An Unexpected Journey: To the heart of design influence…

My move to Adobe was unconventional. An unexpected journey in many ways. But I am certainly not alone. Not in Adobe or possibly many other organizations elsewhere.

For many years I dabbled with branding and communications – creating many brand identities and communication strategies to differentiate and position new entrants or incumbents in overcrowded and fiercely competitive marketplaces. Working cross media – in digital, print and 3D has its unique advantages and the need to constantly look at the big picture without losing sight of the details. And I’ve had the opportunity to work with some brilliant minds across many a geographies.

The similarities
There are many – between product and brand design. If you want to find them, that is. In a leadership role the branding modes of connecting the dots and zooming to a higher plane from where the map is clearer is an invaluable training. Esp in organizations that work with multiple products and each product group is an SME in its own right. Branding harps on consistency – across touch points and across visible assets – clearly a mantra that is at the heart of any successful organization: consistency of experience. Coherence and assonance beyond mere visual similarities.

The dis-similarities
Working in a brand consulting you cannot but fail to appreciate the beauty of being an independent, external specialist. And you cannot but fail to be frustrated, often, if not always, at the limited reach and influence you may have. If you consider the organization as the earth – you influence could be limited to the beautiful fluffy clouds, the mantle – designing symbols of the organization – designing the external wrappers that may symbolize the brand – be it a packaging, a brochure, a campaign idea. And you have the ear of the top management. You may even get to influence a larger chunk of the strategy – but eventually they may discard it altogether. There are many examples of dissonance between what was intended by the consultant and what was eventually used by the organization.

Being a product designer in any product company comes with its share of joys and frustrations (no job or role is perfect). However, over the years I have seen my team at Adobe continually exert a substantial deal of influence over the nature and the future of its products. As the bunch who respects and represents both the articulated and unarticulated needs of its users of today and tomorrow – the designers craft their work diligently over years to directly influence the very heart of the organization via the nature of its core businesses – its products, its allied services. If I look at design leverage this is satisfying indeed though this needs the patience and precision of a watchmaker. So isn’t there a dissonance between the intent and the outcome? Sometimes yes, but the chances of minimizing dissonance are far greater too – the chances of the designers and design managers like me, influencing the people who produce what designers intended are higher.

At a recent d+ talk where I was on a panel, a fellow panelist mocked how designers spend days incrementally tweaking the “angle of the symbol”. If I were Blackberry, an incremental change in the angle of the logo may do precious little to reverse the fortunes of the now-sinking giant. But if it were Steve Jobs starting out his second stint at Apple – it may well signal the seriousness with which every detail was scrutinized. After all “perfection is no mere trifle”. Its all a matter of context.

Design influence and leverage
The nature of influence that product/experience design increasingly plays in the fortune of companies is best illustrated in this recent article on Blackberry by The Wall Street Journal. As already mentioned – at this juncture Blackberry’s identity or communication strategies can do precious little to reverse the fortunes.

But rethinking its product, redesigning its experience and the ecosystem could have a profund impact. In 2010 RIM bought Swedish tech-design consultancy (note the increasing collaborative nature and nomenclature of design/tech orgs) – The Astonishing Tribe or TAT. TAT is now in charge of the biggest overhaul of the Blackberry experience and ecosystem in years – seen as a “a massive departure from the BlackBerry experience of the past”. If successful, “a big chunk of the credit” will go to this “small acquisition” by RIM.

Design led innovation (hand-in-hand with high quality engineering and manufacture) and ecosystems leveraged on consistency have propelled Apple into the top business league, with both style and élan. It demonstrates that there is room for people who can switch between details and bigger pictures, between nit-picking “trifles” and consistency of form and function. And there is room for more designers to shift their influence from the surface to the core, from the beauty of their craft to leveraging on the power of design thinking.

The journey continues…
My journey certainly has been an interesting one – working at the crossroads of disciplines and interests. The rise of touch devices, the divergence of devices and platforms, has made it more crazier and therefore ever more challenging.

And there is room and routes for many more unexpected journeys…

One Response to "An Unexpected Journey: To the heart of design influence…"

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  1. Arun

    June 24, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Hey JD,
    Nice build here – the ability to toggle between big picture and detail, and to shape one keeping the other in sight. That really seems to be the value designers bring in. Look forward to more thoughts!

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