Make it Better

Harry Rich, Design Council, London, Great Britain

The title of the EDF conference “Image building strategies for competitive companies” could suggest that image building is somehow a separate, stand-alone activity within a company and that if a business can only find the right forms of communication, it can build its competitiveness through its image. I want to argue that the opposite is the case and that a starting point for competitiveness is design, not communications. Design is different from communications and design of products and service must come before communications in any business.

Communication Failure
Even the most powerful communication of a bad product will ultimately fail. Saddam Hussein’s regime devoted enormous resource to communicating with the Iraqi people, but few would argue that this audience was convinced by the rhetoric, statues, posters, newspapers or television.

I also want to look at other traditional ways of trying to gain competitive advantage, like branding, market research, technology, and relying on heritage. The conference programme asserted that “the economy in the final two decades of the 20th century was characterised by enormous restructuring in the areas of industrial production. However, to a great extent reforms to communication and learning processes were entirely disregarded.”

I am puzzled by this suggestion that communications need reforming because industrial production has been restructured in the past 20 years whilst communications and learning have not. In reality it is clear that there has been much more progress in communications over that time than in many parts of industrial production. The web is only the biggest, most obvious and most dramatic sign of the revolution in communications and learning. Think about cell phones, SMS messaging, interactive TV, email, fax and so on and it is hard to argue seriously that communications have not been restructured.

By contrast, large parts of industry – especially in Europe – have tried for too long to go on producing the same old commodity products. They based their competition strategy on cutting prices and costs instead of designing products and services that contained real added value for users.

Doing Things Together
I am also worried by Dirk Baecker’s proposition quoted in the conference material that communications should cease to be about “transferring information” and be about “doing things together”. First, this is not new. It is the oldest sales trick in the book: “Trust me – I’m not selling to you. We’re exploring this together.” And second, it can be a dangerous form of communication if it is abused.

I recently experienced a great piece of “doing things together” communication in Marrakech. I visited a carpet showroom where the manager assured me that he absolutely understood that I did not want to buy a carpet. But despite this he thought I would be interested in the history of Moroccan and Berber carpets and how they are made. So we looked at some weaving being done. Then 20 or 30 beautiful carpets were dramatically rolled out whilst he described their tribal history. I learnt a lot.

Then came the participation – doing things together. My new friend wanted to know which carpets I liked best. So, just for fun, he taught me the Arabic words for ‘keep’ and ‘reject’. One by one I had to shout out whether to keep or reject each carpet. Eventually we reduced the choice to my two favourites. And then all I had to do was to decide which one to buy! And I did!

This was very high quality communication. It was certainly not about transferring information and was all about ‘doing things together’. So it is not new and, in a commercial situation, it can be damaging. We do not need to invent new forms of communication. What we do need to do is to be careful about what communication we use when and for what purpose. What is appropriate depends on the purpose of the communication. Sales communications become intrusive if they pretend to be about ‘doing together’. As a consumer I want information and then I want to make up my own mind. I don’t want to be persuaded through ‘doing together’. There are only so many carpets I can use!

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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

  • Harry Rich, Design Council, London, Great Britain
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