Great design is strategic.
Dieter Rams was head of design at the German personal and household electronics firm Braun from 1961 to 1995 and oversaw the creation of hundreds of products, many which have genuinely changed the way we live. He said; “Indifference towards people, and the reality in which they live is the one and only cardinal sin in design.” This approach still stands up as a guiding principle for great design and brand creation.
Braun’s growth during those years was directly related to its reputation for products that just, well…worked. His approach, namely that design can only be deemed successful if considered to be useful and understandable directly inspired Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive at Apple. We might say that Apple’s products are ‘beautifully designed’, meaning aesthetically pleasing, but what we really mean is they’re clear, intuitive, and effective – beauty isn’t the design brief, it’s a consequence of usefulness.
In fact, the pursuit of beautiful design as a priority can derail success. When telephone communication revolutionised how business was done in the late 1930’s, the race was on to design the device that would sit on the desk of every employee in every company office in every industrialised country. Fuld&Co’s Frankfurt telephone got there first. Still considered a beautiful, modernist piece of art, it looked the part. But it was heavy and cumbersome to use and wasn’t universally adopted. Richard Dreyfuss’ Model 500 came next. It was less aesthetically pleasing and stumpy-looking by comparison, but it was infinitely more usable. Strategically designed by studying office worker’s actual needs in detail, it had a springy extendable wire, built-in carry handle at the back, and a flat-backed receiver. It made carrying the phone around the office easy and cradling it between the neck and shoulder natural. It sold 162 million units.
Strategic thinking creates the conditions for great design. Issues arise when the two operate exclusively. The brand agency model can often perpetuate this – namely the process of the ‘strategy team’ handing over the baton to the ‘creative team’. This siloed approach can lead to bad briefs on one side, or design for design’s sake on the other. Clear, effective design is by its very nature strategic. There’s no delineation. Only then do we get work that, well…works.