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Design a competitive weapon

Design is everywhere. Design sells products. Design transforms manufacturers and sales personnel into successful entrepreneurs. So what exactly is design? Just an attractive exterior – or something more?

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Design is everywhere. Design sells products. Design transforms manufacturers and sales personnel into successful entrepreneurs. So what exactly is design? Just an attractive exterior – or something more?

A number of peopleare surrounding the new coffee machine, but they are bewildered by the sheer number of choices they face. In addition to the many options for warm beverage, there are two spouts for delivering the liquid. Someone chooses the one on the right and places the cup beneath it, but it quickly becomes clear that the choice is wrong. The liquid pours out the left-hand spout, creating a flood.

The heart of the problem here is design. Design is often thought to be the decorative plumage that gives a product character, but it goes considerably further than that, encompassing form, function, ease of use and more. And whether it’s good or bad is up to the perception of the user. Those products and services that are designed with consideration for and know-ledge of the user’s needs and skills are going to be the products and services that are perceived by the user as being good. This means that the key for developers of products and commercial enterprises is to acquire, as effectively as possible, a thorough knowledge of the potential user’s behaviour patterns and then to translate this knowledge into a form and expression for the product or service at hand.

Designers are trained to design products, services and environments in such a way that users can rapidly understand them and use them without difficulty. Companies also use design to shape their own environments, create their visual identity and develop their products. Expression, form and function together give an impression that also reflects what a company stands for and how it wishes to be perceived by both customers and employees. In the words of British designer Richard Seymour, “Design is about making things better for people.”

 

Sometimes when visitinga store, let’s say a home electronics store to buy a digital camera, it is striking how little the sales staff knows about the cameras – and how little this actually matters. We are going to buy one anyway. Like living question marks, we stare at all the abbreviated technical terms that mean equally little to us, whatever language they are written in. On what grounds do we base a purchase then? Of course, price may be a decisive factor, once we have ascertained that the technical hieroglyphs seem to be essentially the same, regardless of brand. But then there also is the question of feel. How does the product feel in the hands? Will the zoom function smoothly? How do the buttons feel? And then there is the fact that it must still look like a camera. Otherwise, what is the manufacturer trying to convince us to buy? These are all factors that will work to create the feel and image that will determine which camera we buy.

 

How customers perceivea company depends on so much more than the product or service itself and the company’s communications efforts. Equally important is the environment – all the places where the company’s employees work and receive their customers. This may mean an office, a store, a Web site or some other production site. In such environments, both the employees and the customers meet the company, and this is where impressions of the company are created. The visitor takes away so much more than what was said during the actual meeting. It may be that the customer cannot even fully recall what it was that did not exactly give “good vibrations,” but the negative impression will remain.

If a company’s employees have an ergonomically optimal workplace, it signifies that the company is concerned about its personnel, and consequently probably cares about its customers as well. As an employee, I want to feel safe and secure with the machines I use. In critical environments, such as hospitals, there is no room for any doubt about how a machine functions when a patient is in need of emergency care.

Employees want to feel comfortable in the environment where they spend entire days. Companies have everything to gain from focusing on their personnel as their starting point when they design the company environment and all the equipment with which the employees come into contact. An employer who shows this kind of concern and consideration is a better employer than one who does not.

Everyone today is also aware that a skilled workforce is a competitive weapon. What can companies offer, over and above good wages and stimulating work assignments, to attract skilled workers? The answer is a work environment permeated by consideration and concern. This can be the crucial factor when competing for competent personnel.

Services consist of a series of encounters with products while we are consuming the service. When travelling by air, our impression of the travel company is influenced by everything from the ticket machines to the food tray and the seats on board the aircraft. Other people we meet naturally also play a major role. But it is clear that much can be influenced through the use of good design. Today, many services are offered via the Web. How simple, understandable and accessible we perceive such a service to be depends largely on how it is presented – meaning how the graphic design is constituted. It is the technology that enables us to use the Web for secure bank services and the design that shows us how to do so.

 

Design is thereforeabout looking at your company and posing a number of questions: Who are we? How do we wish to be perceived as a company? It also involves consciously working to make sure that the company’s environment, products and communications all reflect its core values, and transmitting this commitment to the employees. Design should be based on the user’s perspective throughout the development of all products, services, environments and communications. It may be the case in some companies that knowledge of customers and their needs is present only as passive knowledge. With the help of a design consultant, this knowledge can be made active and visible and lead to effective new forms of visual expression.