s not very good. Because you want all kinds of design. So a lot of what I’m interested in doing is that I keep focusing on growing the diversity of how we talk about design and finding more connections between design and technology and business.”

He says that the task involves a lot of “leadership development” as it requires company leaders that understand his frame: “Letting people see that the technology is important. But the technology isn’t the only important thing. And, when you pull design closer to it, you create a better product.”

He explains:

“It used to be technology and design could be separate in the computer industry. It was easier that way. But now to design for a smaller screen, to design for lower power, engineering is getting harder. Constraints are higher. So design has to be close to it to have a better effect.”

Then, he expands on the dynamics that have driven design forward:

“If you rewind history before computers design was always important. Like when you were buying a car, you wouldn’t buy it for the technology. You’d buy it for the design. When computers came along, we didn’t care about the design, we cared about the technology. Because the technology was differentiated, highly differentiated. But over time, everyone can have a good computer.”

So, according to Maeda, design isn’t rising in importance, but technology’s ability to differentiate is falling:

“Design has always been there. Design always differentiates. But in the digital technology era, it wasn’t doing that. But now, it is.”

Image Credit: Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers


Connecting the Dots:  Design as “Value Engineering” | A Conversation with Eric Quint, 3M Chief Design Officer

For the upcoming book of the “Design Lens,” we had a conversation with Eric Quint. Quint is currently the Chief Design Officer at 3M and an advisory board member of the Design Management Institute. Previously he led Global Design Management and the Design Consulting practice as Vice President, Philips Design.

Quint makes an interesting statement about the changing role of design:

“If you go back until the 80s, design was very much a partner to R&D, with an integral focus on human needs to create functional products for the marketplace. In the 90s and 2000s, however, the role of design began to shift, with greater emphasis on emotional experience. Building upon relationships, connection and brand, this created a stronger bridge between design and marketing. For the past decade, I’ve been recognizing the engagement of design closer to portfolio management and therefore, having a stronger link to the finance function and the prioritization of investments. Design plays an important role in identifying and creating value for customers, and by extension of course, creating value for the company. So design started to progressively touch and impact multiple areas of business, from R&D to marketing to the customer…and back to the business through the lens of finance. This cycle of influence and value, which I refer to as ‘value engineering,’ starts to drive the optimization and direction of a portfolio, also anticipating viable options created by design.”

Quint goes on to expand this perspective, citing that “value engineering” is heavily interrelated:

“If you think about maximizing value for the company as well as for the customer, then you also start to innovate upon business models, value chains, and new opportunities to make impact that is not only emotional, but also tangible and measurable.”

The challenge, Quint claims, is maintaining a focus on relevance, which is where design plays the strongest. But when you are opening areas of impact for design to new and dynamic market places for a global company, this adds complexity.

“New possibilities for value creation are endless. There is more technology available than we could have ever imagined. New markets emerge, and so do new opportunities. So in our pursuit of new and relevant solutions, we have to be smart, focusing on the best ideas. We have to explore and push design thinking forward to ensure delivery of customer value, which subsequently translates to business value.

Quint adds that the creative opportunities for innovation are ongoing; it’s never just about the technology or customer problem in isolation.

“It’s not good enough just to have a great technology to drive the innovation process. You have to be able to identify insights and understand future context that can be translated through design to achieve relevance and impact. It’s about making smart combinations of available knowledge and existing technologies to create something new.”

“Innovation has many dimensions,” added Quint. “You can innovate upon ideas, technologies, business models and processes, brand experiences, and so on.” For Quint, validation and scalability are vital components to drive successful innovation over time:

“I think innovation is all about scaling up. In order to scale up, you need investment. In order to get investment, you need to connect the dots between insights and future opportunities to manage options and risks, thereby achieving the ultimate objective: value.”