Great design is NOT simply the personification of its creator

Starckbook.jpgI recently responded to a post by Helen Waters on the Business Week NEXT blog titled “How to create a product that lasts today.” She has a quote in the entry that seems like it is a bit more old-school thinking. The text is below:

It’s an interesting thing to see a quote like “Great design is simply the personification of its creator” in the context of a blog about innovation in 2007. Most of our clients (Jump Associates) are aware that relying on a single genius who seems to have the muses on speed dial is a short term strategy at best. That’s why the companies that understand design as a strategic competence understand there’s more to it than tossing colored pencils to those funny creatives the marketers never talk to. Great design is more often the result of the hard work of many people, insights that other people missed, and having the skills, talents and resources to execute on that design in a defensible way. Steve Jobs is one of the most significant influences on design today, but Apple has an army of brilliant designers of all kinds that actually design… not Jobs. He didn’t show up at the office one morning with the iTunes model engraved on one stone table and a CAD drawing of an iPod on the other. (Though I certainly admit, it sure seems like that’s possible.)

Being able to create buzz and adroitly follow trends, is not the same thing as monetizing that buzz for sustainable growth and remaining relevant to the motivations and needs expressed in those trends. It’s just those companies that rely on buzz or trends that don’t generally stay afloat. What got a bigger buzz than Segway? For every Facebook and Myspace, I can’t count the number of dot-bombs out there that are dead or dying trying to follow that trend. The skilled ability to monetize buzz and surf trends without chasing them is just what the fashion industry is exceedingly good at. The fashion industry is often the place we look for “what’s next” in color, materials, textures, even emotional out look. But the major names don’t change their Look with a capitol “L” with every fad. It does not matter if you are talking about Gucci and Armani or Land’s End and Diesel, they have a distinctive look that responds to trends, but are not tossed out wholesale and started over because of them.

There are designs out there that are all about being the personification of its creator. I am interested in those as well, but they have a different place than something like the iPod. Take Philippe Starck as an example. I don’t go to a hotel designed by or in collaboration with him to have an experience I am used to; I go because I want to experience his vision, his whimsy. But what Starck is after is quite different from what Jobs is after. Jobs is looking for design to express a vision that will resonate with people and reframe how we see such ordinary tasks as buying music. Starck is more interesting in tweaking the world’s nose, letting you see what resonates with him.

The iPod can be compared with the Olivetti Valentine typewriter, as a design icon of its own, that celebrates the elegance of form and function to a mundane task. In contrast, Starck’s Juicy Salif juicer is a much closer relation to Duchamp’s Dadaist Fountain urinal installation. Starck’s juicer is a monument to uselessness. The unholy love child of a 1940’s rocketship and a sex toy, his juicer, like Duchamp’s Fountain, makes no pretense to actual functionally. That and people like to metaphorically pee on both of them. Its all about the designer expressing their desire to create an artifact and the actual outcome be damned. I’m fine with that, I like sculptural things that aren’t really functional if that is what I am expecting. If I want to juice, I have a $2 plastic hand juicer that works like a dream in my cupboard.

There is a place for the lone genius, and the hard working team, the question is who’s ride do you want to take in the moment?