You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2009.
Two summers ago I attended the AIGA/Harvard Business School program, Business Perspectives for Design Leaders (which has since relocated to Yale and, sadly, was canceled this year; all indications are that it will return in 2010). One of the great takeaways from this wildly enriching experience was the insight we were given into those “other” aspects of running a business. Beyond branding, marketing, and possibly product development, most of us in attendance had only the vaguest idea what it took to run a large business. We designers tend to have an inflated view of how important our contribution is to the overall success of a business, but at HBS we were exposed to areas like operations (ie: the efficiency of a factory), finances, and even corporate ethics in an illuminating—and sometimes humbling—way.
So I was pleased to read Enric Gili Fort’s blog post on the Context Response blog entitled, And the award goes to… the supply chain guy. Enric, a design strategist based in Silicon Valley, uses Apple, one of our favorite case studies for the value of design, as Exhibit A for a strong supply chain. He makes the case that Apple’s COO Tim Cook has been as instrumental to their recent success as the much-heralded design team.
For me, this post connects to the primary question I am asking on Merge, “Why are there so few examples of successful ventures launched by designers and creative professionals?” There are many answers to this complex query, but one of them is certainly our ignorance about these “other” critical aspects of running a business. Through Enric’s post we see how important it can be for designers to collaborate with smart people in other areas of business in building complex businesses.
How many times have you been frustrated by the limited options for typography on the web? For those of us who are supposed to be experts at building the visual parts of brands and communication programs, the fact that there are only twelve typefaces available for use in html text (NONE of which we would ever intentionally choose for a brand) has been maddening. Well, that’s all about to change with the launch of Kernest a web typography tool developed by designer and web user experience expert, Garrick VanBuren. I was present for a very well attended presentation earlier this week at Minneapolis Apple dealer, The Foundation, where Garrick unveiled his new tool to an eager audience of designers and developers.
Kernest gives designers and developers access to over 400 typefaces (a number that will grow exponentially very soon as licensing agreements are secured). It also gives type designers and foundries a new venue for their products. Type designer Chank Diesel was at the Foundation event to help with Garrick’s pitch and he’s understandably enthusiastic about the potential this holds, “Discriminating designers are sick of seeing the same ten fonts on almost every website. Today’s web developers want the ability to create HTML-formatted text using any font of their choosing. There are lots of fonts to choose from, y’know. And readers are a lot smarter than you’d think; they can still read a passage even if it’s not in one of the fonts that everybody else uses.” (quote taken from Chank’s blog)
Even though the technical issues with web typography are being resolved, there are many hurdles in the font licensing and trademark areas which are still pretty foggy. Foundries have been notoriously (and understandably) cautious about allowing access to their catalogues. But one has to believe that—once they see the potential of these new development tools—the big foundries will be eager to find a solution that will give designers and developers access to their fonts.
From an entrepreneurial perspective, this is an ideal example of a designer identifying an unmet need and developing a unique solution. Typography for the web is an emerging category that will undoubtedly become crowded very quickly; TypeKit and FontDeck are two start ups that have announced, but have not yet released, similar tools. Garrick has a strong proposition with Kernest, and his bootstraps operation has allowed him to move swiftly and beat the bigger players to market.
Garrick VanBuren will be at the TypeCon 2009 conference in Atlanta this weekend (July 14-19).
It’s always informative to me to see how the mainstream media presents business stories, and in this piece from NPR’s All Things Considered, reporter Wendy Kaufman paints an accurate picture of the current entrepreneurial landscape. She focuses on two themes that have been discussed many times on Merge: first, an economic downturn is an excellent time to launch a new venture; and second, don’t expect to have easy access to venture capital.
Biomedical research, and sustainable technologies are highlighted as areas that are getting much attention despite the recession. While I don’t expect the biomedical area to see a lot of activity from the creative professionals, I see sustainability as a category that is wide open for invention and interpretation.
Kaufman does sound a note of caution about the temptation for “big idea” entrepreneurs to take advantage of federal stimulus funds William Dunkelberg, chief economist of the National Federation of Independent Business, “They [the bureaucrats] don’t have a great record of being creative or innovative or ingenious or running businesses very well.”
But the overall tone of the piece is positive, with Jerry Engel of the Lester Center at UC Berkeley stating, “Now is a great time to start a venture.”
It’s not exactly breaking news to state that sustainability is THE business challenge (and opportunity) of our time. Developing businesses around an eco-friendly mission and integrating sustainable practices into existing businesses will become common practices over the next decade. In fact, businesses that fall behind this trend will undoubtedly lose out as consumers become more savvy about their purchasing practices.
Of course, designers and creative thinkers are well positioned to be leaders in this trend, given that it contains the ingredients of a classic design problem: opportunities and limitations. But acting on this potential is easier said than done, and lately I’ve been collecting resources that illuminate openly the challenges that businesses face in following through on their sustainability mission.
This NY Times essay by Vindu Goel entitled That Long, Long Road from Idea to Success, tells the story of GreenPrint, a software product that helps reduce waste in the office printing process. Goel quotes Scott D. Anthony, president of consulting firm Innosight: “The gulf between invention and innovation is often a huge one that many entrepreneurs can’t cross.” The GreenPrint proposition is built entirely on a sustainability
In this video from Fast Company, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard discusses his decision to eliminate the packaging used for Patagonia’s long underwear and the surprisingly profitable outcome. In a second video, (linked here), Chouinard makes the case that, for certain commodity products, a company’s sustainability commitment will soon become a key point of differentiation.
I just had lunch with my friend Mark Thomas, with whom I’ve been having an ongoing conversation about design, academia, backyard playground sets, and other important things. Mark is a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Minnesota, studying the biology of addiction—a field which, I’ve come to learn, is largely void of design as most of us understand it. Today we were discussing design education and Mark asked what exactly a student will study in a design program. I explained the various components of a foundational design program: 2D, 3D, color theory, typography, design systems, etc. (a list of words that apparently don’t find their way into Mark’s impressive vocabulary very often), and then I mentioned the significantly less tangible concept of empathy. The ability to identify with the audience or user of your design which is a critical skill for a designer, but is so hard to define, and even harder to teach and integrate into a curricula.
So, it was one of those freaky cases of synchronicity when I discovered later in the afternoon that AIGA.org was running that Ralph Caplan’s essay entitled, “The Empathetic Fallacy” as its lead item. Caplan is the great-uncle of design criticism, and I have fond memories of his lectures and articles over the years (for me, stretching back to the AIGA conference in San Antonio in 1989). “Empathy in design focuses on the user as a person, not just a consumer. And because it can be very difficult to imagine someone else’s needs, we try getting the necessary information directly,” Caplan explains.
I spend a lot of time (and pixels) on Merge explaining how many things designers DON’T know about entrepreneurship. But I also believe that one of the reasons great designers are also potentially great entrepreneurs is that we possess this mysterious ability to understand the needs of people who may be very different from ourselves. Moreso, we know how to connect with these people and deliver a message in a meaningful way. While there are a slew of mitigating factors involved, this happens to be an essential quality of being an entrepreneur as well: understanding a need and creating a solution.