Friends & Friction: When cool design is what sells

2014-03-20 10:00

The world of business is powered by commercial art, which is called design.

Brands like Samsung and Apple muscled their way into the lucrative cellphone market because they sell beautifully designed products.

Toshiba, an engineering, electronics and computer conglomerate, didn’t know what to do with its 1.8-inch hard drive until Apple employee Jon Rubinstein saw it while on a supplier visit.

He took it back to his company, which repackaged it beautifully and resold it as the iPod.

That changed the fortunes of his employer.

When Apple later launched its iPhone, it is said that people at Nokia sneered. Apple didn’t have the research and development budgets that the industry giants of the time had, so it focused on looking cool.

Now more than half its revenues come from iPhones. Nokia, Motorola and BlackBerry didn’t lose their market dominance because they lacked engineers but because they lacked the art of cool.

As we scramble to teach our children maths and science, advanced economies are funding design education.

Billionaire Hasso Plattner donated $35?million (R376?million) to Stanford University to start a design school.

Design is difficult to grasp for many people because it is like the air we breathe. It is everywhere. Black South Africans are horribly underrepresented in design practice even though it offers a vast array of opportunities.

Donghoon Chang is the executive vice-president and head of design at Samsung. He was rated number two on the “100 most creative people in business” list by Fast Company. Design makes the job of the sales department a lot easier.

When salesmen talk about products that sell themselves, they often refer to well-designed products or services that customers want.

Design is a problem-solving function, but sadly, it is not used effectively in our public spaces. We learn that the way a problem is solved is a result of the sum total of the problem-solver’s hopes, prejudices and even ignorance.

Many years ago, the toilets at Cape Town Station’s third-class section had half doors. One day, I noticed an old man go inside one of the cubicles. It was during peak hour. Men walked up and down knocking at the cubicles trying to find a vacant one.

I also noticed a young man crawling on the floor looking under the doors. I thought that was strange but then again, so were the times.

Suddenly a man with a cigarette in his mouth came to me and mumbled something I did not understand. He repeated it a couple of times. It all became increasingly bizarre when another man unzipped him, pulled out his snake and led him to the urinal. It was only then that I noticed the man had no arms, and he was asking for my help.

Then a tussle broke out. The kneeling young man had grabbed the old man’s bag from under the door, and the old man was trying to fight back. But how can a man win a fight with his pants down? A designer who uses such facilities would have known about such dangers and would have installed full-length doors.

The bus rapid transport system is a good idea. The bus takes the centre lane – the cars and taxis have to drive on the outer lanes – until an accident happens or a car breaks down on any of the outer lanes and traffic grinds to a halt. That is a design fault. Design, like all problem-solving and opportunity-creating activities, needs a thorough understanding of the people for whom things are designed.

We need to start putting an emphasis on design education if we are to create new opportunities for businesses and solve our social problems.

Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency

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