Designing for Business

16th October 2023
8 min read

Design can [literally] make your business.

When we think of design, we think of the usual things:

  • Empathy for users
  • Ergonomics and usability
  • Design for mass production
  • Post-it notes and coffee drinking
  • Making things look nice

Assuming you’re in the business of making goods (like maybe medical devices), the right design decisions at the right time can mean the difference between a business being a success, and a business continuing to struggle. Or failing entirely. And I’m not just being dramatic.

Design is Holistic

Design is far more holistic than even most designers fully understand. When we think of holistic design, our thinking is still often constrained to aspects of a product that design is in direct contact with; material costs, assembly time, repairability etc. What is usually overlooked is how those things impact the next order, and the order after that. Like it or not, choices made at the design stage will go on to impact every part of the business:

  • Design > tooling costs (and retooling if you don’t get it right) > business expenses.
  • Design > cost of goods > more expenses.
  • Design > aesthetics > market position > sale price > revenue.
  • Design > usability > market acceptance > sales volume > revenue.
  • Design > durability (or lack of) > well this could go either way depending on if you’re a monopoly or not.

The list goes on. But as you can see, design is not just the part you see or hold. When we talk about stakeholders in design, we’re not just talking about users. We are (or should be) talking about *all* stakeholders. That means the business bankrolling the project too. How do they fit in the market? Are they trying to change that position? Are they even in the market? Are they trying to disrupt the industry, or are they playing safe?

The answers to these questions, questions you should ask as part of discovery, will go on to dictate the design choices you make. A design you create for a company set to disrupt an industry will not be the same design you create for a company consolidating their position in it.

For a startup then you can see this is especially important. Made so by limited capital, negligible revenue, and a need to hit the mark to ensure the ongoing success of the company. Does the product need to cause people to sit up and take notice? Or should it be subversive? Or, maybe just the right amount of disquiet to gain traction without putting buyers off? And a company’s debut product has the added responsibility of setting the stage for future products to come.

This isn’t a set-and-forget set of parameters either. These questions must be asked for every project as the design objectives change and business needs evolve.

Apple - A Textbook Example

Here is a universal truth; Apple wants to sell as many products as possible.

As you know, in tech-years Apple is a veritable dinosaur. Yet unlike most dinosaurs, they continue to roam the Earth eating up competitors and start-ups. The upshot for us is that as a company they provide us with a large range of company life-cycle stages to analyse, even some never seen before in the wild.

In our case, we get to see how design has played a part in their rise and fall and rise again. And we can take a look at how as the business needs changed, and they certainly did, the design evolved to address those needs.

Rewind to 1997

In the mid-1990s Apple stock had tanked, and the company was nearly bankrupt. Through a combination of increased competition, failed product launches, and premium pricing, Apple was not an attractive proposition for many users. Whatever you think about Steve Jobs, his reinstatement as CEO in 1997 and the new vision he brought with him (and a supportive board of directors) unquestionably saved the company from bankruptcy. Jobs refocused the company with a stronger software offering and a new product lineup that included the pivotal iMac and iPod, launched in 1998.

But before I get to 1998's iMac and its transparent design, however to set the stage, let's stay in 1997 a moment longer. The market disrupting design of the iMac didn't happen in a vacuum. Prior to the iMac, Apple had released the Power Macintosh 9600/8600, LaserWriter 8500, and most obviously the Apple eMate 300. The transparent aesthetic was already becoming an increasingly prominent feature of the Apple product design.

Power Mac source

LaserWriter source

eMate source

According to Thomas Meyerhoffer who led the design of the eMate, the transparent plastic was chosen to evoke a sense of accessibility and differentiate the product from the other drab designs of the day. This will go on to be a recurring theme.

Enter the iMac.

iMac source

Desperate times meant for desperate measures, and the design of the iMac was both figuratively and literally a bold move. They had to take a risk. The iMac design was lead by Jony Ive with a strong influence from Jobs. This already signals the close tie of design to business needs, but lets look closer:

Let's start with colour. Apple needed to create excitement with the new Mac and shake off their existing reputation. Apple took their earlier translucent designs and turned them up to 11. In an ocean of beige machines, the inclusion of huge swathes of bright colour alone is enough to get noticed. But the specific colour, called Bondi Blue, is said to have also been carefully chosen. Blue and teal colours were popular colours in the late 90s, and this colour was likely chosen because it was essentially on trend. But it likely goes deeper than that. The iMac was unapologetically an internet-first machine. Made notable by dropping almost all removable media drives, many of the ports, and fully embracing USB. While unconfirmed, the Bondi Blue and Ice White colours are not inconsequential surf analogies. It's also worth noting that the Gameboy Pocket launched in 1996 in a swathe of bright colours, and the Gameboy Color in 1998 in many more colours, including translucents. The youth market was already very familiar with brightly coloured tech. This appeal to the youth of 1998 is likely still paying off today.

But the design isn't just about adding colour. The whole aesthetic has been designed to break away from the entire desktop computer market. The rounded design makes the device less threatening, and more approachable. While, the use of translucency to show subtle hints of the tech inside, even the use of holographic stickers on the case, ensured that the sense of hi-tech computing is not lost.

In every sense the design was a huge break from convention. It flew in the face everything that was desktop computing at the time, even Apple's own desktops. However, the design choices made were very clearly made to attract users to the iMac, rather than repel them. If not executed masterfully it may have ended the company. It paid off. Apple stock jumped over 211% in 1998, and set the trend for product design for years to come.

Over the next few years, as Apple began to re-establish itself into the market, the bright colours and transparent aesthetic slowly receded from the Apple design language. The Power Mac G5 released in 2002 went all-in on aluminium.

G5 source

(If you're interested, here's some additional reading for you on their translucent design: the history and its impact.)

Skip to Today.

(Nobody fast-forwards or rewinds any more.)

Apple has a market cap greater than the GDP of many countries. It could genuinely become a corperate micronation. It doesn't need to stand out from the crowd, it's design defines the market and sets benchmarks. What Apple needs to do today is ensure that Apple devices remain in peoples hands and on peoples desks. Apple products today are designed to meet this objective.

That is to say, they're safe.

The iPhone 15 is aesthetically an outsized iPhone 4 (released 2010).

The Mac Studio still looks like the Mac Mini introduced in 2005. And the Mac Pro still has strong G5 vibes.

Mac Pro source

But you're probably saying "Lincoln, that's not fair. Their design is best-in-class, they don't need to change". To that I would say, yes, that is exactly my point.

Apple's business needs have changed a lot since 1997. They don't need to make an impact in order to claw back market share, they need to secure their position. The hardware and software ecosystems are so strong that they don't need to get noticed. They don't need to take risks. They just need to keep doing what they're doing, and they've become very good at it. With the exception of a few tweaks to the edges and radii, the Apple design language hasn't changed in a long time.

To be clear, I think they're beautiful products. Apple's design now is understated and minimalistic, leaning heavily on premium materials and finishes. Their desktop machines come in silver only. These design choices are deliberate. For people in the Apple ecosystem, the established design convention and familiarity is critical. Apple wants to make a user's upgrade path absolutely frictionless, even down their identity and personal aesthetic.

The question may become where Apple goes from here. Are they so entrenched in their own design language that it will be difficult for them to change? Granted, they may never need to. I suspect they may be get adventurous in their non-core products like AR/VR, even their headphones, and continue to play it safe with their core iPhone and Mac offerings.

Design Isn’t Just Making Things Look Nice

You can see then that good design should not simply look at the functional and users needs of a product. Nor is it enough to blindly follow the current design trends (or rebel against them) without strong justification for it. As part of the initial discovery process it's important to dig deep into the market into which the product will go. Including what the business objectives are within that market. Take a truly holistic look with some second-order design thinking. What the design outputs look like could be vastly different based on the answers to those questions.

So when looking for or working with an Industrial Designer for your device, you should really be asking yourself if they’re truly considering all stakeholder needs. Including your own. If not, you should get in touch. It could make your business.

I write every week on the topics of design, medtech, and my journey in it. I've started including additional content in my newsletters that you won't find anywhere else, so consider subscribing. You can always unsubscribe. Or give me a follow on LinkedIn and let me know what you thought!

Tagged: business · colour · design · design thinking

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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