If Design’s No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is?


  • By John Maeda
  • September 21, 2012 |

We already know that design matters. Product design. Industrial design. Experience design. Supply chain design. Witness the renewed fervor for the iPhone 5 today: It goes way beyond function to sheer desire. Nobody wants objects or experiences that just do the job – they want something they want to do the job with.

So instead of competing on technology, people began to compete on design. And now everyone seems to be trying to out-design each other. But designed objects and experiences have become the norm – some would even say boring.

Design is no longer the killer differentiator.

When I watched my graduate students at the MIT Media Lab code with Ruby on Rails – and that was over 6 years ago – I could just viscerally sense the shift: It was becoming easier than ever to develop and deploy sophisticated web services. With tools like Processing for information design and open-source platforms like Arduino for building electronics, programming and prototyping became simpler, more widespread. Simple technology tools have and continue to spread design everywhere.

But what people want today goes well beyond technology and design. They don’t just want four wheels and a means to steer, or to be surrounded by music and information wherever their eyes and ears may roam. What people are looking for now is a way to reconnect with their values: to ground how they can, will, and should live in the world.

The innovation now needs to occur elsewhere. Outside the design. Into, quite frankly, the world of art.

Mating our left-brained technical wizardry with our right-brained humanizing intuitions is key to innovation, but don’t make the mistake of confusing “design” with “art.” I’d argue that there’s a difference, and it matters. Designers create solutions – the products and services that propel us forward. But artists create questions — the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way “forward” actually is. The questions that artists make are often enigmatic, answering a why with another why. Because of this, understanding art is difficult: I like to say that if you’re having difficulty “getting” art, then it’s doing its job.

In the business world, Steve Jobs was the iconic CEO-as-artist. One way to learn from that example, as revealed by Isaacson’s biography, would say that to be an artist is to be a mercurial asshole in bloodthirsty pursuit of an ideal others cannot yet envision. For better or worse, though, most people don’t see themselves in this definition. But when we manage to shed our stereotypes of artists as psychologically unstable, we get to see what an artist really is: someone who often exchanges his own welfare(福利) and even his life for a cause that may have no meaning to anyone else, but means everything to him or her.

In other words, an artist is truly in it for themselves – not just for reasons of wanting to get rich, or get famous, or find a path to comfort. The artist needs to understand the truth that lies at the bottom of an enigma. In Jobs’ case, he painstakingly pursued the question of what a digital ecosystem that transcends mere relevance and basic needs could mean for modern and future culture itself. We buy his products not just because they function, not just because they are well designed, but out of respect for the integrity of his work – because we buy into the vision of the future world he was trying to create and the values they represent for us. For this, we are happy to be tithed a little extra.

In a world where breaches of integrity are more and more commonly revealed, holding on to those values is of the utmost importance to us. We want the products we buy to be made responsibly, sold truthfully, to have come from the mind of a human being just like us – not just from an algorithm.

Art speaks to us as humans, not as “human capital.” Art shows us that human beings still matter in a world where money talks the loudest, where computers know everything about us, and where robots fabricate our next meal and also our ride there. Artists ask the questions that others are afraid to ask and that money cannot answer. Occasionally, as in Apple’s case, or Pixar’s, or Harley Davidson’s, we witness an artist asking questions that have a profound effect on the marketplace – on the way we live and play and drive.

So how do we have more of these successes? I’m not just glorifying(頌揚 褒揚) art here; this is an important question. Just how do we make – not just find – the next generation of artists who will propel us and reveal the way forward?

There’s already been so much focus on technical skills as the drivers of innovation. Silicon Valley now has talent agencies to manage hotshot programmers (yes). Around the world, even small countries such as Estonia are focusing on teaching coding. And this election season, politicians will focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects. It’s so mainstream now that even will.i.am is talking STEM. Of course I see value here; I was a STEM student myself.

But if we want to make the next generation of “artrepreneurs,” we need to add A for Art to turn STEM to STEAM. There are already a number of hot startups founded by entrepreneurs with design backgrounds. Instead of just Kickstarters to fund budding entrepreneurs, we need moreUpstarts to crowdfund art students to pursue their passions. This movement is gathering steam (pun intended) across government and research, but what delighted me most was to learn that the 43rd season of Sesame Street premiering soon is being brought to viewers by the letters S – T – E – A – M . Only a year ago, Elmo was interviewed on CNN about the importance of S – T – E – M.

Because if Elmo gets it, surely everyone else will catch on. Even those companies trying to out-compete each other with design … instead of art.


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