Bridging the ingenuity gap

Design professor Patrick Whitney on globalization, infinite choice and the $5 vegetable peeler.

Patrick Whitney is director of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, which offers courses in design and business. Canadian-born Whitney was in Toronto recently to speak at Profit by Design, a seminar organized in part by the Design Industry Advisory Committee.

Canadian Business: When did you first become interested in design and business?

I was working with a man named Jay Doblin. He pointed out it was in companies' interests to serve consumers' needs ? before consumers had even defined what those needs were.

What was the shift he identified?

Consumer choice, users gaining power. In mass production, people tended to buy whatever manufacturers pushed at them. But flexible production systems and global sourcing created near-infinite choice.

Globalization is also a big deal. In protected markets, companies didn't have to be as smart. Consumers got wind of Japanese and European cars, and many wanted them. Detroit didn't exactly respond.

What exactly do you mean by “users gaining power”?

Henry Ford used to be able to say, “Give them any colour they want, as long as it's black.” Now, it's an anonymous consumer, saying, “Give me what I want, in the shape I want, through the channel I want. Oh, and by the way, I want it close to free.”

What are your responsibilities?

I direct the graduate school of design. We teach new design methods and how they can help companies compete. We offer courses in things like user observation.

What do you encourage companies to do?

Companies used to do focus groups ? testing prototypes after developing a product, then refining that product. We say they should observe users earlier in the process, to help define what the product should be in the first place. For example, researchers at New York-based Oxo noticed people were wrapping foam around door handles in order to get a better grip on them. The company developed better handles for their GoodGrips kitchen gadgets ? and found they could mark a 79¢ potato peeler up to $5. Companies have the capacity to make anything. They're just not sure what to make.

Another example: I've been helping Lenovo in China, introducing them to software tools where they can build a database of user behaviour, then use that as a platform for creating innovative products. Say you were looking for a new way to design a gaming console. You might look at how boys play computer games, and compare that in Beijing, Shanghai and Chicago. You're looking to be able to do user observation faster. And a database allows you to do cross-cultural comparisons and decide which aspects of a product work across cultures, and which aspects have to be tailored.

What's an example of a company that has successfully leveraged business design?

The iPod. Apple didn't just look at developing a gizmo. They looked at the experience of how people buy and enjoy music, and designed systems around that.

What is the future of business design?

It will become more methodological. Whereas the art of design relied on creativity, business design methods will become as well-structured inside a company as that company's knowledge about technology and business development.