Welcome to the Design Democracy

This is the age of design. With a lowercase d.

And whether you realize it or not, you and your business are judged every day by how well you take advantage of that fact.

Design comes in many forms. Aesthetically, we officially moved into the design age in 2004 when the US State Department announced in an internal memo that it was changing the font it had been using for as long as anyone could remember - Courier New 12 - for another because it took up less space on the page and appeared cleaner and more contemporary. The choice was Times New Roman 14.

This piece of history - taken from Dan Pink’s compelling book A Whole New Mind - is remarkable not because the change happened. But because, as he points out, everyone understood what the memo was talking about. Access to technology and software had suddenly given us control over design decisions that used to be exclusively the purview of professionals.

Five years on, the digital age has exponentially increased our capacity to design our worlds so they reflect us as individuals.

This blog is our design. Good or bad. And now you get to judge us not only by the words, but the way we present them. We’re no longer restricted to a designer’s interpretation of us, so what you see now is how we see ourselves. The risk is you won't like it. The reward is that if you do, we’ll be more directly connected. You probably didn’t think all that through when you came to this site today. But it was happening, nonetheless. And if you read this blog before Saturday, you probably also passed some kind of judgement on the fact we changed the aesthetic over the weekend. That, by the way took us 30 minutes. Design with a lowercase d.

The flip side of this equation is that we get to hold you to a higher standard too. As Seth Godin pointed out in his blog this morning, there’s just no excuse any more for bad design. And as a culture we’re increasingly less willing to accept one. Excuse or bad design.

Like it or not your business is being held to that standard as well. Not just in the way it presents itself aesthetically, but in how it works. Which is the other aspect of design that’s now in the public domain.

Nike ID gives us the ability to design our own running shoes. And in the instant that we do, we become Nike designers. To do this, Nike has to open up their IP to the possibility - probability - that I will design something that they would prefer never be seen attached to their swoosh. Risk. But because they trusted me with their brand, I feel responsible for it and loyal in a way that no marketing initiative ever could create. Reward.

TJMaxx changes its clothing every two weeks based on customer feedback. The best websites let me decide which information is important and where I want it to appear. I can design my own computer , phone  and house. I decide what I watch - and when. And I feel pretty certain that I was involved in designing our new government. In fact, I just got an email from Barack last week.

Based on all that, do you think I’m likely to settle for being told that I get no say in how I use your business?

The challenge is to design a model that lets every customer contribute part of themselves to the experience of working with your company.

Unless customer loyalty and innovation isn’t important to you. In which case cut your prices and carry on.

Head in the Cloud. Feet on the Ground.

Whether you’re a single-owner, home-based business or a multi-office, multi-national, you don’t need me to tell you that you need technology.

An email address and a website for sure. And if you have a web 2.0 perspective, you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Disqus and possibly Valium.

Today, technology is evolving in real time. We’re literally watching it happen. Last November, the UK press included 40 articles that referenced Twitter. In the month ending today, there will be more than 700. And to coin Winston Churchill, we’re not even at the end of the beginning.

But while all this has been going on right under our very noses, an even more important technological revolution has been taking place in the back-rooms of some of our largest technology corporations.

It’s called the cloud. And in this exact moment, you’re in it.

The desktop revolution that Apple launched in 1984 has powered the PC revolution for a quarter of a century, putting a computer into the hands of virtually everyone we know. Indeed, the growth of the internet has been made possible by the advent of the desktop which gave us all web access - on our terms.

But in the last two years a subtle, and now increasingly significant shift towards a ‘cloud’ of massive, web-based, centralized servers is creating an entirely new set of possibilities.

This blog, like virtually every other blog, was created on a piece of software that exists only in this ‘cloud’ of central servers. The only point of access to it is through the internet.

No longer do I need a state-of-the-art laptop. Or three or four separate applications to create and manage the site. All I now need is a device with internet access. And nothing else. (This particular post was written and added to the site on my iPhone.) Software updates are a thing of the past, because they’re done automatically at the other end of the connection. And no more downloading, rebooting, reinstalling either. Just sign in, and you’re working on the latest version - though as Facebook users recently discovered, this-all-for-one, one-for-all approach can have its drawbacks. (Isn’t it time Facebook provided customized interfaces. Haven’t they heard we’ve individuated?)

The intensity with which some of the major technology companies are expanding the computing cloud, means we’re going to see a lot more examples of services like Google Docs, and WordPress. We’re also going to see stuff we haven’t yet imagined. How about multi-player, real-time video games that don’t need a $400 console or a $24.95 disc.

Of course, the cloud has enormous implications for every business owner. Big and small. A one-person company on a distant mountain top will now be able to have the same technological support as a Fortune 500 behemoth. Not close. Not like. The same.

When size no longer creates automatic marketplace domination that’s good for everyone because then innovative solutions to problems can come from anywhere, not just the giants. For anyone grounded in their business, that’s an incredible asset because now you can leverage the thing that sets you apart from your competition like never before.

Imagine if this concept could be applied to manufacturing. If the cloud could build and distribute cars - meaning anyone’s ideas about fuel, safety and aesthetic could be realized - does anyone believe we’d be sixty days away from the Big Three becoming the Big One?

That’s because the things that allow economies of scale to take hold - standardization, homogeneity, conformity - kill innovation. By definition. Instead, the cloud takes economies of scale and gives them to the individual, releasing the capacity for originality in all of us.

Now, overnight, we can all became Microsoft or Warner Brothers or Penguin. That’s a lot of responsibility. Let’s make sure we use it.

Bravery + Strategy = Innovation

In late November a client of ours came back from a meeting with one of his biggest customers. He was visibly shaken. Hardly surprising given that they’d just told him their 2009 projections were based on a forty percent drop in revenue. They’d need a lot less from him. Forty percent less.

It was about then that we were all beginning to realize the world had changed. That the futures we had all expected weren’t going to happen. That this wasn’t a recession, or a downturn. That this was life changing.

The auto industry is living through its life change in public. And the debate about whether we should or should not be bailing out the big three will continue until someone asks better questions. ‘What do customers want?’ seems like an obvious one. In an industry experiencing a forty percent decline in sales, the answer apparently is, ‘not this’.

With one exception. Hyundai.

At the beginning of this year, the company launched a program that guarantees they will take back any car bought in 2009 if the customer loses their job.

At a time when cutting costs was everyone else’s strategy, Hyundai made theirs reducing risk. At a time when their competitors were asking for government money to survive until the upturn, Hyundai believed they could create an upturn themselves. At a time when customers wanted confidence, Hyundai made a simple, human statement. ‘We believe in you.’

Hyundai’s sales compared to a year ago? Up 4.9 percent. Number of cars returned? Zero.Cost to Hyundai? Zero.

When all around you are losing their heads, you need both courage and clear thinking.

The result is almost always compelling.